Irritating gentlemen, distracted boyfriends and milkshake ducks

“The secret source of humour is not joy but sorrow; there is no humour in heaven” — Mark Twain would’ve loved Twitter. Since its inception in 2006, the platform has become home to both an endless stream of soundbitten misery and a very particular strand of comedic discourse. One-liner by one-liner, professional comedians, satirists, cartoonists and writers have found themselves up against … everyone. A logical progression of the ‘anyone can publish’ thinking that still drives the internet, editors and printing presses are no longer boundaries to getting jokes out there in front of a cackling/heckling public.

But how do jokes work on Twitter? There's endless potential for mirth within that empty text box, but a great deal of it tends to rely on variations of what linguist Geoffrey K. Pullum calls a snowclone – “a multi-use, customisable, instantly recognisable, time-worn, quoted or misquoted phrase or sentence that can be used in an entirely open array of different variants” (named after the well-worn journalistic cliche formulation ‘if Eskimos have N words for snow, X surely have M words for Y’). And then there are the mini dialogues – short vignettes presented as scripts, with the action denoted by brackets or asterisks, often culminating in a stock punchline.

Phraseology recurs over and over: hold my beer; life comes at you fast; me in 2017, me in 2018; one does not simply walk into …; cop starts breakdancing; record scratch, freeze frame; don’t @ me; #exceedinglylonganduselesslyuniquehashtag; said no-one ever; that feeling when; is your child texting about …; you had one job; etc. This familiarity suits the rapid currents of the Twitterstream – you already recognise the structure, it's just the subject or the context that changes.

Is there a pattern to any of this? Well, they all share an unpolished immediacy, or an appearance of it at least (who knows how long these jokes linger as drafts) while making use of typographic limitations conjuring a certain naïvety in a default deadpan voice.

A relatively recent addition to all of this is ‘Milkshake Duck’, a snowclone that draws its template from a tweet by Ben Ward (@pixelatedboat) that captures the zeitgeist of relentless celebrity scandal: “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshake! 5 seconds later We regret to inform you the duck is racist”. The phrase has now found itself canonised as slang, at hand for yet another awful revelation about an adored public figure. The Australian Macquarie Dictionary even anointing ‘Milkshake Duck’ their word of the year.

Images add another layer of endless tropes to contend with, but for the sake of oversimplification, it basically comes down to this: it's all one massive caption competition. Again this largely comes down to following familiar structures; original photos that slot into an visual snowclone. For example, found text that fits exactly the rhythm of a famous lyric – apparently there's endless potential for words that match the cadence of Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. And what Dolly Parton fan could resist a shot of four loaves of Soreen? Once you've seen it highlighted by Sean Leahy (@thepunningman), it's hard to believe that Groupon's headline “BUY NOW: Prosecco and a ‘wow’ burlesque show, plus a meal for two” was written without Oasis’ Wonderwall in mind.

With others, the image itself is the constant; stock images that crystallise a particular theme. Berthold Woltze's 1874 painting The Irritating Gentleman, with its Jim-from-The-Office glance to camera, has become a shorthand depiction of mansplanation (still the default mode of discourse for great swathes of Twitter's users). And one of the silver linings of the Trump presidency has been the appearance of the Prankster Joe meme – user-captioned photos of erstwhile Vice President Joe Biden apparently explaining his latest Trump-baiting prank to a mildly despairing Barack Obama.

These are just a few examples within examples – despite the best efforts of sites like knowyourmeme.com to classify and track them, it's impossible to ever pin down a definition of any particular trope for very long. The nature of Twitter humour is that it's a moving target. The creativity comes with endless variation and adaptation; usurping the expectations of the joke itself becomes the joke, until the original joke is no longer recognisable and the humour relies on recognising the process of mutation.

To see how far one joke can be stretched, observe the fate of a seemingly innocuous stock image by photographer Antonio Guillem. As a man gasps at a passing woman in a red dress, his partner glares at the back of his head disapprovingly. At some point somebody came up with the idea of labelling each of the characters in this seemingly universal dynamic (it’s thought that the original take on it was to illustrate, of all things, Phil Collins being wooed away from prog to pop), and over the course of 2017, a constant supply of variations on the Distracted Boyfriend image appeared, becoming ever-more bizarre and self-referential. The same models had been used for other stock images that Twitter users gleefully constructed into some kind of narrative (in summary: that guy is the worst), jokes branching off from jokes. There was now a plot. And then in January of this year, it took another leap: Tom Cruise tweeted a still from the new Mission: Impossible film that echoed the composition of Guillem's original photo. Within minutes, it had been remixed and reinterpreted and Photoshopped into surreality. On Twitter, with a captive audience able to recognise call-backs and iterations, everything becomes in-jokes about in-jokes about in-jokes.

Try raising any of the examples given here with somebody not on the network, and chances are they'll have no idea what you're talking about. What happens on Twitter stays on Twitter. These joke formats, structures and affections are often unique to Twitter's particular context of syntax and constraints – themselves subject to constant change. From the beginning, Twitter has repeatedly adapted to how it's being used. Hashtags, retweets, images, polls, emoji and GIFs have all been integrated over the years, each bringing new mechanisms for humour.

What's next for this perpetual and perplexing open-mic might? Twitter's most recent, and briefly controversial, evolutionary step was expanding the 140 character limit to 280. Combined with integrated tweet-threading, this has changed the rhythm and nature of the network, and with it the humour. While some bemoan the loss of succinctness and the creativity that stemmed from those confines; this broader canvas offers an interesting opportunity for longer jokes; storytelling can now coexist with the one-liners. Here, amongst the sorrow and the joy, is a new frontier for writers, voices, brands to forge new tropes and narrative forms. Unexpectedly, Twitter may have become the saviour of long copy.

Written for Creative Review