HOT.SPOT 2 – Live-Tweeting Laffs During the 2012 Debates

by Kevin Driscoll

Biden and Ryan cutting it up at the 2012 VP debate
Last October, my classmates and I gathered each week to watch the televised debates together as our Twitter-monitoring tools struggled to keep up with the torrent of commentary pouring in from around the world. After four debates, we identified almost 42 million debate-related tweets sent on the nights of the debates. As we started to sift through them, we were surprised at how completely humor seemed to dominate the most-retweeted tweets. Sure, we saw a lot of interesting commentary, provocative critique, and resource-sharing, but Twitter users overwhelmingly seemed to delight in cutting jokes, wisecracks and language games.

So, amid all of this grassroots funny-making, where were the professional comics?

For this hotspot, I made a list of pro comedians ranked on Forbes’ top-earning lists during Obama’s first term in office (2009-2011). Right off the bat, I took Ray Romano, Tina Fey, and David Letterman out because they don’t use Twitter. (Letterman seems to actively ignore it, Fey is openly hostile.) I decided to keep Terry Fator and Jeff Foxworthy in the mix even though their accounts aren’t verified. This left us with the following 15 comedians, of whom only 2 sent a tweet matching our (exhaustive) debate-related keyword list during the debate observation period.

Comedian Handle Tweets sent Retweeted by others
Dane Cook @DaneCook 37 37644
George Lopez @georgelopez 3 2668
Ellen DeGeneres @TheEllenShow 0 106
Chris Rock @chrisrock 0 15
Jeff Dunham @jeffdunham 0 1
Steve Carell @SteveCarell 0 0
Bill Engvall @billengvall 0 0
Chelsea Handler @chelseahandler 0 0
Larry the Cable Guy @GitRDoneLarry 0 0
Chelsea Lately @chelsealately 0 0
Jay Leno @jayleno 0 0
Howie Mandel @howiemandel 0 0
Russell Peters @therealrussellp 0 0
Adam Sandler @AdamSandler 0 0
Jerry Seinfeld @JerrySeinfeld 0 0
Ben Stiller @RedHourBen 0 0

As you can see in the table, only George Lopez and Dane Cook sent a tweet with debate-related keywords during one of the four debates. George Lopez is not particularly prolific–he regularly stays quiet for a week or longer–so sending three debate-related tweets right after the final debate actually reflects atypical usage. The tweets have since been deleted from his timeline, but they all evoked a similar sentiment: “To @MittRomney if a Latino votes for you our culture and our self respect has taken a hit.” On Election Day, Lopez was again active on Twitter encouraging his followers to get out to the polls:

George Lopez encouraging voters to stay in line

Of the top-earning comedians, Dane Cook was the only one to live-tweet a debate and he became more actively involved with each debate, peaking with 19 tweets on the night of Oct 22. Cook’s tweets tended to be one-liners, riffing off of things that happened on screen. Most of his jokes mocked the entire debate rather than focus on one or another candidate. For example, midway through the VP debate, he wrote, “This debate is like watching an improv group where the # 1 rule is deny,” and during the second presidential debate, “Obama & Romney walking around, talking over each other. This feels like I’m watching 8 Mile with rhyme-less free styling.”

But during the final debate, Cook subtly shifted to making jokes at Romney’s expense. Of his 19 debate-related tweets, 7 explicitly targeted Romney:

01:03:39 Okay… so far I agree with Obama’s handshake. Found Romney’s to not be firm enough.
01:16:08 For those counting. Obama has blinked 468 times. Romney 11. #debate
01:17:53 Romney’s hair looks like a brand new Goodyear tire. #debate
01:33:13 Romney’s tie is the flag of Norway. #debate
01:35:40 Is it me or are Romney’s 5 steps different each week. So far I’ve counted 35 different steps. #debate
01:41:19 Romney loves talking about what he will do on “day 1.” I bet on day 2 he’s gonna play dance dance revolution. #debate
01:49:18 Wait… Romney now has 7 steps. He added 2 steps live on this #debate that’s ballsy.

That Cook’s flurry of tweets suggests a lefty bias isn’t all that compelling. After all, fans of politically-charged humor often assume that comedy is an essentially left-liberal art form–see, for example, the exchange between Alf LaMont and Stephen Kruiser last spring. More interesting is the silence of all the other big-name stand-ups. Where were the Blue Collar comedians–three of whom rank in the top-earners year-after-year?

I dug back into the timelines of Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bill Engvall to find out. All three were tweeting consistently through the month of October but only Larry commented on politics.

Larry the Cable Guy endorses Deb Fischer via Twitter

While Dane Cook joined the groundlings tweeting about bayonets and binders, the big dogs of pro comedy seemed to have laid low during the election season. But Larry’s earnest endorsement offers a provocative conclusion to this experiment. None of our 427 debate-related keywords would have matched his tweets–meaning, if I had not manually dug back into Larry’s timeline, we would have missed them. And yet, they represent one of the most interesting moments in the debate season. With Larry’s support, Deb Fischer went on to defeat Bob Kerrey in a landslide and became the first female senator to represent Nebraska since 1954.