It Started with a Tweet

As more performers develop online followings, social media is, for some, an extension of their act. Lewis Porteous finds a love-hate relationship with this new reality

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Olaf Falafel
Published 06 Aug 2016

Arriving at his stage name via a delicious Middle Eastern snack was shrewd branding on Olaf Falafel's part. "Sweden's eighth funniest comedian" nevertheless spent much of the past five years as something of an off-the-wall obscurity on our comedy circuit. It was only following a bizarre encounter with fans that his stature began to grow.

“After one particular gig in central London a few years ago, a group of audience members came up to me, introduced themselves as 'Viners' and told me I’d be perfect for making Vines of my own,” he explains. “They got me to download the Vine app there and then and said they would follow me and share my stuff.”

A social media format aggressively thrust upon him, our hero's work has now earned in excess of 75 million views online. It's propelled by this enormous figure that he's preparing to embark upon his debut hour at the Fringe, one of many rising performers whose skills and audience have developed in tandem through digital platforms.

“For me it’s all about limitations,” he says of the app's appeal. “The 6.5 second straightjacket really forces you to think creatively. I’m constantly thinking about the quickest and clearest ways to get to the funny idea.”

As Falafel notes, the brief, self-contained nature of Vine video clips has parallels with Twitter's 140-character limit. Both formats present users with an opportunity to disseminate snappy, meticulously crafted content before a hungry audience, with particularly skilled practitioners standing out from an overwhelmingly crowded landscape.

This is the case of the enigmatic Miss L, whose Twitter account boasts over 14,000 followers. She found her niche cataloguing the frequently sexist humiliations endured by jobbing actors, and attributes her popularity simply to “finding something that no one else was doing.”

This explanation doesn't, however, factor in the brilliantly righteous, withering put-downs that comprise her Twitter feed.

Miss L and collaborator Tiff Stevenson are bringing their theatre piece, Casting Call Woe, show to this year's Fringe and could well have an incendiary hit on their hands. If only its anonymous mastermind could publicly capitalise upon her acclaim.

“My @ProResting account has opened up so much more than I ever expected,” she laments. “It has connected me with other parts of the industry, something that, if my account wasn't anonymous, would be hugely exciting for my acting career!

“It's really difficult sometimes,” she continues, “getting all this press and recognition but not being able to put my name to it, but I have to keep remembering that none of this would have been possible without the anonymity!

“The problem with running such an account is that my social media outside of @ProResting has taken a bit of a back seat and I sadly don't do much outside liking pictures of the babies of people I used to go to school with.” By Miss L's reckoning, maintaining a successful Twitter feed calls for an element of performance liable to tire the artist out, “almost like taking on an acting role.”

Rising star Jack Barry compares his past life in corporate social media with performing a prolonged corporate comedy gig. “It's like a more constrained, censored and less fun version of your normal job. However, it's also much better paid and usually reaches a much larger audience. So yes, it's exactly the same.”

Despite having made a living using his wits to navigate a labyrinthine digital world, Barry has been less than eager to deploy these skills in the name of his comedy career. One wonders if technological innovation has no place in the man's purist approach to the industry.

“To make it as a comedian you used to have to take shows to Edinburgh and build up your live presence, but you can just as easily do that from your bedroom nowadays.” While the digital age represents heightened convenience for some, Barry finds it a source of stress.

“I hate having to feel like I'm on all the time and that even when I'm not gigging I should at least be writing some funny tweets. I should have been born 20 years earlier. I think I would've been a great nineties comic.

“We're all basically those guys who dress as statues on high streets now. Our tweets are the silver paint, the internet is the high street, the people are ignoring us.”

Self-destructive veteran Lewis Schaffer concurs. “I mostly tweet and put stuff up on Facebook to let myself feel that people know I am alive. Generally, no one notices.” Still, these platforms undeniably have the potential to bring the comic closer to an audience with whom he already has a discomfitting relationship.

“I take the tickets, act as usher, and keep the lights up as a way of controlling the audience. I want to shake their hands and look them in their eyes and let them know that I am person, too, and they better not mess with me. And I want to see my audience as people before the show starts. As for keeping the lights up, would a teacher teach in a dark room? Audiences are like students, they need to be watched.”

Social media can extend Schaffer's sociopathic reach, but he denies its ability to expand his audience. “If I tweeted I was playing Wembley all day, every day for a year,” he insists, “I would probably sell about 100 tickets and I am being optimistic.”

It could be the case that the typically insecure comedian is simply uncomfortable with self-promotion. Not so the considerably chirpier Bec Hill. “In terms of comfort, I'm the social media equivalent of a large, naked Turkish man in a sauna. A large, naked Turkish man in a sauna who is doing a show on 10 August. Called Caught On Tape. At 9:30pm.”

Hill's show, an encore performance of last year's hit, was booked too late to feature in any official programmes. As such, she's relying on a large online following to spread word of it. When once she would have had to suffer the ignominy of flyering, a network of friends and admirers now stands at her disposal. “It's certainly drier,” she observes.

“The contacts I make on Facebook help me book gigs, the audiences I reach on YouTube helps me promote those gigs, and the puns I do on Twitter help people know not to come.”