I became aware of Rob Delaney in late 2010. This was before Comedy Central anointed him the “Funniest Person on Twitter,” before his book deal for a collection of essays called Mother. Wife. Sister Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage., which was a direct result of his hilarious Twitter presence, and before he hit 900,000 followers (and counting). I heard Delaney on the Risk! Podcast telling a story about how he got black out drunk, crashed into the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power building, and broke both his arms before landing in rehab.
The story had a typical Delaney combination of pathos, hilarity, and ejaculation. He went on an extended riff about what it’s like to wipe your ass and masturbate without two fully functioning arms. He also talked about what it was like to be a total mess of an alcoholic, and how emotionally painful and difficult his rehabilitation was. That story is retold in his book, and it’s just as funny, sad and true as I remembered it.
Since Delaney is a master of the Tweet, we asked him for some advice about how to attract a following. He also talked about what he’s learned from other people on Twitter, and why he’s glad he was open about a serious bout with depression. We can’t all have Susan Orlean call us her “beloved,” but we can hope to be at least one-tenth as charming and gross as Delaney.
I started [Tweeting] in the beginning of 2009. It was towards the end of 2009 that sort of started humming. I was enjoying myself, having people pay attention, getting followed by people I admired, and that started to click for me.
On Twitter the idea is just to elicit some sort of response. Generally I go for laughter—75% of the time. The other 25% of time is passing information, shock, personal promotion of shows and the book and stuff. But generally Twitter is a silly thing. It’s a diversion. It doesn’t improve people’s lives. It just sort of adds another way that you can waste your time. It’s a double-edged sword. You can also hone your joke-writing ability, and connect with people. Because of the way I chose to use it and focus on it, it did improve my life as it led to other writing opportunities that paid money and opened doors to me.
I like to be messy. And I’ve written things that talk about my evolution (or de-evolution, as it were). I like talking about beliefs that I had that I’ve outgrown. Sometimes people think I’m a Democrat because I support the Affordable Care Act, but I’m not. I’m massively behind the expansion of health care. If people want to be intellectually lazy, they can say I’m a Democrat. I just care about people. I learned that firsthand when I paid for surgery myself [after my car accident] on three different credit cards.
I’m a straight guy, in a marriage. I just didn’t know any transgender people. I’ve read stuff from transgender people on Twitter, and I never would have before. My wife is a teacher and has transgender students, but Twitter helped normalize transgender people for me. I used to use the word “tranny” in a manner that would be derogatory or hurtful if you were on the receiving end. But Twitter exposed me to the idea that they’re human people just like me with wants, needs, dreams, fears, and I don’t do that anymore.
Twitter accelerated the learning curve, where a straight white American guy where the world is classically considered to be my oyster, I now am delighted to be up to speed with the basic humanity of people born one gender who want to be another. I know that’s long winded. But that was an awesome eye opening. It’s helped reduce prejudices that I had.
People don’t get to know things about my family—names or anything like that. I have kids, I have a wife. That is true, but beyond that, [I can’t get behind] the idea of posting photographs of one’s family online. I’m the clown. I’m the person for whom privacy doesn’t have any value, because I have light brain damage. I’m troubled but functional. My wife and kids are regular people, and if they want to seek out the limelight, that’s their business, but it’s not going to be through me.
People think that because they’re on Twitter or because people are following they can Tweet what they want. You have to respect the fact that people have made the effort—even though it’s not a huge effort—they clicked follow on your picture. “Oh I’m stuck in traffic,” “Oh Breaking Bad was wild.” If you’re saying these things, say it in an interesting manner. If you know people are paying attention, honor that fact by trying to say something no one else can say. You can add nuance, urgency, fear. My advice would be: be original. If something is obvious, then think about it a little before you Tweet.
When I was going through the worst of my depression, I would think, if I make it through this, I really hope that I can speak about it in a way that might possibly be helpful to other people. If I can help anyone out—anytime anybody contacts me because of what I’ve written—I’m so happy. I feel like it’s my primary purpose. It is fun, to make 5,000 people laugh, and that’s wonderful. But to have one person say "I’m checking myself into the hospital," or "I didn’t know what I had, but now I know," it’s the answering of a prayer.