Astonishing Sod: the king of Twitter comedy
Through his 40-plus Twitter accounts, as Astonishing Sod among others, James Thomas has created an utterly strange and original type of comedy
James Thomas: “The New Yorker [coverage], I can’t believe that happened. It is a domino effect”
James Thomas finished the first proper draft of his first book, Why The Long Joke? five years ago. These are the opening lines: “Hello! And hello to the ghost who’s reading this over your shoulder. Come in, take off your shoe, ignore the bulge in the carpet. I’d like to thank you for coming to this place and having a look. I would high-five you, but I can’t afford the postage.”
When we meet, he arrives armed with some recently acquired records, the fruits of crate-digging in a local charity shop. It’s a week or so before he leaves for New York for the book launch, a city home to the book’s publisher, St Martin’s Press. “It’s a kind of . . . I don’t know what it is.”
Usually, an author’s struggle to describe what they have actually just done should sound something of an alarm bell, but it is genuinely difficult to categorise or even describe Why the Long Joke?, a mix of jokes, one-liners, surreal musings, short stories (if you can even call them that) and fragments that somehow feel whole. “The only precedent for it would be stuff in the States like Demetri Martin or Jack Handey, people like that.”
David Shrigley without the cartoons? “Yeah. I’m throwing about names like I deserve to be in their company, but it’s really kind of the only place that this book fits really.”
What is he?
Is Thomas a humorist? A short-story writer? A comedian? “I’m a teacher.” That’s the day job. “I’m a musician, an electronic musician, that’s really it. I didn’t have a comedy background. I’ve never done stand-up or anything like that. I’ve never done improv, I don’t have that skill set at all. I am just purely a writer.”
Early in the book there is a chapter in the form of a treatment for a new Lady Gaga video. “Close-up of a FOOT covered in snails. It is Lady Gaga’s foot (one of). We see the snails moving around. Footage is one hundred times the normal speed. There is a contact mic on her foot; we hear the snails moving, but it is of course really fast and super gross. In the background is a low sub-bass rumble. This bit lasts for four minutes.
“CUT TO: ENDLESS GANGPLANK IN SPACE, where Lady Gaga (adult) and several dancers, all naked and pixelated except for their genitals, are frozen in awkward positions. They begin body-popping. There is no music; instead, a recording of a man clearing his throat and then sneezing is played eight times. It’s very cutting-edge sneezing.”
Every chunk of text begins almost benignly and then plunges into the bizarre, while teetering barely close enough to a vague logic that allows you to cling on to what’s actually happening.
A chapter titled “How to Write a Sentence” is followed by another listing Sentences of Quality: “I like sentences, but I couldn’t eat a whole.”
Thomas wrote poetry in college. “Man, was it poetry. It was so poetry. I read it recently and it’s totally shit.”
He played around on the internet when it was becoming something viable creatively. “I messed around with websites and on message boards.”
He was always writing but it was “rubbish”. Eventually his writing found an unlikely home: Twitter. His username is Astonishing Sod, a Chris Morris reference.
He gravitated towards Twitter when Graham Linehan did. “I tried it out and posted nonsense for a while, and then released the potential of it as a joke-telling format. I was shit for a long time. Some would say I still am. I’ve looked at the archive. You know you can download your tweets? Ugh, hideous. But it was fun and that was the main thing: just entertaining myself for a while.
“Then I realised I was getting a bit more comfortable with the whole ‘being an online comedian’ thing – which is just nothing really. It means nothing.”
Seeing the potential of Twitter’s form for surreal, expansive comedy beyond snappy gags, Thomas began tweeting from multiple accounts. @CrimerShow was the first show that ever happened on Twitter, “for better or for worse”.
“So it had three series, 150 episodes, 100 characters at the last count, a lot of plots going on and a lot of time put into it. I imposed deadlines, so that kind of got me into a thing that when I got home from work I just hit the writing straight away, and worked for hours.”
Thomas envisaged a city that had a single criminal and a single detective, “and to pit them against each other. The criminal would be one step ahead always, the detective would be going mad with stress, and so on. It kind of snowballed out of control. For the first two episodes, I just wanted a free-form kind of montage, a bunch of cliches and tropes bundled together to make people laugh. That seemed to work, and very quickly it took off.
“I had a lot of plot lines in mind very quickly and a structure, and a lot of pay-offs in season three that happened in season one. I put a lot of work into it; too much work.”
The subsequent tweets, which concocted a surreal detective series that simultaneously sent up the cliches of crime shows while revelling in them, got him an agent, who flew from London to Dublin to meet him. They drank cocktails and a deal was done.
His Twitter comedy covers accounts including Terbil Draems, Goggl, Freints (a surreal episode-by-episode breakdown of Friends), Frasser (the same, but Frasier), News for Babies (sample tweet: “WHAT ARE THEY SAYING? WE INVESTIGATE.”), History’s Moments, and on and on until you hit more than 40 accounts. The question is: why?
“Overactive imagination? Some of them are good for one idea: one-note accounts. Whenever something occurs to me I can just pop it on Twitter, forget about it and move on to another account. It’s a good way to compartmentalise. If you have somewhere that makes sense to put a thought that’s not really going to go any further, put it there, and eventually I’ll have a body of work instead of having 100 ideas and not understanding what to do with them or not knowing whether this should be a stage show, that should be a sitcom, and that should be a one-liner joke. It’s just a place to put all my different streams of thought. I hate myself.”
New York minute
When the New Yorker came calling, publishing Thomas’s work, “it kind of opened some people’s eyes – certainly in comedy circles – to what I was doing”, he says. “People seemed to like it, so that was really nice. The New Yorker, I can’t believe that happened. It is a domino effect. Once you get to one plateau, people on the next level up start to look down and say, ‘Who’s the new guy?’ and hopefully you make it up to the next level.”
And so Why the Long Joke? tumbles into life with discarded Star Wars fan-fiction ideas, warped and fragmented short stories such as Edgar Allan Poe at a music festival, hypothetical one-liners (“Surely the Big Smoke started in the sticks?”), woozy off-kilter haikus, discordant horoscopes, a cautionary tale about cocaine, an almost nonsensical list of romantic gestures, facts about space, classified listings of Atari video games for sale – “Thom Yorke Winter Olympics (1993)” – and tweet-sized interventions: “‘This reminds me . . . Nope. I got nothing.’ – newborn baby.”
Now juggling several books and other projects, Thomas’s work might be hard to categorise, but it’s smart and hilarious, although it’s not easy to articulate why. “I just love the idea of being totally original even if it’s crap. I think by virtue of being original, it’s already got merit. An idea has merit purely if the fact is it hasn’t been done before.”
- Why the Long Joke? is published by St Martin’s Press