Last Friday, Ann Coulter gave liberals a reason to rejoice. Protesting Sen. Marco Rubio’s insistence that the (since-passed) tax bill include a more generous child tax credit, the conservative pundit tweeted, “We singles live empty lives of quiet desperation and will die alone. Now Rubio is demanding that we also fund happy families with children who fill their days with joy.” Left-leaning Twitter pounced on Coulter’s apparent self-own. “Queen of the incels,” responded a writer named Christian Fox. “Carrie Sadshaw over here,” quipped Daily Beast writer and Twitter superstar Ira Madison. “Oh, lord. I am a 50-year-old single lesbian who lives alone with her cat and I am not this dramatic,” retorted Tracy E. Gilchrist, an editor at the Advocate. The jokes were, well, great: pointed, specific, unexpected. And they illustrated something about the state of political comedy today: Twitter, for all its aggravations and idiosyncrasies, is really the only thing you need. Or at least it was this year.
Since Jon Stewart’s tenure on The Daily Show, cultural commentators (myself included) have heaped a forest’s worth of laurels on liberal late-night comedians for clarifying the dysfunctions of our political system and the media coverage thereof. With more than a dozen options to choose from, late-night political comedy has arguably never been better. But in the time it takes John Oliver to reach his first punchline of the night, you can read innumerable witty takes on the week’s events—and on a news item that broke minutes, not days, ago. (The number of times I’ve read a joke on Twitter, then heard it the next day from a comedian is too many times to count.) If you’re active enough on Twitter, chances are you’re not getting much from late night that you didn’t already get in 280 characters hours ago.
Twitter’s comic advantages over late night are myriad, insuperable, and perhaps obvious. If you’re the kind of person who needs to laugh about politics to stay sane, especially during the past two years, the social network can supply funny takes densely, immediately, and practically speaking, ad infinitum. Without the standards of middlebrow taste enforced by a mass viewership or corporate sponsors, Twitter’s political jesters are free to be arcane, absurd, nihilistic, or (sigh) cruel. They also enjoy freedom from the monologist’s setup-punchline, setup-punchline structure; many of the platform’s most iconic joke structures hinge purely on images, fake dialogue, text that’s better read than spoken aloud, or any number of variations on how people make one another laugh through the internet. That’s been true of Twitter for years, but in the Trump era, for me anyway, those laughs have become essential. Galaxy brain: Satire helps us understand this year’s erosion of norms. If keeping track of what would’ve been unacceptable until this year is essential to maintaining the Resistance, Twitter, with its never-ending supply of rueful chuckles, helps us do just that.
Perhaps most importantly, the Twittersphere can provide humor and commentary from all walks of life, provided you follow a diverse enough set of users. Twitter is infamous for not doing enough to curb hate and vitriol on the platform, where women and people of color are more vulnerable to harassment (as anywhere else). But the site also provides more points of view than we generally see represented on television, since TV writing, especially for late night, largely remains a white man’s game. On Twitter, anyone can be a wit or an authority.
And because Twitter is ideal for fostering micro-communities that coalesce around a set of niche interests and references, users can crack wise on obscure subjects or allude to relatively esoteric memes intelligible to only thousands of like-minded people—a kind of coded humor that can feel all the fresher because outsiders won’t understand it. That makes the site’s political comedy paradoxically more niche and more universal in comparison to late night, because it relies on more in-jokes, but also offers a sense of a larger world by bringing so many different types of communities together in one timeline or search result.
To be sure, Twitter can easily be guilty of replicating the same ideological silos that hosts like Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee are accused of reinforcing. There’s also something a bit patronizing, if not vaguely insidious, about the way that the platform seemingly validates users’ sense of humor. You don’t have to make a single joke on Twitter to have your comic sensibility endorsed by friends and strangers alike. Just retweet a wisecrack from Ziwe or Krang T. Nelson, and you get notifications accompanied by a red heart every time one of your followers (or your followers’ followers) “favorites” that tweet. Bee or Meyers can confirm your opinions and even your rage, but TV can’t endorse you as a person the way social media sites can and do as a matter of course. And yet, I’d wager that—if you follow an inclusive-enough group of users, at least—Twitter is better at making you challenge your beliefs or assumptions than Stephen Colbert is, if only because the chorus of users on the site speaks from so many perspectives on so many different topics.
Of course, it’s not a zero-sum game between Twitter and late night, two venues that serve very different audiences. At its funniest, the site makes it tempting to opt out of late night, but you can—and maybe should!—engage with both. Personally, while I find myself increasingly checking my Twitter app for topical humor, I browse YouTube for late-night segments that do what tweeters generally aren’t so good at: deep-dive coverage or original investigations, like Oliver’s 20-minute rabbit holes and Meyers’ “A Closer Look” series. The NBC Late Night host also features a headline-eschewing recurring segment called “The Check In,” which has profiled far-right GOP donor Rebekah Mercer and (withdrawn) Department of Agriculture chief scientist nominee Sam Clovis. Bee, meanwhile, has shined a crucial light on pressing regional issues, like Georgia’s rape-kit backlog and worrisome local politicians. Late-night hosts will never be able to catch up with the tweets, but they can keep giving us new things to talk about. Galaxy brain: There’s still only so much you can do in 280 characters.