One of the best things you can say about a work of art is that it’s unique. Why would I want to see a movie, TV show, painting, concert, or puppet show if there are jilions of others just like it? Quality may be king, but uniqueness is queen.
Unique jokesters are rare. On Twitter, there are a lot of people making jokes, and some of them are great at it, like Julius Sharpe, Dan Guterman, and Jess Dweck. Often, when reading those tweeters, I think, “Damn! I wish I had thought of that!” or, more optimistically, “Damn! I could’ve thought of that.” But there is one guy who never inspires the latter thought: Ted Travelstead (@trumpetcake). He is not only a great joke writer, but he writes jokes unlike anyone else on Twitter or Earth. I’m jealous, and a little frightened, of the places his brain goes.
Each Travelstead tweet is like a TV Guide synopsis of the weirdest show in the history of television. Some tweets portray Ted as a physical freak (“If you’re anything like me you have three feet”) with hidden skills (“How many combs can you fit inside your body? My record is nine”). Others suggest a bizarre family tree (“If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s probably my ex-step-dad Richard Flapp: duck fetishist”) and strange hobbies and/or relationships (“Got kicked out of Candle Club for throwing clam dip at Gloria”). One of his best tweets is also a helpful reminder to avoid fountains: “Been hidin’ in the chocolate fountain at Golden Corral all day foolin’ folks into thinkin’ different parts of me are a stray piece a banana.” He’s always well-groomed: “Thought this shoeshine boy was a little ‘off,’ until I realized I had my foot caught in the lawnmower.” Consistently, Travelstead is a guy with a lot going on beneath the surface: “I may not be the funniest, brightest, or most handsome guy in the room, but I’m probably the only one hiding a beet in his jean apron.”
When a writer is as funny, weird, and prolific as Travelstead, picking a Best Joke Ever is tougher than usual, but I’m going with the following: “First thing I do with a new gal friend is show her that big pile of sand in my barn since I’m sure they’ve probably heard the gossip.”
There are so many things going on in this joke. The term “gal friend” is itself funny, as is the notion that Travestead has a barn, which he might live in for all we can imagine. Let’s hope the narrator of this tweet isn’t in control of an entire farm. The pile of sand is a brilliant bit of Beckett-esque absurd humor that evokes sand passing through the hourglass of life or deranged beach trips. The absurdism of the sand is heightened by the even absurder idea that gals are gossiping about it. This joke also makes me wonder what the second thing this sand-haver does with a new gal friend. In one non-jokey joke, Travelstead creates a complete character and setting, along with a potential relationship and community. That’s impressive.
I emailed Travelstead to ask about his approach to jokes, and he wrote, “I’d say more than half of my tweets aren’t jokes in the sense of set-up and punch line, they’re more 140-character ‘word pictures.’ I like describing bizarre characters and scenarios in my tweets (fake relatives, crazy things that have happened to me, etc.). Finding a way, within that strict character limit, to open a tiny window into a strange world, and let people peek inside is really satisfying to me.” Much like Gary Larson (see previous columns), Travelstead is brilliant at opening those tiny windows with his jokes, fondling our brains while tickling our funny bones. The off-kilter oddities of Travelstead stick out in my Twitter feed like a kook in a chocolate fountain.
I asked Travelstead to name a joke he’s proud of, and he offered—“I’m not everyone’s cup of teeth.” Travelstead said, “This might not be my best joke, but I’m proud of it because it’s a simple misdirect that sums up my sensibility, and the way it’s received, perfectly.” Travelstead mentions being influenced as a young’un by Steve Martin, Paul Reubens, Martin Short, and Chris Elliott, as well as his fandom of Sarah Silverman, Mitch Hedberg, and Steven Wright. Travelstead would make those joke masters proud, as he is equally adept at writing more traditional jokes, such as “I’m high as a kite! Let me rephrase that: I’m stuck in a tree.” Travelstead also writes for Wilfred, one of the most underrated comedies on TV.
Travelstead’s word pictures (and gloriously bent Vine series Twins Talkin’) should be inspiring to everyone who writes comedy. You don’t have to settle for the expected, predictable, hacky joke. Your brain and jokes are allowed to go anywhere, no matter how ridiculous. In other words, your jean apron can contain beets. Delicious beets.
Ted Travelstead is
also a Tendency