Sammy Rhodes didn’t court Twitter fame. Maybe he flirted with it a little, but he only did it to make other people smile.
As the following grew for his 140-characters-or-fewer jokes posted under the handle @prodigalsam, Rhodes discovered the dark side of fame. Other Twitter comedians began to attack Rhodes for allegedly stealing jokes. As is typical in internet spats, it quickly turned personal and ugly.
“The internet has taught me two things: 1. People are the best. 2. People are the worst,” Rhodes tweeted on May 29.
That was more serious than most of his tweets. It probably surprised those among the 130,000 followers who hadn’t been tuned in to the negative buzz, those who only read his tweets for the daily grins.
Rhodes, a campus minister at the University of South Carolina, denies stealing jokes.
“There are formulas that we all use,” he said of joke-writing between sips of coffee last week at Immaculate Consumption on Main Street. “Now I’m caught in the middle of being accused — I think falsely — of stealing jokes. … It has made Twitter lose its fun.”
After saying for weeks in media interviews that he wasn’t going to let the uproar stop him, Rhodes used a series of Tweets Friday night to announce the steady flow of jokes was stopping.
“Some wise friends who love me well have asked me to step away from Twitter for a season, for the sake of my family, ministry, & own soul…”
“This isn’t a break-up, but a break. And it isn’t you, it’s me (pretty sure I stole that from someone)…”
He offered his backers a chance to help by posting a link to a fund-raising campaign for his campus ministry. Then he couldn’t resist two final jokes, both typical of his geek-driven humor with references to Star Wars and another, less joke-friendly, social networking site.
“Hopefully this season away from Twitter is more like Luke’s in Empire Strikes Back, minus the sleeping inside of a Tauntaun part…”
“In the meantime I plan on absolutely crushing it over on LinkedIn.”
Turning to Twitter
Rhodes’ contemplative responses to questions in a conversation seem more suited to his full-time job with the Presbyterian Church-affiliated Reformed University Fellowship.
His comedy material seldom slips into his outreach to USC students. Few if any of the students show up to hear @prodigalsam. They come to hear a more important message.
“He’s not up there telling jokes. The Gospel is a serious thing,” said Robby Woodard, a friend of Rhodes’ and an elder at Columbia’s First Presbyterian Church. “But he can relate to (college students) well.
“He’s not hiding (the @prodigalsam identity) from them. Some might even say ‘Hey this is the Twitter guy. We can go learn about Christ from this guy.’”
Rhodes, 32, was preaching long before he became a Twitter star. He grew up in Sumter, graduated from USC in 2002 with a psychology degree and went on to Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte. He spent five years with Reformed University Fellowship at Georgia Southern University before moving back to Columbia in 2011.
Rhodes opened his Twitter account in 2009, mostly posting updates about how he was doing or about something related to his ministry. In 2011, his outlook on Twitter changed when he discovered “this community of people, comedians, just using Twitter to be funny,” he said.
About that time, his daughter Sadie, the youngest of his four children, was born with a rare brain malformation called Dandy-Walker Syndrome. People with Dandy-Walker can have a wide spectrum of disabilities. Sadie is on the healthier end of the spectrum, but she is behind the norm for developmental standards.
After Sadie’s birth, “humor became a way of dealing with it,” Rhodes said. “It became a way to lighten the burden.”
To explain his outlook, Rhodes threw out the phrase, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” He said he heard it used by comedian Tig Notaro. Wikisearch attributes the phrase to the legendary comedian Carol Burnett. Pithy quotes, like most jokes, can be traced to common ancestors a generation or two earlier than you might think.
One of Rhodes’ critics created a Tumblr site – borrowingsam.tumblr.com – detailing similarities between @prodigalsam jokes and earlier jokes posted on Twitter by others.
Rhodes insists he never intentionally stole a joke. He explained his approach in a blog post, then erased that after foes used his own words in blasting him. He tried again with an explanation last week in a Q & A with a reporter from Christianity Today.
“When I started trying to be funny on Twitter, I was like a kid getting his first acoustic guitar,” he said. “I tried to tell tweets in my own words that were definitely inspired by some of my favorite comedians on Twitter. I definitely have been inspired by tweets, but have never intentionally stolen a tweet.
“At face value [some of the comparisons to prior tweets] look pretty bad unless you know that I took several of the tweets down immediately when someone pointed out that someone else had written something similar. Others of the tweets I supposedly ‘stole’ were from people I had never heard of or followed. There are maybe two tweets that were definitely remixes of a tweet that I loved that have since been taken down out of respect.
“The bottom line is I’m not the most original guy in the world, but I’m definitely not a joke thief. I can say that with a clear conscience.”
Where do the jokes come from?
“Most of the time, it just pops into my head and I tweet it,” Rhodes said of his joke-writing process. “If tweets aren’t coming, I sit down and think ‘What did I experience today that might be funny?’ ”
The one-liner has been a mainstay of comedy for as long as people have laughed. Twitter, with its 140-character limit, is the ideal venue for one-liners. It also is a wide-open forum, allowing any personal style. Rhodes tweaks pop culture, makes fun of himself, uses the classic play-on-words format and avoids bad language.
“I like Twitter because it allows me to tell jokes in a medium that feels safe,” he said. “I can make people laugh, but I don’t have to be vulgar to do it.
“The best jokes that I’ve written are honest and relatable. Good art captures what it feels like to live in this world, and it’s the same with jokes.”
Once he started posting funny thoughts on Twitter in 2011, people started following him. The following grew as he gained more attention via Favstar, which ranks re-tweets passed along by readers. “It became a hobby for me, trying to tell jokes that rated high,” Rhodes said.
Favstar helped Rhodes hit 12,000 followers. A re-tweet by Huffington Post boosted the following to around 40,000. Then he was ranked in Paste magazine’s list of the top 75 Twitter accounts, and his following nearly doubled. A Huffington Post story and re-tweets by actor/comedian Rainn Wilson (“The Office”) put the following over 100,000.
As the joke-stealing allegations took off, Wilson took Rhodes’ side. Comedian Patton Oswalt (“Ratatouille,” “The King of Queens”) took the other side. Rhodes is amazed either of them would read his jokes.
Those who knew Rhodes well were amazed as his Twitter following rose. He never was the class clown or the life of the party.
“I’ve always been way more introverted,” Rhodes said. “People who have known me, who grew up with me or went to college with me, they follow me on Twitter and are surprised.”
Some were less stunned than others.
“He’s one of those quiet, witty guys where (the humor) kind of sneaks up on you,” Woodard said. “He might not seem funny in a group setting, but when you get in a conversation one-on-one he can be really funny.”
Jay Richardson, a friend since childhood, said their core group of friends always laughed at each others’ jokes. But who would have guessed thousands and thousands of people would some day laugh along with them?
“Around his friends, he’s always been funny,” Richardson said. “When he’s around people he doesn’t know as well, he has an automatic reserve, a guard sort of goes up.”
Twitter took away that guard. Now Richardson has seen Rhodes hit by a backlash that has hurt.
“He doesn’t want to be a celebrity,” Richardson said. “He wants to be a genuine person.”
Rhodes chuckled at the idea he might be able to make money with his sense of humor. While there is a growing Christian-comedy niche, most of Rhodes’ tweets are secular. He has tried standup comedy only once, at an open mic night in Greenville a few months ago. He did a three-minute set, “and it was a blast.”
But he doesn’t see a career in standup or in comedy writing. He is considering writing a book — not a compendium of jokes but a fun narrative that’s been bopping around in his head.
Two weeks ago, he pledged to keep posting one-liners on Twitter. Trying hard not to let the haters get him down, he cited G.K. Chesterton’s 1908 work “Orthodoxy.”
“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”
But the online hate grew to be too much.
“The story has grown to a point where not only is it beyond my control, but it’s starting to affect my family, minister, colleagues in ministry, and the name of Christians in general,” Rhodes said Saturday via email. “It’s just gotten so out of control, the best thing I know to do is step away for awhile.”
In last week’s email interview with salon.com, he hinted at the struggle that led to his Twitter hiatus.
“It’s living in the tension of ‘Thou shalt not steal’ and ‘There’s nothing new under the sun,’ ” Rhodes wrote.