Tim Siedell – a.k.a. @badbanana – is the only person whose Twitter page I catch up on, by scrolling back to read the Tweets I’ve missed. I do this because Tim is funny. Seriously, consistently, and often hilariously funny.
As a Brit, I love the deadpan irony of Tim’s humour. And to judge from his 430,916 followers, I’m not alone.
I first came across Tim’s work via his Bad Banana Blog – a museum of creative curiosities such as Vintage Godzilla Posters from Poland, beard taming and Father Christmas cigarette ads. Following him on Twitter, I was expecting more of the same, but was pleasantly surprised to discover his brand of ‘sit down comedy’, where the 140-character Tweet limit finds its perfect match in the timeless appeal of the one-liner:
Reading Tim’s Tweets, I feel like I’m glimpsing fragments of a graphic novel about a brilliant adman who feels constrained by the conventions of his trade. As he sits through endless meetings with nervous clients and debriefings with partners who ask him to ‘tone it down a little for the sake of the account’, his high-pressure imagination finds outlet in surreal jokes that occur to him in the privacy of his mind. In the original graphic novel, I imagine the jokes appearing in thought-bubbles above the hero’s impassive face. What we get on Twitter is the content of those thought-bubbles.
So I was thrilled when Tim told me he was collecting some of his favourite Tweets in an actual book, and charmed when I saw Tim’s words illustrated by Brian Andreas’ drawings. Marching Bands Are Just Homeless Orchestras is sharp and surreal as well as funny, like a collaboration between Groucho Marx and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
As my wife will testify, it’s the kind of book you’ll want to leave lying around the house so you can read it out to members of your family at inconvenient moments. And it’s funny enough for you to get away with it.
Tim is something of an enigmatic creator. Apart from having a creative ‘split personality’ – Bad Banana Blog and @badbanana could easily be the work of different people if we didn’t know differently – for a long time he didn’t even show his face on the internet, preferring to use a picture of of his advertising hero, David Ogilvy, as his avatar. So I’m delighted to have persuaded him to lift the lid on his creative process by answering some questions for Lateral Action readers.
As well as being the funniest man on Twitter, you’re an advertising creative director, curator of the Bad Banana Blog, a HuffPo columnist – and I know you have other projects in the pipeline. How do you reconcile all these different roles? Or do you?
Well, that’s a great question. If I were truly interested in creating some kind of online brand, I should be doing things differently. By far, most people find out about me through Twitter. If they go to my blog from there, they often get confused. Unless they pause and look around, and then they might like what I’m doing over there, too. If not, no big deal.
Pretty much everything I do is driven by a desire for personal creative growth. Certainly everything I do online. Audience is, well, secondary. Or, to be honest, maybe a couple notches farther down the list.
I’ve spent twenty years in advertising, first as a copywriter, then as a creative director, then as a boutique brand communications studio owner. I’ve always put the audience first in all those roles. I’ve always looked at the world through the eyes of other people. I went online to show the world what I’m seeing through my own eyes. Here’s something that inspired me today. Here’s some people you should know about. Here’s something that helped my personal creative process. Here’s something I find funny.
I hoped people would find it interesting, but the exercise was really for me. I felt myself getting comfortable. I wanted to force myself to gather up creative input and actively seek out inspiration. It became a creative challenge. Could I blog every day for a month? Three months? A year? What would happen to my creative output for my clients if my radar is up all the time searching out creative inspiration?
That was almost four years ago. Over time, how I used those various online tools changed. I started to realize my blog was best used for visual inspiration and I dialed back on the longer essays. And I realized Twitter was a great tool for sharpening my writing skills. I found a new creative challenge.
What did happen to your creative output after a year of blogging?
Like I tell students, an idea is just a new combination of existing elements. If you want more ideas or better ideas, you need to fill your brain with more elements, more stuff. My blog helped me do that, especially when I was updating every day. I couldn’t just put my nose down and work and get lost in my own thoughts. I certainly don’t think you need a blog to fill your brain up with creative input, but it worked for me.
Has Twitter sharpened your writing skills? How did you decide to start using Twitter for comedy?
When I first got started on Twitter, I was posting links to articles or telling people whenever I had updated my blog. After a while, it just felt so… uninspired. I started to experiment and play around out of boredom. I began to realize Twitter is a really interesting medium perfectly suited for quips and nearly instantaneous commentary on world events. Plus, there’s a theater of the mind aspect that intrigued me because people are talking about what they’re doing, but you can’t really see what they’re doing. I started to have fun. Pure creative play. Then it became a creative challenge. Can I write one joke a week? A day? Two a day? Three?
No doubt, Twitter has sharpened my writing skills. The character limit forces me to attack subjects in different ways and choose words carefully. I’ve also learned a lot about joke structure through trial and error. And the instant feedback is interesting. That’s something I’ve never had in my advertising career.
Does the Muse send you one liners fully formed, or do you labour over the drafts long into the night?
It varies. That’s the fun of being in a creative field, no? Sometimes you sweat blood drops onto a blank sheet of paper and have to grind it out. Sometimes you scramble for a piece of paper because the perfect idea just sprung into your head. Sometimes you wake up from a deep sleep with a fully formed idea. Whether it’s an ad concept or a one-liner on Twitter, my process is pretty much the same. Keep the radar up and be open to everything around you. Capture ideas as they come, even if it’s half-baked or a single word. Set aside a little time to shake those elements around. Then, once you have a good idea, refine, refine, refine.
You describe your Tweets as ‘sit down comedy’. Do you feel an affinity with stand up comedians, or was it just a good line?
Good grief, no. Stand up comedians are brave. There’s nothing brave about what I’m doing. I’m not stage funny. I’m not even living room funny. I’m Twitter stream funny. Most Twitter streams are infinitely more boring than a standard living room. I offer the occasional random observation or joke that probably seems funnier in context than it really is. If you were to pay money to have me entertain you on stage, you’d eventually yell rude things at me and I’d probably run away crying.
Advertising Age recently named you one of 21 influencers ‘reshaping media and marketing in 2011’. You’re on the list with Mashable founder Pete Cashmore, Hollywood superagent Ari Emmanuel, the head of Marvel Studios, and executives at major corporations like Coca-Cola, CBS, Proctor & Gamble, Facebook, and Google. That’s pretty impressive company.
First off, I don’t deserve to be in that company. But I do have a theory as to why they included me. I think it’s a nod to the fact that you don’t have to be in a huge company or run a gigantic media empire to make an impact anymore. You can be in the middle of nowhere and make a name for yourself. And you don’t have to become the next Justin Bieber, either. You can find a niche and find a voice and, now more than ever before, an audience will find you. It doesn’t have to be the world’s largest audience. But it’s an audience and they found you for a reason. I think I represent a few million other people Ad Age could have chosen for the list.
Why did you choose to collaborate with Brian Andreas, who does the charming illustrations?
He reached out to me. Brian owns his own imprint (StoryPeople Press) and has been very successful selling his own books, which are a wonderful blend of his drawings and little stories. He asked if I’d be the first outside author on his expanding imprint. We talked on the phone and I got a real thrill from Brian’s creative energy. So I went out and met with him at his home in California. Brian is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. I jumped at the chance to work with him.
I talk to a lot of creative people who are curious about blogging, Twitter, and the rest of the social media circus, but not sure (a) whether they’re brave enough to have a go themselves, or (b) whether it’s something that would be worth their while, creatively or professionally. What would you say to them?
I don’t know if I have an answer for them. Social media can be a complete waste of time. It depends on what you want out of it. I think people enjoy seeing behind the curtain and getting to know artists and authors. I think some artists and authors enjoy interacting with their readers and fans. So there’s that. And there are plenty of social media gurus who will be happy to show you case studies for how to build up an online brand, gather email addresses for lists, and sell your stuff. I’m not knocking that. And I would be the first to admit that social media can be a good place to apply your talent if you’re hoping to get noticed.
I would also argue that social media can be a great way to gather up creative input, whether it’s to explore other blogs or see what people are talking about. Or even how people talk. It’s also a great creative release. Sometimes you need to get away from that painting you’re struggling with or step out of your creative bubble. Is social media the only way to do these things? Of course not. You can also go down to the neighborhood pub.
Apart from making a lot of people laugh and landing a book deal, what other benefits have you experienced from having nearly half a million people hanging on your every word?
I’m stuck in the very middle of the United States, almost exactly halfway between New York City and Hollywood. Being known for something, even if it’s just typing words into Twitter, certainly opens up doors. I’ve met some very interesting people in the last year or so. Authors whose books have been instrumental in my creative development. Advertising people I admire. Artists, musicians, directors, and actors who I never would have been able to interact with before. I find it very inspiring, creatively. It’s already led to some amazing collaborations. And I’m hopeful it will lead to more.
It all goes back to my original intent of creative exploration and growth. For the first time, I can envision a future for myself that doesn’t include advertising. That was never my goal. In fact, I never would have imagined that in a million years. Or, who knows? Maybe my advertising career will take a completely different turn or I will end up living in a different part of the world. Just like my foray into social media, I’m not worried about planning everything out. I figure if I can keep growing creatively, everything else will work out fine. My radar is up.