The internet is always stupider than you think. When you're telling a joke to an audience of anonymous online strangers, as long as the setup is believable no amount of absurdism in the punchline will give the game away.
Here's an example: The week before Breaking Bad ended, I tweeted, "My uncle is a teamster and got a copy of the ending." And I attached a fake script page that clearly demonstrated I had never seen the show. I referred to the main character as "Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle," gave him lines like "Here goes nothing! Suicide!" and wrote in the AMC copyright information with a Sharpie. But people still got furious and demanded I immediately take it down. One guy said my uncle wouldn't find work again. Another told me, "Teamsters are pieces of shit."
So every once in a while I try to test the limits of that joke format. And on Friday, I struck the mother lode: I took a quote from economist/sociologist Thorstein Veblen's seminal 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class and attributed it to Lena Dunham's new book of essays, Not That Kind of Girl. I know almost nothing about Veblen; I just thought it was a funny way to say I don't like rich people.
Obviously, Lena Dunham, who has chapters like "Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It)," is not writing anything in the same universe as the Veblen quote, which critiques the cultural fallout of the Gilded Age while using words like "impinge" and "forfeiture" and "exigencies." The joke made ten or so of my political science major friends smirk, which is all I thought it would do.
Then a miracle happened: It got retweeted by Instapundit, a conservative blogger who is read by a lot of relatively respectable people. That led to syndicated radio host and frequent FOX News contributor Tammy Bruce picking it up. She has since deleted the post, but she sent my joke along and added one word: "OMG." All of a sudden, my joke was hopping around the right-wing Twittersphere, only nobody knew I was joking. As far as my new audience was concerned, that Veblen quote was the work of 28-year-old comedy auteur Lena Dunham, a known liberal.
These FOX News viewers were instantly angry with the Not That Kind of Girl author-not that it takes that much to get conservatives pissed off at Dunahm. She needed an editor; she had the audacity to use the word "exigencies"; she just wrote the world's worst term paper. It was time for her to go down. This was the last straw. Comments generally fell into four categories, all of them convinced of the quote's veracity. (Note: I reorganized these tweets to aid smoother categorization. They don't represent the actual timeline.)
First up: the obvious one. Ad hominems.
The second: criticisms of her editor. The marketplace had clearly failed.
The third: so many permutations of "did she get exigencies from a word-a-day calendar?" that I had to stop counting.
The fourth: This is just awful writing!
Finally, just as my joke was about to be canonized as the most controversial quote from Lena Dunham's big debut, Andy Levy, who often appears on FOX News's Red Eye w/ Greg Gutfeld, stepped in and told everybody where the quote came from. As far as I can tell from Twitter's buggy notifications feature, he was the first person to "debunk" my joke after it got traction.
That's when people started getting mad at me. One guy gave me the #tcot version of the scarlet letter by adding me to a Twitter list called "liberals," even though I had made no meaningful political statement. I should get kicked off Twitter for my grievous ethical violation, I was told. There's such a thing as "Twitter law," people said, and my bullshit had violated it.
I swear my tweet wasn't intended as a disinformation campaign. But the damage is done. I imagine there are one or two people who haven't seen Levy's tweet and are still pissed off that Dunham would write such things. Even now, that quote may be making the rounds via forwarded chain emails that are mostly about Obama taking our guns away. Sorry, everyone. It was only a joke.
Follow Kaleb Horton on Twitter.