A TV watcher's guide to Twitter

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“Twitter is the new water cooler, folks — if you come to get a drink, you’re gonna hear people talking about last night’s TV.”

—“Lost” co-creator Damon Lindelof to his more than 176,000 followers on Twitter.

 

THE LATE Dr. Samuel Johnson, who said that “no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money,” couldn’t have anticipated Twitter, much less that more than two centuries after his death, a Twitter handle in his honor, @DrSamuelJohnson, would have more than 40,000 followers.

So there’s no telling what he would have thought about some of the world’s better-paid writers giving some of their material away, one tweet at a time.

Most TV writers who tweet, though, seem to have their reasons.

For “Cougar Town” creator Bill Lawrence, who tweets as @VDOOZER, Twitter “is the open door to the opportunity to brand yourself as a writer.”

“You watch a TV show going, ‘Hey, it’s Tom Selleck and his TV show.’ Every writer wants to get to a point where it’s ‘Hey, it’s Bill Lawrence’s new TV show,’ ” said Lawrence.

Plus, it offers the opportunity “just to write a dumb joke now and then, in 30 seconds, move on.”

“I hear about everything on Twitter,” said Hart Hanson, creator of Fox’s “Bones,” who said he’s also gotten to know other show-runners that way (and indeed, if you follow several writers, sooner or later you’re going to feel as if you’re eavesdropping).

“Twitter is the inevitable expression of the human need to say short, funny things,” said writer Jane Espenson, a consulting producer at ABC’s “Once Upon a Time,” who’s @JaneEspenson on Twitter.

Asked for her philosophy of Twitter — yes, that’s one question I’ve been asking writers about Twitter for nearly a year now — Espenson answered: “What took so long?” for Twitter to arrive.

“I feel like my whole life I’ve been, every now and then, having some little thought, and I keep thinking, ‘I should get a notebook and put all these little short thoughts in it, because they’re funny and maybe I can get a little book out of it someday.’ And then Twitter came along and it was like, ‘Oh, this is the thing I’ve been waiting for,’?” said Espenson, a former “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer who co-created Syfy’s “Warehouse 13” and the Web series “Husbands” (and met her “Husbands” co-creator Brad Bell through Twitter after seeing him first on YouTube).

Not that everyone appreciates the opportunity to deliver one-liners online. Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney, creator and star of FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” isn’t on Twitter anymore (though at least three of his co-stars have large followings).

Neither is Upper Darby’s Tina Fey, who’s apparently saving the funny stuff for NBC’s “30 Rock.”

“I found that I was spending so much time thinking about what I was going to type and write and literally … competing with other show-runners,” McElhenney said, laughing. “And comedians, and actors. It was like I was following Sarah Silverman and she’s so unbelievably funny and every time I’d read one of her tweets, I’d go, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ”

Kurt Sutter, the occasionally less than circumspect creator of FX’s motorcycle gang drama “Sons of Anarchy,” who tweets as @sutterink, publicly quit Twitter for a few weeks last summer after weighing in there about “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner’s new contract and how he believed it would hurt AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and “Breaking Bad.”

“I’m a guy who needs filters. Lots of them,” he tweeted after his comments were widely reported.

But in an interview during a Fox networks party a few weeks earlier, Sutter, who also has a blog, seemed pretty clear about why he’s on Twitter. “I find it useful as a tool in terms of staying connected with the fan base. You know, on my show it’s tough because we only do 13 episodes [a season] and we’re really only plugged into that fan base for like three or four months. And the rest of the time, we’re not there,” he said.

Does he stir the pot a little more than most producers? “Perhaps. That’s not intentional, unfortunately. That’s sort of, for better or for worse, that’s who I am,” Sutter said. “It’s the blessing and the curse of Twitter for me, you know, is that it’s an instantaneous vehicle for what I’m thinking.”

“I think that if you only read Kurt’s Twitter feed, you wouldn’t know Kurt,” said FX president John Landgraf in an interview last week, describing Sutter’s blog as the “self-reflective journal of a man trying to put things into context and working towards maturity.”

When I’d first spoken with Landgraf last summer, he’d echoed some of what Sutter had said about engaging fans.

Talking to show-runners about Twitter, “we tell them that the fans want engagement more than one time a week, 13 times a year. They want engagement every day if they can get it. They want engagement in the offseason,” he said. “To enter into that dialogue and be a part of providing them with news and information content and access, is a part of what it takes now to build a loyal fan base.”

He still believes that, Landgraf said last week, but he’s come to see some of Twitter’s limits, particularly in communicating nuance.

“Its value is its immediacy, its pithiness,” he said, but sometimes the result is “sort of like what happens if you put someone on ‘The Tonight Show’?”: They may be entertaining without necessarily conveying much about themselves.

Producer Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) is one of the writers who’s discovered at least one of Twitter’s other limits: as a marketing tool.

Ryan, who’s @ShawnRyanTV, could probably write a textbook on fan engagement, having used Twitter in every conceivable way to promote two of his recent shows, FX’s “Terriers” and Fox’s “The Chicago Code,” from tune-in reminders to bicoastal Q&A sessions. “The fact that I had two shows canceled in the space of seven months may suggest that there’s some room to grow for Twitter in that regard,” he said last week, laughing.

It didn’t stop him, though, from breaking up his tweets about the progress of Chicago sports teams with dispatches from the Hawaii set of his ABC pilot, “Last Resort” (about the crew of a nuclear submarine whose members refuse to fire their missiles and instead declare themselves a sovereign nation).

“I’m not really convinced [Twitter] has a big impact on ratings … but I do think that for some very hard-core fans, it offers some insight into the process” and might help build buzz about the show, should it be picked up.

And if it is picked up, will he be the first to tweet it?

“I try never to step on [network] announcements,” he said.

Philadelphia novelist Jennifer Weiner had a string of bestsellers to her name and a sizable Twitter following going into her first TV show, ABC Family’s “State of Georgia,” last summer.

“I’m really hoping to use Twitter to sort of let people know, this is happening, tune in,” she said before the show’s debut, expressing the belief that “Twitter’s going to change the game. Eventually.”

Weiner’s show was canceled, but her latest book, The Next Best Thing, debuting July 3, is about a TV writer who’s put in charge of her own sitcom.

In an email last week, she said it’s too early to say if “Twitter can move the needle and save a show or sell books … My own opinion is that Twitter is its own thing, and the people who love you in that medium might not need, or want, any more of you anyplace else. When stars tweet, maybe it’s a different story, but I don’t think my live-tweeting did a damn thing to help ‘Georgia,’ and I’m not sure any of the followers who love my ‘Bachelor’ [live-tweeting] have actually spent money to buy my books.”

In fact, Weiner suggested, it might be worth asking if writers are “hurting themselves professionally when they give it away for free on Twitter.” n

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.comor follow on Twitter @elgray.Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.