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.
Never miss a local story.
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.