We Like Short Shorts

We seem to be in an age in which short forms have risen from minor to major cultural commodities. On November 30, 2017, word went out on the internet that Vine, a defunct video-sharing platform ...

We seem to be in an age in which short forms have risen from minor to major cultural commodities. On November 30, 2017, word went out on the internet that Vine, a defunct video-sharing platform, might come back from the dead. The news made a lot of people very excited. Ever since Vine discontinued uploads in January 2017, former Vine users have been posting collections of Vine videos to YouTube under titles like “Vines that will never die,” “Vines that keep me alive,” and “RIP VINE 6EVER IN OUR HEARTS.”1

That such a platform would gain any traction at all, let alone become fanatically beloved, might come as a surprise to anyone who learned its central conceit: a video posted to Vine can only be six seconds long. Then again, the dominance that short-form media has acquired within the 21st-century public sphere has taken even media architects by surprise. For example, the creators of Twitter initially designed Twitter as a side project within their start-up; they only “pivoted” to make the messaging platform their main product after they found that people loved using it despite the apparent limitations of 140-character messages.2

When I was in college in the early aughts, I was a writer for a sketch comedy troupe on campus. As a warm-up exercise, we wrote super-short pieces called blackout sketches, which were purely notional because they were too short to ever be staged: the curtain goes up, one joke, the curtain comes down.3 Just a little more than a decade later, super-short writing and videos are a major form of entertainment online, not confined to the writer’s room backstage, but rather at center stage in the public theater of the Web, especially on platforms that first appeared after 2003—YouTube’s mini-movies, Facebook’s aperçus, Twitter’s SMS-length stories, Vine’s looping six-second dramas.4

Yet the short drama has a longer history on the public stage than we may think. In a new book, John Muse, a theater historian at the University of Chicago, takes up the genre of the short play in the long 20th century—discussing works lasting 20 minutes or less, a length that must have seemed short before the internet shrank our attention spans. He examines a range of critically overlooked minor dramatic genres through their development since the late 19th century—sketches, faits-divers plays, avant-garde shorts, improvisations, “micro-marathons”—and argues that “brevity should be considered a distinct mode of theatrical practice.”5

While Muse devotes much of his discussion to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he argues persuasively for the relevance of studying the dramatic forms associated with the short attention span in the theaters of our digital era. For my part, I’ve come to wonder whether the triumph of short forms on the internet can help to explain certain features of internet culture at large. Short forms online register the weirdness and incongruity of the mass consumption they enable. The existential comedy that prevails on so many short-form platforms, the perpetual creation of a world in which absurd events and weird juxtapositions are taken for granted, is a way of riffing on a world where everything is available at once.

Can we find a distinctive aesthetic in short-form theater? Muse suggests that the answer is yes. Because theatrical shorts compress dramatic beats into a small space, they are often meta-theatrical, either explicitly or by implication.6 Character shrinks to a scribble, while plot, effects, and structure come to the fore. Indeed, Muse says, structure is so prominent in short-form theater that viewing an author’s strategies for abbreviation often illuminate his or her “basic assumptions about dramatic form.” For Futurist playwrights like Filippo Marinetti, whose dramatic syntheses were only long enough for a setup and abrupt reversal, theater is surprise; for the Neo-Futurists of Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind, a show in which actors perform 30 plays in 60 minutes, theater is small human moments; for the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, theater is waiting.7

For amateur authors on the internet, too, short form provides a testing ground for differing theatrical philosophies. Since 2009, the New York Neo-Futurists have challenged Twitter users to write one-tweet plays in response to weekly prompts. The project was an enormous success: by March 2012, some 800 users had published more than 4,150 one-tweet plays.8 In these plays, too, brevity seems to attract the use of exaggerated theatrical machinery: “surprising reversals, familiar plots, types and stock characters, non sequiturs, cheap gags.”9 In short form, the most important part of the dramatic structure is the ending, with the rest of the plot shaped to lead efficiently to a reversal, a discovery, or violence: “Like vaudeville blackouts, one-tweet plays often use an abrupt ending as a punch line.”10 Because this is also the structure of a joke, this approach to plot often results in comedy:

ESTRAGON: Hold me.
POZZO: What the hell are you two talking about?


A: I resolve to be more mysterious in 2018.

B: How are you going to do that?

A: *smile, shrug, exit*


Man: Ride harder, bronco!

Horse: Get off my back, asshole!

Man (to audience): This is a metaphor for capitalism.

These plays also subordinate character to plot. While some aim to capture human moments, their psychological characterization is universal rather than particular. Often, these are the least performable plays, as notional as the blackout sketches of my college years:

Man: *looks in mirror*

Man: *continues to look in mirror*

Man: *keeps looking in mirror*

Man: *is still looking in mirror*

Man: *looks deeper into the mirror*

Man: Maybe I am the problem.

Performance on Vine, by contrast, was not notional. As a video platform, Vine invited the use of real actors, settings, and actions. Because Vine user demographics skew young, its content favored the preoccupations of young people, such as school, friendship, social media, popular culture, and parent-child relationships.11 We would not expect high schoolers, as we might the Twitter followers of the New York Neo-Futurists, to know anything about the tradition of short theater. So it is interesting to see that Vine short-form theater shared many elements with one-tweet plays: meta-theatrical elements; exaggerated surprises, reversals, and violence; a devaluing of character in favor of plot; dramatic progressions that emphasize endings; and a concomitant tendency toward comedy. (This essay doesn’t delve into questions of relative quality. The “theater of the short attention span” online doesn’t yet have a Beckett, but it still has theatrical conventions.)

The comedy of Vine is “existential comedy,” a term used by the philosopher Ágnes Heller to refer to comedy that takes absurdity as natural. You woke up this morning in the form of a giant bug? That seems normal. If you think about it, you were an insect even before this happened, so it’s just business as usual.12

Vines often use puns to undercut clichés: a driver sees a traffic sign and says archly, “‘Road Work Ahead’? Uh, yeah. I sure hope it does.” In a common device of existential comedy, many of the videos also literalize metaphoric language, often drawing on television catchphrases and song lyrics. A young man tells the camera, “If you want to play baseball, you’ve gotta be the baseball”; then he assumes a baseball shape and falls to the ground. A man decked out in a red Valentine’s Day suit says, “Roses are red, violets are blue, why … why’d you leave me, Karen, what did I do?” At a séance, a girl in ominous candlelight asks: “If there are any spirits here tonight, tell me … does this sound like Shakira?” Then she does a celebrity impression.

Vines also use film effects, such as montage and editing tricks, to create a world that takes the absurd as routine. A man brings balloons into a car, and his friends berate him (“Are they helium balloons?”) when the car starts to float. Two priests play tennis, using their Bibles as rackets (via the magic of computer editing). At a Democratic primary presidential debate, the candidates rise for the first words of the national anthem: “It’s Britney, bitch.”

Short forms online register the weirdness and incongruity of the mass consumption they enable.

Ultimately, film effects or no, the driving comic technique on Vine is the montage joke: bringing unlike things into the same frame. Kermit the Frog starts singing a song by Usher. A teacher reads Dr. Seuss aloud at the front of a classroom, and a student starts beatboxing; the flows fit together perfectly. What appears to be the opening sequence of a ’90s sitcom presents the all-too-relatable title cards “Completely Giving Up / Starring Me.” A man greets his cat with a song that, if it weren’t about a cat, might come from ’80s radio. My favorite video shows three kids wrapped in blankets who dance to a German Eurodance song. (The small, secret smile of the middle kid sells it.)

Do today’s short-media forms share an aesthetic sensibility with those that predated the internet? Muse’s final chapter draws our attention to what he calls the microthon, the conspicuously long compilation of short plays. It’s not hard to see that Vine, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and other major digital purveyors of short forms are microthons at the platform level, embedding the mass consumption of shorts into the level of the interface.

Muse traces the rise in popularity of theatrical microthons in response to late 20th-century information overload. Since 1987, the Reduced Shakespeare Company has been touring with microthons of the Bard’s corpus; in 1988, Kenneth Koch published One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays, actually a microthon of 112 plays; and popular culture presents the sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live, the work of improv troupes like the Upright Citizens Brigade (founded in 1990), and the streaming short theater of commercial breaks.

Since 2000, he suggests, microthons have gained critical attention and captured the interest of major professional playwrights. Examples include Suzan-Lori Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays (2006); Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane’s Story/Time (2011), which fits 70 stories into as many minutes; Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information (2012), a collection of more than 60 shorts; and All Our Tragic (2014), the Chicago-based Hypocrites’ abridged version of all the surviving Greek tragedies. We can now binge-watch during a night at the theater, not just on a lazy Sunday with the laptop.

In theater, the microthon frame has often corresponded, for obvious reasons, with a preoccupation with information overload. As Muse writes, “microthons have gained popularity and prominence because they reflect and recreate the information overload that characterizes contemporary experience … an urge simultaneously to break the world into comprehensible bits and to make everything available at once.”13 Indeed, Kenneth Koch said in 1998 that he drew inspiration for One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays from watching television: “I can switch from one channel to another and be in the middle of three different movies and in 30 seconds I could be laughing or crying at what I saw. … And I wanted to get that part of drama, that part of theatre, on stage—or at least into these texts.”14


Shakespeare in 2016

By Todd Landon Barnes

Another aesthetic that has followed the microdrama in the leap from a minor to a major cultural commodity is the sensibility of existential comedy, with its non sequiturs, surprising reversals, and actualization of the multiple meanings of figurative language. All of these model what life is like in a world—or on a platform—where everything is available at once.

On such a platform, worlds easily collide. Vine creators, for example, seem to be perpetually tickled that so many separate cultural domains exist in the same world: pop music and politics, depression and sitcoms, club music and school choirs, heartbreak and heart-healthy breakfasts, high school and celebrity, ’80s culture and contemporary culture, song relationships and real relationships, Sesame Street and insecure employment, Robocop and police brutality, what children know and what adults know. The experience of tacking desperately between these domains feels a bit like growing up. It also suggests the restless, disorganized world of the internet, where something completely different is always just a click away.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of the short form as the internet grows up. In the meanwhile, it may be useful to view the culture of Web 2.0 not just as a product of technology, but as a product of storytelling and the theatrical arts, as technological application has finally caught up with aesthetic exploration.


This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus icon

  1. Vine was officially launched in January 2013 and continued until 2017.
  2. See, for example, Nick Bilton, “All’s Fair in Love and Twitter,” New York Times, October 9, 2013; and Michael Arrington, “Odeo Releases Twttr,” TechCrunch, July 15, 2006.
  3. This was a usage of the term specific to our writing group. The term blackout sketch is also used, far more widely, for a genre of longer sketches that arose from 19th-century vaudeville.
  4. For a literary take on the Facebook aperçu, see Jeff Nunokawa, Note Book (Princeton University Press, 2015).
  5. Quotation is from the book under review’s marketing description: “Microdramas,” Michigan Publishing (accessed April 9, 2018).
  6. Muse refers to this tendency as implicit meta-theater: “By and large, these plays do not represent or discuss theatrical production, but they make theater’s materials and habits unusually visible by paring them down.” I think it’s in this context that we should view another common feature of comedy on these platforms: the foregrounding of the lowest-energy state of the medium. Just as writing on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook often riffs (using text-speak, misspellings, and the eternal lower case) on the lowest-energy state of digital textuality, Vines foreground their nonexistent budgets and amateur filmmaking. Actors often use the lowest-quality props and costumes possible. If a man plays a woman, he wears a loose-fitting wig or, better, just a shirt draped over his head. If he plays two characters, he doesn’t bother changing his clothes; he just switches camera angles, or between close-up and extreme close-up, or at most throws a blanket over his clothes. In terms of editing, having the dialogue cut off at the six-second mark is used as part of the humor:

    A: You wouldn’t like me before my coffee.

    B: It’s so weird because I fucking hate you. All—every—all the time. Every da–

  7. John H. Muse, “140 Characters in Search of a Theater,” Theater, vol. 42, no. 2 (2012), p. 50. Since 2017, the Neo-Futurists have switched from Too Much Light, for licensing reasons, to a new marathon of theatrical shorts titled The Infinite Wrench.
  8. The New York Neo-Futurists tweet “prompts” for plays under the hashtag #tp (Twitter play) followed by a number: for example, “TWITTERPLAY ASSIGNMENT: Write a 1-tweet play that features A DECLARATION OF LOVE #tp387.”
  9. Muse, “140 Characters in Search of a Theater,” p. 51.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Measures of Vine user demographics that started counting at age 18 have estimated that half of Vine users were between 18 and 34, but any viewer can see that many users were below 18.
  12. Ágnes Heller, Immortal Comedy: The Comic Phenomenon in Art, Literature, and Life (Lexington, 2005), pp. 94–103.
  13. This is a subject for a different time, but another aesthetic element that older microthons share with the microthon platforms of Web 2.0 is the suggestion of game mechanics. Starting from its first staging in 1988, Too Much Light has never been a fixed script, but rather “a set of instructions” that generate a new experience with each performance: the audience chooses the order of the plays, the actors add new plays every week according to the results of two rolled dice, and a timer locks the actors into the 60-minute rule, which means the show ends unfinished if they run out of time. Or again, shows like Love and Information, Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, and 365 Days/365 Plays explicitly tell performers (and readers) to select or recombine scenes as they like. The results aren’t games, since the shows have no winning conditions (with the possible exception of Too Much Light), but they suggest something of the aesthetic experience of games by foregrounding player agency and generative constraint. The 2009 Twitter challenge by the New York Neo-Futurists did not stop at asking fans to create a one-tweet play. Rather, the troupe engaged with fans by regularly posting new constraints within which to write: “Write a full play (1-tweet) using at least 2 roles and a significant prop,” “something to do with a fish,” “an anachronistic robot,” and so forth. As Muse notes, these constraints were in “the group’s improvisational spirit, and to make the challenge even greater” (Muse, “140 Characters in Search of a Theater,” pp. 44-50). But they also participated in a productive format that is everywhere visible on the Web: the voluntary constraint. The connective aspect of connective media—the circulation of content via commenting, tagging, sharing, liking—encourages a whole culture of rule-bound games that users keep inventing out of whole cloth. The gamified design of many Web 2.0 platforms has helped to make amateur publishing more prolific than it has been at any point in history. Of the hundreds of writers who responded to the Neo-Futurists’ Twitter challenge, Muse writes, “Collectively, they have produced what is certainly the world’s largest collection of two-line plays, and to my knowledge the largest published collection of plays of any kind” (ibid., pp. 44-50). Even if we accept that just a tiny portion of the Web’s output approaches the condition of short-form theater, this is a very large and active corpus.
  14. John Tranter, “Very Rapid Accelertation: An Interview with Kenneth Koch,” Jacket, no. 5 (1998).
Featured image: Wake Me Up When I’m Famous (2016). Photograph by Alice Donovan Rouse / Unsplash