Follow Friday
Bigoted biscuits, stand-up heroin, and Twitter politicians

Zack Bornstein (Comedian)

What is it like to be the most popular person on Twitter for a day? Comedy writer Zack Bornstein can tell you — he's been that person three times, thanks to his jokes about politics and current events that frequently go viral.

"Finally some good news," he tweeted in June 2020, on one of those three days. "Scientists discovered a treatment that can reduce COVID19 transmission by 70%, and its just a piece a cloth you wear in front of your dumb f**king face."

On today's episode of Follow Friday, Zack talks with Eric Johnson about the funny people he wants to be friends with, why comedians like to work together, and the real government official who looks like he "could pick you up by your throat and lift you off the ground in a movie."

Follow us:
- Zack is @ZackBornstein on Twitter and Instagram
- This show is @followfridaypod on Twitter and Instagram
- Eric is @heyheyesj on Twitter

Who Zack follows:
- Patti Harrison
- Ben Marshall
- Jess Dweck
- John Fetterman

Rate Follow Friday: LoveThePodcast.com/FollowFriday

Theme song written by Eric Johnson, and performed by Yona Marie. Show art by Dodi Hermawan. Additional music by Purple Planet Music.
Full transcript of this episode
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ZACK BORNSTEIN: Whatever joke I have, she has a joke that's better. She always has it in fewer words with funnier details, just like crisper and smarter.

ERIC JOHNSON: OK, so fewer words are funnier. Right, got it. Let's keep this quick: Comedian Zack Bornstein. Today! Follow Friday!

[ad + theme song]

ERIC: I'm Eric Johnson. Welcome to Follow Friday, a show about the best people on the internet and why you should follow them. If you're new to the show, welcome! Every week, I talk to the internet creators I admire most about who they follow online. These include podcasters writers, comedians, musicians, and more. They have amazing taste and will guide us to the people they find fascinating, who we should be following, too.

Today on the show is Emmy-nominated comedian Zack Bornstein, who has written for TV shows like Saturday Night Live and for outlets like the New Yorker and McSweeney's. If you're a Twitter addict like I am, though, you have definitely seen one of Zack's jokes about the news. On three different occasions, one of his tweets has been the most popular tweet in the world on that day.

So I am especially excited to hear about who he's following while the rest of us are following him. You can find him on Twitter @ZackBornstein, and you can follow along with us today. Every person Zack recommends will be linked in the show notes and in the transcript at followfridaypodcast.com. Zack, welcome to Follow Friday!

ZACK: Hey, thank you! I appreciate it. That's a very nice intro.

ERIC: Well, there's no shortage of comedians — or, at least, people who think they are comedians on Twitter. And so when something big happens in the news, it's off to the races, right? Everyone's just rushing to get something out. But what do you do? Do you sit on a joke and workshop it, or do you just post stream of consciousness, as soon as you think of something funny?

ZACK: I wish I workshopped ... Like, anytime I think about something for more than three minutes, it's usually a terrible tweet.

ERIC: [laughs]

ZACK: 'Cause then, I'm like forcing it and I'm like ... any time I've had anything go well, it just popped into my head, I tweeted it, and then I was like, "Oh, okay. People like that." But anytime I'm like, "OK, is this word, or this word ...?" then all of the sun is ... it's just like I've sucked all the joy out of it.
ERIC: [laughs] All right, well let's find out who's Zack Bornstein follows online. Like I said, if you want to follow along with us, take a look at the show notes.

So Zack, before the show, I gave you a list of categories, and I asked you to tell me four people you follow who fit in those categories.

Your first pick is in the category "someone you don't know, but want to be your friend." You said Patti Harrison, who is on Instagram at @party_harderson. Patti is an actor who has been in shows like Search Party, BoJack Horseman, and I Think You Should Leave. So talk about her and why you want her to be your friend.

ZACK: She's just so funny, it's absurd. And she actually got banned from Twitter because of this joke where she changed her name to Nilla Wafers by Nabisco.

ERIC: Oh, that was her!

ZACK: Yeah.

ERIC: Oh, no! Explain what happened here.

ZACK: I forget what the importance of the day was, but Oreo tweeted — just the Oreo brand account tweeted — "trans people exist." Which ... yes, very true, very good thing to say, but it was like part of like a marketing campaign, so people were. Like kind of s**ting on them.

And so Patti changed her name to Nilla Wafers by Nabisco, and then started replying, like, "Where's your proof, hun?" Saying like, "We are pansexual"; saying "Trans women are men"; "If you are bisexual, we do not want your business."

And just kind of like all the like dumb s**t people say online, but kind of dialed up to a thousand and it was just so funny. It was just one of the million things that Patti does. She just seems so cool and so fun. And I just hope to one day be cool enough that she would be my friend.

ERIC: Yeah, she walks a fine line, at least in her Instagram posts, between earnest self-promotional stuff and making people laugh. Like, I was looking at, there's this clip of her giving an interview for this year's Sundance Film Festival, which was virtual. She's promoting a new movie called Together Together. And she says she has some shocking allegations to make about the film's director, just total deadpan, quiver in her voice...

PATTI HARRISON: "Nikole Beckwith would fart and blame it on me on set. And everyone thought it was me. And that was really hard, 'cause I went to HR multiple times. And then they would say, 'No, we know you're the farter.' And it was hell to work on that film. I'm not supposed to say that, because we're in the legal battle."

ERIC: So, is that a familiar line for you, as someone working in comedy? Can you talk a little bit about how you draw that line between making people laugh and promoting the stuff you're working on?

ZACK: Yeah. I mean, that's always kind of a tough balance. I'm terrible at it. And I think a lot of times. I have to either be like, "This is a joke, or this is a promo" just because ... Some people try to mix them, and it works, and they're brilliant at it like Patti, but I just feel like if I'm promoting something, I just like have to be earnest, or it seems like I'm making fun of the thing I did, or the people I'm working with.

And I just, I'm not good at balancing that line, but I'm working on it and Patti and some other folks have kind of ... Bess Kalb is really good at that too, of like ... She's got this brilliant book that she wrote, and she always has the funniest promos about it. Dana Schwartz is really good at that, too. So I got to keep learning from them.

ERIC: There's something kind of admirable, though, about what Patti did, just burning her Twitter account. She got banned permanently for the Nabisco thing?

ZACK: I think so.

ERIC: Oh my God.

ZACK: I's something that some Twitter comedians ... I know Jaboukie's sent it a few times, and it's just like the ultimate joke. It's just like saying, "This joke is good enough to like throw away hundreds of thousands of followers and everything I've built." It's a very brave thing to do.

ERIC: I remember seeing, I think this was like in November ... Ira Madison III — who works at Crooked Media, I think — he's verified or he was verified, and he changed his name and his picture to "Beto O'Rourke" and said, "If Biden wins Texas, I'll release the nudes." I'm pretty sure he was permanently banned for that.

ZACK: Yeah. I mean, I get it from a Twitter perspective, but you also wish you could go to the Twitter headquarters and be like, "Come on! It's worth it."

ERIC: "It was a good joke!" Well, on the topic of you wanting to be friends with Patti, we are nearing the point where we're going to get out of lockdown, we're going to start seeing friends again. We're going to have to learn how to talk like normal people again.

So, something that I've always wondered, maybe you can answer this, is what is it like when a group of comedians actually hangs out for real? No microphones, no cameras, none of that. Like, are you all trying to make each other laugh? Is it just deadpan serious? What is it like?

ZACK: I mean, I would say ... One, I can only speak for myself, and two, it's kinda like any other group of humans. So I think when you don't know each other as well, if it's like, a group of comedians hanging out backstage at a show, or meeting people for the first time at dinner, it's very much like everyone's trying to be the funny one. "You guys know I'm funny, right?" "You guys know I'm cool and good?"

Once you're actually close with people, it's like anyone else. There's not as much pressure to make sure they know you're funny or whatnot. And I think it just comes down to, you know, sometimes it's a fun situation and sometimes it's a bummer and you know, you act accordingly, like a human being.

ERIC: That was Patti Harrison, who's on Instagram @party_harderson. Let's move on to your next follow. I asked you for someone who's super talented, but still under the radar, and you said another comedian, Ben Marshall, who's on Twitter @NotBenMarshall. So, when I opened his profile, I realized that I had definitely seen one of his videos, but why don't you explain who Ben is and what he does.

ZACK: Yeah, well, he's becoming very much on the radar now. He had, I think, one this week that went bonkers with like 200,000 likes or something, but he just does the funniest videos. It's kind of in the genre of the front-facing quick-cut character videos that people do, but he has someone shooting it.

It has this very fun, dynamic style with a lot of like whip pans and zooms. And his characters are just so f**king good. Like, the hit rate on it, 100 percent of them are funny. He had this one, he was like " guy who got vaccinated, but it was clearly a fake vaccine" called doombreaka.

ERIC: [laughs] That's the one I saw, one of the ones I saw.

ZACK: Yeah, or there was one where he was announcing layoffs to his company on Zoom, but he accidentally had his Auto-Tune on.

BEN MARSHALL [auto-tuned]: "Unfortunately, our company has been hit extremely hard by budget cuts, and we are going to have to be laying off about 40 percent of the staff today. And if you're on this call, then ... I'm sorry, am I Auto-Tuned? Are you guys hearing that?"

ZACK: He does this thing where it's just, it's someone who's full of joy and optimism, just this huge smile the whole time, even though they're saying the craziest thing, and clearly hiding some internal sadness. I just think he's brilliant. He just has such a high hit rate with these videos.

ERIC: Yeah, the vaccinated one, he's like grinning the whole time through, and it's all of his roommates are trying to tell him like, "No, you didn't get a real vaccine!" And he's just smiling and being like, "Well, I hope it's fine! They knocked me out for three hours! Hope everything turns out OK."

This may be something that it's completely different for him than for you, but kind of another another comedy question, which is that he's doing these videos with, I guess, his roommates, who are helping him make them; they're acting in it as well. And you've also done a lot of stuff where you're working, you know, in writers' rooms and on TV shows with big teams. Could you speak a bit to sort of the collaborative side of comedy? Like, when you're making stuff for the internet or for TV, how does it work to make videos of the caliber that Ben's doing here?

ZACK: There's so many different ways to do it, but at least for me, I just find that things are a million times better when you're collaborating and bouncing off of each other. It's just so much harder to write in a vacuum by yourself and be like, "I don't know. I think that's funny." As opposed to, if you're working with friends, you're saying something and you're getting in real time if it's funny or not, and you're almost kind of improvising it together and then just writing down, finding the pathway and always going in some crazy direction that you wouldn't've found by yourself.

And comedy is just such an inherently collaborative thing. And I think that's what sometimes make standup hard is that your only chance is to bounce off the audience and stuff like that. And sometimes, you can talk to friends about it, but it always feels like such an ask, to be like, "Hey, can you help me out with these?" I actually really, in college, we had a standup comedy group and we would all workshop each other's jokes like we were in a writer's room, and it was my favorite thing 'cause it was like, we would all group write all of our sets, but the premises would come from the different comedians.

And it just felt like it was just making everyone better 'cause you're learning how to pitch on other people's jokes. Your stuff is getting better. It just made the shows a lot richer and had like good throughlines. So I really miss something like that. And I think it's just so essential for comedy stuff to collaborate and just have fun with other folks.

ERIC: Yeah, doing standup, I feel like, must be the hardest form of comedy, especially if you haven't had the opportunity to workshop anything, because you were just getting real time feedback on whether or not your personality is funny or not. [laughs]

ZACK: [laughs] That's the thing standup is like ... I feel like with sketch and improv and all that, it's very much "I'm a character and this is my writing. Do you think this ...?" But with standup, it's like, "Do you like me as a human being? Am I funny as a human?" So if it goes well, it's like heroin, it's just like ... I've never taken heroin. But it just, it feels great. They're just like, "You! You, I accept. I accept you as a human." And you're like, "Oh, validation that I never got as a kid! This is good!" And then when it doesn't go, well, you're like, "Oh, they don't like me as a human being."

ERIC: Oh, no.

ZACK: "I am a pure failure." So it just, it does the highest highs and the lowest lows for me.

ERIC: Yeah. Well, anyway, Ben's videos are amazing. My favorite of his was one where it's, "POV: We're on a date together and you just went to the bathroom for a really long time." That one, I was cracking up because of self-recognizance, since I have definitely been that guy ... at least, up to a point in the video, maybe not to the extent that he goes. [laughs]

ZACK: Yeah, he's great.

ERIC: Anyway, that was Ben Marshall, who's on Twitter @NotBenMarshall. Coming up, Zack will talk about the other Twitter comedian who inspires him, and why he follows the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, even though Zack lives in LA. But first, we're going to take a quick break. Back in a minute.

[ads]

ERIC: Welcome back to Follow Friday! Zack Bornstein, I asked you for someone who inspires you, and you said Jess Dweck, who is on Twitter @TheDweck. She is a TV writer who has worked on shows like The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Big Mouth and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. So, tell us about her and why she inspires you.

ZACK: Jess is unbelievable. She and I have, I guess in terms of like content and things we're talking about, very similar ... the kind of comedy/politics overlap. But whatever joke I have, she has a joke that's better. It's like, she always has it in fewer words with funnier details, just crisper and smarter. And I just like always try it, like when I'm writing my tweets, I'm like, "OK, good, could this possibly be as good as Jess's? No, of course not!"

ERIC: [laughs]

ZACK: "But can I make it with fewer words?" You see her stuff, she has like a hundred thousand-plus tweets just 'cause it's all brilliant. And just in terms of just like pure joke-writing, as few words with as much meaning, I don't know if you can beat her. It's just so good.

ERIC: I was looking at her Twitter timeline and March 7th, the day of the big Oprah interview with Meghan and Harry, she tweeted, "You know you f**ked up when you're making everyone side with an actress who married a prince." [laughs] I think that's the best thing I saw coming out of the Oprah interview. That's so good.

ZACK: One of my favorites of hers was when Trump had that photo with him doing his little jazz hands behind that table of hamburgers. And she said, "This is the news photo that would make a returning time traveler realized they f**ked something up. And it's just like, I just think about that one all the time. And it's just so funny. This other one was like, "If you work at Mar-a-Lago, how do you not show up in Trump's bedroom at 3:00 a.m. dressed as a ghost in chains?"

ERIC: [laughs]

ZACK: This is from 2017. I was just like, she's so good.

ERIC: Oh my God, that's amazing.

ZACK: I'm sure I tried it to do some version of all these jokes, like around the same time. And hers is always better.

ERIC: Have you ever talked to her about the fact that you are kind of both in this space of riffing on the news?

ZACK: We've met a couple of times and she's really nice and awesome. We haven't really talked about Twitter much.

ERIC: "You're just passing by each other in the hallway, just under your breath, "hate you," "hate you too." No.

ZACK: I don't hate her! She's great!

ERIC: Yeah, I do wonder though ... it seems like you have a very healthy attitude towards this. I think if I were to be in the space that you two are that I would just be like really insanely competitive and jealous. And that's not, that would not be a good thing for me.

ZACK: Oh, well, it feels pointless to be jealous of on Twitter. Cause it's like, there's no ...

ERIC: The points don't matter.

ZACK: ... no limit. Well it's maybe that if, let's say the points do matter, it's not limited. There's no maximum number of likes. It's not like ore or money. It's a limitless resource.

ERIC: Good point!

ZACK: So someone else getting likes does not impinge on you getting it. Cause I could just go on right now and throw out 10,000 likes and retweets on things and it doesn't affect what anyone else does. It's a limitless resource that we all want and can all give out, but still are somehow stingy with, I guess.

ERIC: That's a very good philosophy. So since Jess inspires you, what's an example of something that you've learned from following her, from watching her career? Is there anything that comes to mind of something specific that she has taught you how to do, or some way she's made you think differently about what you do?

ZACK: I think she's really good at having a very powerful joke in as few words as possible. Like I was mentioning before, sometimes I have tweets, I'm like, "Ah, this is a good joke, but I just feels ..." The term we use in the writer's room is "sweaty."

ERIC: Sweaty?

ZACK: Yeah, it's like, you're like trying too hard to get to the joke. It's just in so many words, and you're like really going out of your way to get to this joke and it just feels sweaty. Whereas, you know, she had like a tweet that was like those guys with torches when they did the white supremacist rally. And it was just a quote saying, "WHERE IS THE CLITORIS?"

ERIC: [laughs]

ZACK: And just them chanting like that. And it was just four words. It's just like, and it just like tells such a story.

ERIC: Well, that was Jess Dweck, who is on Twitter @TheDweck. We have time for one more follow today. Zack, I asked you for someone who's an expert in a very specific niche you love. You said John Fetterman, who's on Twitter @JohnFetterman. And as far as I can tell, he has never written for any TV shows, so we have a combo breaker here, but he is still pretty famous in certain circles. Talk about who John is and what he does.

ZACK: So John is the current lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. And he has recently announced that he's running for a Senate seat in Pennsylvania. He's just like, he's so funny, 'cause if you just looked at him, you'd think he was like a bouncer. He's like 6'6", maybe.

ERIC: He's scary!

ZACK: I don't know how much he weighs, but he just looks gigantic. He'd be like a lineman or like the guy — not to be mean to him, 'cause he's like the sweetest guy — but like the guy who would like beat you up in prison or something, or like a prison guard or something. He just could like pick you up by your throat and lift you off the ground in a movie. He just kind of has this look and I can't tell if he plays into it or not. I think maybe a tiny bit.

He just has this look, but he's has such good policies. Like he's like very LGBT+-positive and supportive. And he was very much about legalizing weed before other people were doing that. And he's very pro-union, very pro-raising the minimum wage, just like this great progressive guy, but very much his look does not match it.

And the interesting thing is he's just so funny on Twitter. He's got that kind of AOC or Ted Lieu
irreverence that feels kind of like casual, but he's actually funny. I got to know him a tiny bit just 'cause I had a tweet when there was this guy — Harlan Hill, I think his name is? Yeah, Harlan Hill. He's this s**ty little GOP strategist who was claiming all sorts of fraud and he just looks like ... He's little and wears bowties.

ERIC: Oh, I think I've seen a picture of this guy, yeah.

ZACK: Yeah, just kinda doughy Nazi youth type. And he was saying he was going to like round up his
boys and go to war in Philly and, you know, start beating people up, things like that.

ERIC: Go to war in a different state! Don't don't go to war with John Fetterman's.

ZACK: And so I tweeted his picture, which is very silly, next to Fetterman looking very intimidating and said, "The guy the GOP is sending to war in Philly versus the actual lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania."

ERIC: [laughs]

ZACK: And Fetterman reposted that with a GIF, like "Live from Philly," and it was a wrestler choke-slamming a little guy. And then we just talked a tiny bit, and he just seemed like an awesome human being. You know, he says things like, someone was talking about how great it is that the Dow was soaring to record highs. And normally, politicians would jump all over this: "Oh, what a great sign of the economy." But he responded, "Oh, that's great. But the minimum wage is still real s**tty."

ERIC: Yeah.

ZACK: And it just felt like such a normal human thing to say, you know, not being so polished and just kind of connecting with what his constituents actually want. And I think that is a trend that I think is heading in a positive direction on Twitter.

ERIC: Is that the specific niche that you were thinking of him as an expert in, how to do politics well on Twitter?

ZACK: I think so, yeah! How to be a politician, but still sound like a real, normal human being. I was going to say there's a lot of politicians who I really respect and love and do great progressive things, but they just don't sound like humans when they talk.

ERIC: Mm-hm.

ZACK: Like, they still just sound like ... You hear the consultants shaping their words, as they're talking, you just hear everything feeling very like they ran it by all sorts of advisors and stuff. And I think when you have these people who can give you a peek into what it's actually like to govern... the way AOC does, where she does these live streams about what it takes to write a bill and go over a bill and pass it.

It's such a black box that we have no idea, as regular folks, how that stuff actually works. So getting that glimpse from someone who feels like a normal human feels like a very good, important way to get people more involved and excited about that stuff.

ERIC: Yeah, it really is. It's such a rare skill and I hope we see more people like them in a lot of different dimensions in the future. That was John Fetterman, who's on Twitter @JohnFetterman. And if the whole Senate thing doesn't work out for him, then maybe Zack can get him a job in Hollywood. We'll see.

Zack, thank you for sharing your follows with us today. Before we go, let's make sure our listeners know how to find you online. Where do you want them to follow you?

ZACK: I would say just Twitter and Instagram or both @ZackBornstein. And that's probably about it.

ERIC: Cool! Well, you can find me on Twitter @HeyHeyESJ and this show on Twitter or Instagram at @FollowFriday.

And please visit LoveThePodcast.com/FollowFriday. That's where you can go to leave us a rating or a review, and you should do those things, because when you're looking at a new podcast, you're more likely to give it a chance if you see that other people have already checked it out.

Follow Friday's theme music was written by me and performed by Yona Marie. Our show art was illustrated by Dodi Hermawan. That's all for this week. This is Eric Johnson, reminding you to talk about people behind their backs. And when you do, say something nice. See you next Friday!


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