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James Breakwell, Twitter’s Funniest Dad, on How to Mine Humor From Parenting

"My jokes are a mix. Some are real, some are exaggerated, and some are made up. Most are at least inspired by my kids"

Anyone can get some Twitter giggles with a well-placed .gif, “you mad, bro?”, or a perfect *chef’s kiss* response to someone else’s dumb Tweet. But it’s much harder to be consistently funny, to hone a stand-alone voice and mine original humor from your day-to-day life. Even harder, is doing this in the world of parenting. There’s no shortage of terrain to mine: Kids are inherently funny; parenting has a lot of relatable ups and downs. But, as many, many, many failed attempts reveal, firing off that relatable or funny parenting tweet is actually pretty hard. It requires, not to get all grad school about it, a comedian’s brain and a poet’s ear for cadence and structure.

James Breakwell understands this. Better known by his Twitter handle @XplodingUnicorn, Breakwell is the Internet’s patron saint of funny parenting tweets. The comedian, author, and father of four daughters has amassed more than 1 million followers by firing off relatable, genuinely funny tweets about fatherhood and basically defined a often-imitated (but rarely replicated) dad joke style. Often written in a minimalistic back-and-forth dialogue between him and one of his children, Breakwell’s tweets encapsulate the weirdness and hilarity of being a modern parent who picks up on the strange, often charming things his children say. More impressive, they’re funny without being inappropriate or unkind to his kids. His Twitter character is that of a dad often in over his head but who lovingly embraces all of the insanity.

And it is a character. Well, sort of. Fatherly spoke to Breakwell, who recently released the comedic parenting book How to Save Your Child from Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else that Might Happen on an Average Tuesday, about his position as Twitter’s parenting joke expert, avoiding the pitfalls of “sharenting” that come with an online presence, and how he balances everything while raising four daughters.

You’re known to many as “the Internet’s funniest dad.” Quite the title. And one that’s well deserved. What made you decide to start chronicling conversations with your children on Twitter? Was there a moment where you first thought “This is too good not to share.”

When I first created my Twitter account, I wrote jokes about everything. I only had two kids at the time, and they weren’t yet old enough to completely take over my life. Everybody knows megalomania doesn’t start until age three. As I tweeted out my observations about my daily life, I quickly realized that the only jokes people related to were the ones about my kids. After that, it was a gradual process of my kids taking over my Twitter feed (and every waking moment of my time). One of the biggest moments in that transition was when my oldest daughter, who was two at the time, threw a fit in the middle of a crowded restaurant. She looked like she was trying to get rid of something that was stuck to her. It took us a minute to realize she was trying to get rid of her own shadow. It was the birth of my first viral tweet. That’s when it became my life’s mission to shamelessly exploit my kids for fame and profit. Not really. But it makes for a good origin story.

Fatherly IQ
  1. What is your biggest fear related to the coronavirus pandemic?
    Given mortality rates, I'm scared my parents will die.
    Given what we don't know, I'm scared my kids will get sick.
    Given the economic situation, I'm scared of the financial damage.
    Given the news, I'm scared I'll continue to be cooped up with family.
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You’ve in a sense defined the style of realistic dad humor on Twitter: Quick, script-like exchanges with your kids that have a funny punchline. Three to four sentences max. It’s replicated by all sorts of accounts, both popular and not. Is imitation here flattery?

I didn’t invent that format. I just did it over-and-over again until anyone who saw a tweet in that style thinks of me. I wouldn’t say I’m beating a dead horse. More like a dead unicorn. I love it when other people tweet funny conversations about their kids. It beats reading another angry tweet about politics.

What’s the key to being funny on Twitter? What do those who try to replicate your style get wrong? Obviously, they don’t have the luxury of listening to the wisdom spouting from your kids. But, from a writing perspective, what are some tips you have?

The secret to writing funny kid tweets is you can’t be mean. It seems like that should be obvious, but to a lot of people, it’s not. I’m not making fun of my kids. I’m celebrating their weirdness and the struggles that come with it. That’s why I play the straight man or the loser in almost all of those back-and-forth exchanges. A dad who puts himself down gets laughs. A dad who puts down his kids gets a visit from CPS.

Sharenting, as it’s called, is a modern-day parenting phenomenon. A lot of parents disclose everything about their kids. Where do you draw the line on what you share and what you don’t?  

I only share the parts of our lives that will make somebody else’s day a little better. Even on the worst days of my life, I can find a moment or two of humor that I can condense into a tweet. When you only see the funny moments, you get a distorted view of what parenting is really like. I edit out a lot of crying, most of it from me.

One of the best things about your Twitter account is that it’s obvious that you’re there and listening to your kids. You are present, you are having these moments with your kids where cleverness pops up. How do you try to be present for your family?

Physically existing in the same space as my kids is easy. Actually interacting with them is a bit harder. They’re constantly distracted by screens and toys and their never-ending battles with each other, and I’m not much better. The most important thing I can do is to put down what I’m working on and give them my full attention. It’s a safety thing. That way I know if there’s a block or an action figure flying at my head.

Do your kids know that you share the funny things they say on Twitter? How do you explain it to them?

My kids understand videos better than tweets. Out of all the social media platforms, I have the smallest presence on YouTube, yet my YouTube account is the only one that impresses my kids and their friends. They couldn’t care less about Twitter. They understand that I share stuff about them, but they only get interested when it comes to visual elements. They constantly ask me to take pictures of them when they do something they think is funny. They got the attention addiction gene from me.

Have your children ever been upset about something you’ve posted? Do you ever worry that, when they’re teenagers, they’ll be mortified by their words?

They’ve never been upset about anything I’ve posted. I stressed to them early on that there’s a difference between jokes and real life. The characters I write about are based on us, but they’re not us. It’s a simplified, punched-up version of our family designed to entertain a broad, general audience. That degree of separation gives me the space I need to avoid ruining my kids’ lives. For now.

Be real with me: Do your kids say all of these things or do you, as a comedy writer, punch up the stories for maximum delivery?

My jokes are a mix. Some are real, some are exaggerated, and some are made up. Most are at least inspired by my kids. I post videos on YouTube where I explain the real stories behind many of my tweets. I also write a weekly newsletter where I spend thousands of words telling elaborate, true tales about my family. But most people don’t have that kind of time. My average follower is fine with a quick 280-character joke that maintains the spirit of what my life is like without adhering perfectly to the real events.

In How to Save Your Child from Ostrich Attacks, Accidental Time Travel, and Anything Else that Might Happen on an Average Tuesday you offer 90 survival challenges to prepare the average parent. They’re all very funny. But if you had to choose one, which would be the most important and why?

The most important section is on ghosts. Many parents mistakenly believe that if their kid finds a spirit haunting their house, they have to move. Nothing could be further from the truth. Ghosts want peace and quiet, and a child is the opposite of that. Let your kid be themselves and they’ll drive the ghost away. It’s way more effective than an exorcism.

As a father of four daughters, you certainly have your hands full. But you also have found the time to publish books and grow a massive online following. How do you find time to balance fatherhood and work?

I created a secret device that gives me 48 hours in a day, but I’m not supposed to tell you about it. Oops. Also, I learned to multitask. Raising kids is my job. Writing about kids is also my job. I can do both of those things at the same time just by spending time with my kids. It’s efficient, if not always sanitary. There’s a reason my keyboard is perpetually sticky.

It can often be a challenge for parents who have larger families to devote equal attention to all their children. How do you devote attention to your kids? Do you try to schedule specific one on one time?

We don’t do a lot of one-on-one activities. The main reason I had four kids, besides exploiting them for internet points, was so that they would always have somebody to play with. They move through the house in a big group, sometimes playing, more often fighting in a giant battle royale. When we leave the house to do stuff, we usually go as a group. That way I know I should have exactly four kids with me, and if the headcount is off, I either lost one or mistakenly added an extra. No bonus kids, please.

As a father of daughters, what’s one of the most important lessons you want to teach your girls?

The most important lesson is that they can do anything boys can do, whether it’s being elected president or being the first Jedi to graduate from Hogwarts. Mainly the Hogwarts part.

It’s very evident that humor is healthy in your home. But, for fathers who might struggle to connect on that level, what’s the key to making kids laugh?

The key is to not take yourself too seriously. Also, it helps to get hurt. Nothing is funnier to a kid than a parent’s pain. I might be raising sadists.

What’s the most important piece of parenting advice you’ve ever received that you’d like to share with other dads?

Let your kids solve their own problems as much as you can. If you leave a kid to their own devices, they’ll usually work it out. Or burn down your house. You won’t know until you let them try.

Finally, to you, what’s the best part of being a dad?

The best part is having a house full of people. It’s constant chaos, but it’s my chaos. To me, that’s home.