Sammy Rhodes is a campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) at the University of South Carolina, but he's best known by his Twitter handle, @prodigalsam. Though Rhodes, 32, spends much of his week meeting with students, preaching, and teaching, you won't find RUF-related info on his Twitter feed. Instead, it's a steady stream of hilarious, self-deprecating comedy that's gained him a six-digit follower count, the kind reserved mostly for celebrities and news organizations: 128,000 and growing.
CT contributor Joel Oliphint spoke with Rhodes by phone about his progression from gospel tweeter to comedy tweeter, his book project, and whether he really does spend most of his time thinking about pizza. (Updated the afternoon of June 3 to include Rhodes's response by email to the recent Twitter dust-up over his "stealing" jokes.)
Update: On Friday, June 7, 2013, Rhodes announced via Twitter that he would "step away from Twitter for a season, for the sake of my family, ministry, & own soul … ."
When did you first start tweeting?
I think it was 2009. I started trying to be a gospel tweeter, like Scotty Smith and Jared Wilson—pastors who were sometimes funny but mainly just tweeted quotes and encouragements about the gospel. I did that for probably the first two years. Every now and again I would try to say something funny. Finally a friend, probably sometime in 2011, said, "You should just try to tweet funny things. I think that's what Twitter is for." That was a lot more interesting to me than gospel tweeting.
But also, when my wife was about four or five months into the pregnancy [of my youngest daughter], we found out she had a condition called Dandy-Walker, which is a neurological condition. Her cerebellum wasn't developing like it should. There's a really wide spectrum of outcomes. On the worst end of it, it can cause severe motor disabilities. And at the other end, you may not even notice that someone has it. They couldn't tell us where on that spectrum she was going to come out, and inevitably the doctors brought up the option of abortion. Tig Notaro is a comic I like, and she says, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy." I think that's true. I needed something to laugh at, so I thought, well, I'll just try to be funny.
You're quite prolific and remarkably consistent. Do you have a goal for how many tweets you try to get out per day?
My goal is to do five to 10. But typically I've been doing 15 to 20. No more than 20, because the people in RUF that I work for start to get concerned. The way I write a tweet is spontaneous. It just comes and I write it and send it. I literally spend maybe two, three minutes on it, but people can't know that unless they watch me do it. So I can see how they think I'm on there all day long. Some of my bosses get concerned that I'm spending my time well. The reality is, it's in between meetings from my phone.
Whenever I have a big bump in my following, I'll repeat tweets that I've done before. I've always been a repeater. At least once a day someone will say, "You've done that tweet before." I wrote a Tumblr post about it, saying why I do it. It's the same reason we like show reruns.
You've been accused this year of "stealing tweets." What happened and how have you responded?
When I started trying to be funny on Twitter, I was like a kid getting his first acoustic guitar. 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.
At face value [some of the comparisons to prior tweets] look pretty bad unless you know that I took several of the tweets down immediately when someone pointed out that someone else had written something similar. Others of the tweets I supposedly "stole" were from people I had never heard of or followed. There are maybe two tweets that were definitely remixes of a tweet that I loved that have since been taken down out of respect.
The bottom line is I'm not the most original guy in the world, but I'm definitely not a joke thief. I can say that with a clear conscience. Also, after the Patton Oswalt attack, whenever my kids ask to watch Ratatouille now I have to look away so they don't see me gently sobbing.
You're consistently self-deprecating and often pretty vulnerable. You poke fun at yourself, particularly about your eating habits and awkwardness in social situations. How much of that is genuine struggles in your life and how much is comedic device?
I would say ninety percent of it is pretty true to life. Typically if I'm tweeting about pizza, I really am eating pizza. That's a real struggle for me. Social anxiety, too—just feeling awkward. I think I feel more awkward than I am, although that's debatable.
@prodigalsam and the real Sammy are definitely different. @prodigalsam will say things that I don't have the courage or the extraverted tendencies to say. But I would say they're actually pretty close, especially when @prodigalsam is being vulnerable. That really is me.
What has Twitter taught you?
It's easier to be vulnerable on Twitter than it is on Facebook. I love it when people are vulnerable. I think it's good for me and everyone if I'm vulnerable. One of the biggest responses that I've had on Twitter is when I've posted a talk I did on my struggle with depression. It was really encouraging. It seemed to really resonate. I think we're all hungry for people to be real and talk about their struggles.
It's also confirmed my view of comedy, and our thirst and need for comedy. Christians are learning that we have to be respectful and humble with our own worldview. I think one of the best ways to do that in the Christian life, and one of the best ways to promotes actual, sincere, humble discussion, is comedy. Some of my favorite preachers and writers use humor in a self-deprecating way. [Charles] Spurgeon used to say it's better to preach to a laughing man than a sleeping one. I think in this weird way Twitter has confirmed that comedy is a helpful way of humanizing and of being human.
I did this podcast interview with Emily Volman. She has a comedy podcast, and she was fascinated by this idea that I'm a Christian and pastor and yet drawn to this comedy world. We were able to have this open, good conversation about Jesus, Christianity and the church in a way that I'd never have been able to have without humor and comedy.
For a long time I was afraid of letting these followers know I'm a pastor, and Volman asked me, "Why are you shy about it?" I said part of my fear is that as soon as I say I'm a Christian pastor, there are going to be so many things lumped into the perception of what a Christian pastor is. I've been slow to put that out there. She said, "I wish you'd talk about it more because I find it fascinating that you're funny and also there's this faith behind you that makes you, you." That conversation helped me be more intentional. That's part of why I do the Q&As on Friday nights. People always ask that question, and it gives me a chance to say it and for everyone to see it.
I do wrestle with how to do this as a Christian. Some people are offended that I'm clean. I don't cuss or talk about sex or whatever. It's much harder to be funny without being vulgar. There are times when I do wish I could say "d—n" or "s—t" on Twitter, because there are times when it would really add to the joke. I've wrestled with that. I feel like, with my job and my students, it's probably better for me not to.
Your students—how many of them know you're also @prodigalsam? Or are those worlds separate?
We've got like 100, 150 students who come to RUF. I would say last year probably 20 or 30 of them knew I was @prodigalsam. Now pretty much all of them do. I've also run into students on campus who follow me on Twitter but have never come to RUF. So I've tried to reach those worlds, too, and use Twitter as an invitation to come. It hasn't worked as well, though. I've thought about this a lot. I think part of what we like on Twitter is that those things are separate. That's the bad side of Twitter. We can enter other people's worlds without actually entering into them.
Joel Oliphint (@joeloliphint) is a freelance writer in Columbus, Ohio.