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Q&A: Twitter comedian Jonny Sun on the voice of jomny, aliens, anxiety, and his new book

The Twitterverse can often feel like an angry and abusive politically charged melee, but there are those out there trying to counteract the negativity. Since joining the social-media site in 2009, Calgary-born Jonathan Sun has been penning the shortest of short-form jokes under the guise of an adorably innocent alien named Jomny Sun, who is “confuesed abot humamn lamgauge.” He’s amassed nearly 500,000 followers, including celebrities Will Arnett and Joss Whedon. When Sun met Broadway darling Lin-Manuel Miranda in person, Miranda was the one excitedly tweeting about him.

Lin-ManuelMirandaJomnySunIt’s an impressive feat for any comedian, but especially Sun, who is juggling his creative career while earning a PhD in urban studies from MIT. Sun, who already has degrees in engineering from the University of Toronto and in architecture from Yale, is also a playwright and artist. (Full disclosure: I was good friends with Jonny in high school, though we mostly lost touch after university.) This summer, he launched his first book, everyone’s a aliebn when ur a aliebn too (HarperCollins), based on his Twitter persona. He sat down with Q&Q during a stop in Toronto on his book tour.

When did you realize Twitter was your medium of choice?
It was in the middle of architecture school. Architecture was somehow more stressful and all-encompassing than engineering, and so I didn’t actually have time to do anything else I wanted to do. Twitter became the only place where I could just pop in for 10 or 15 minutes, read stuff, meet a bunch of people and try to write. Twitter was constrained – I wanted to write punchier jokes, and this kinda forced me to do that.

Do you ever feel constrained by this very distinct “jomny” voice you’ve created?
Not yet. I’ve tried to treat it not as a branded Twitter-account-influencer-type-thing, but as a writer, as a sketchbook or my notebook of things as I go throughout my day. I’ve found a place where I’m happy to tweet pure jokes or whatever, but also tweet honestly about my anxiety and depression, and just all the honest emotional stuff that I’m going through.

jomny sunWhat are you anxious about?
That’s a good question, what am I anxious about? … Everything (laughs). I’ve found, for whatever reason, as I grew up I got a lot more socially anxious. With the PhD, I was in a space where I was surrounded by all these really intimidating intellectual people, and I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. It really made me self-isolate, and that’s where the book came out of – like, if I have no control in this world, having a project I could have creative control over. But that was also the first time I started seeing a therapist for real, trying to work through some of these things, and I think it’s helped me a lot. There are also days when I just was really struggling and unable to get out of bed or look at the book, like, “I don’t know how to go on with this project.” It was a tough year.

So you are the porcupine.
I am absolutely the porcupine! (The porcupine is a character in his book who yearns to make great art, but feels too intimidated to do it.)

What was writing the book like?
It was supposed to take six or eight months, and it ended up taking one and a half years. That’s partially because I was trying to meet a deadline and tore my shoulder. And I’m still not fully 100 per cent, but it slowed down production for the second half of the book. So it was just a very taxing, long process.

What’s next for you?
I’d like to not do a “jomny the aliebn”–type project next, because I don’t want to shoehorn myself into anything. At this point, I’m in a recovery period; I have to get my energy before I think about doing another book. I think at this point I really just want to take some time. I haven’t had time to process what the book means, for me. I submitted it in May for the final draft, and it got published a month later, and I’m trying to grapple with that. I want some time off to see how I think about it.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.