Comedy by computer: who has last laugh?

An old-fashioned computer centre.
An old-fashioned computer centre.

The world of Tom Taylor, promoter of Harrogate’s Sitting Room comedy club and finalist in Nando’s New Comedian Of The Year 2014 at Edinburgh Fringe

Once upon an inexplicable time, a computer programmer thought it would be a good idea to run and promote a comedy night.

Tom Taylor.

Tom Taylor.

The programmer compèred it, yours truly opened it and a computer headlined it.

The gig wasn’t so much a gig as an experiment taking place in a laboratory placed, unfortunately, between a bar and some toilets - meaning inebriated and technologically unaware members of the public had to stumble through this exciting fusion of science and art to make room for more lager.

Those who remained, the observers, were as follows:

Two computer scientists interested in the minutia of computer programming, unaware of comedy or, in broader terms, humour, laughter or smiling.

One non-English speaker (or understander) who had come to the venue expecting ballet (this was communicated by a stunningly elegant mime) but had made some sort of navigational mistake and remained because it was now too late to get to the opera house (I surmised this last bit).

One Scottish man, asleep at the back.

The gig got off to a flying start with the programmer explaining his background, education and how he had come to create the Gig-A-Tron 5000 (yes, really) and how it had placed second in the FCE Competition of 2012.

What is the FCE Competition? Why it’s the Funniest Computer Ever Competition of course. At this point, 50 per cent of the audience were enraptured.

However, whenever he attempted a joke or a comic song he lost the crowd. Quickly becoming wise to this, he stopped telling jokes.

As I was introduced, the gig lost steam and continued deflating the more I talked, sang and wept. My appearance functioned as the experiment’s ‘control’.

I represented comedy, as performed by a human, allowing us to easily compare human comedy and computer comedy and evaluate the success of both at the end of the show.

I did not want to be evaluated at the end of the show. I did not need to be evaluated. I wasn’t being doused in bicarbonate of soda in order to spark a reaction. There was no reaction.

The level of audience interest silently decreased to 0 per cent. Or thereabouts.

I trudged off stage and the programmer returned pushing a laptop on a hostess trolley. The room didn’t exactly fall quieter, I had made this impossible, but you could feel the level of anticipation increase.

Even the ballet fan perked up thinking she may yet experience an experimental dance routine that brutally satirises our perilous reliance on artificial intelligence.

The programmer lowered the microphone and pointed it at the laptop’s speakers. He then pressed enter.

Stupidly it had not occurred to me that the computer’s routine would be written by the programmer. Gig-A-Tron 5000, adopting the voice of Microsoft Sam, delivered ten short jokes - some of which were repeated from the programmer’s opening set - arrogantly leaving 15 seconds between jokes for the anticipated laughter to stop.

There was no laughter.

As explained by the programmer at the start of the show, each of Gig-A-Tron’s jokes is tagged.

Thusly, his opening joke about monkeys and goats would be tagged: #monkey #goat #banana. The computer then registers the reaction, in decibels, to each joke.

After testing the water, so to speak, with his first ten, Gig-A-Tron calculates what material the audience would enjoy most. If a #wife joke provoked a lot of noise, he would reel off all the #wife jokes stored on his database.

The type of noise is immaterial, laughter, jeers, natural disasters all register the same.

Tragically for poor Gig-A-Tron, there was absolutely no noise. Not even a passing drunkard to give him a false positive.

And so, with nothing to calculate, Gig-A-Tron did a quick song (the Windows Shutdown sound) and turned off.

There was no evaluation that night.

Sitting Room Comedy Club returns to the St George Hotel, Harrogate on Wednesday, October 8 with Simon Evans, Stephen Carlin, Jonny Pelham and MC Phil Ellis.

Tickets and more information are available at www.sittingroomcomedy.com.

Tom Taylor tweets at @tomtails