Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats

Jonah Peretti is doing some great things at Buzzed, but his sister Chelsea ended 2014 strong too with this brilliant standup special for Netflix. I saw her perform as an opener for Sarah Silverman a few times at the Largo in Los Angeles when I lived there. She was good then, but this act showcases her after some level ups.

I think all the talk of House of Cards being based on proprietary Netflix viewing habit data is vastly overblown, but I do wonder if all the standup Netflix has funded is based on empirical proof of the repeat viewability of standup comedy (not to mention its relative low cost versus a TV series.

Comedic variant of the Turing test?

Someone has developed a robot stand-up comedian (h/t Marginal Revolution).

Katevas developed an algorithm for comic timing: tell a joke, wait two seconds to measure audio feedback from the crowd, and pause for laughter, holding for no more than five seconds. If the audience responds positively, encourage them; if not, RoboThespian might say “Hmm” or “Take your time.”

RoboThespian was also embedded with software called SHORE (Sophisticated High-speed Object Recognition Engine) to detect faces in the audience and identify their expressions. The program lets him know whether the crowd is enjoying themselves. If not, RoboThespian could look at them, point, and tell a joke at their expense. “If the whole show is bombing and everything is going terribly wrong,” Jackson said. “Should the robot change course, or should it just keep going like a dumb machine?”

Comedy is an art of precision. “The difference between an amateur and a professional is that it feels off the cuff, but it’s something I’ve worked very hard on,” the comedian Rob Delaney, the author of an eponymous new book, told me. “I have a narrative arc that I want to adhere to. Sure, I’ll make changes, but it’ll be eighty-per-cent similar.” He added, “I do a thing that a robot could do, which is: I listen to the room. That, I think, could be learned.”

Below is a YouTube video of RoboThespian performing live at a comedy club.

Okay, let's be honest (the robot shouldn't have any hard feelings, right?), Louis C.K. has less to worry about from RoboThespian than Gary Kasparov or Ken Jennings did from Big Blue and Watson.

Still, how and why the robot falls short is fascinating and instructive as to both the art of comedy and what it means to be human. A couple observations:

  • The vulnerability of the comedian is often critical to a joke. Since a robot can't really empathize with human emotions, it's difficult for us to buy that the robot really understands the pain of human situations he might discuss in a joke.
  • I still felt uncomfortable for the robot when some of his jokes fell flat. Maybe I was projecting my empathy for the programmer onto the robot? Perhaps a robot comedian can only be successful if it can first establish a persona or believable personal history. Maybe that can be as simple as making light of how badly he had bombed early in his career?
  • As outlined above, a big hurdle for robots which also applies in comedy is the ability to read other humans. What if all the humans in the crowd were fitted with bio-sensors that fed data up to the robot in real-time?
  • It might be easier to build a credible cartoon or animated comedian than a robot comedian. The stiff movements of the robot, its severely limited facial expression, and its lack of vocal inflection seem to leave it best suited to deliver deadpan jokes. It would also be helpful if those deadpan jokes were either really intelligent or naive. A robot of average intelligence is not interesting. Maybe feed it from the joke library of Mitch Hedberg?

Plagiarism in the age of the internet

One more case study on the impact of what the internet does best: distribute information. 

Twitter user @prodigalsam  has come under heavy fire for building up his Twitter follower count to over 100,000 by plagiarising the jokes of other comedians. He had reached 130,000 followers, though the recent controversy seems to have pushed that back down under 125,000, still a hefty number.

Given the massive volumes of text being indexed on the internet, plagiarism seems like an increasingly shaky proposition unless you're flying so far under the radar that no one notices.

Not a scientific study, just a hunch: fields where artists depend on originality to make a name for themselves are much more sensitive to enforcing norms around plagiarism. Magic and comedy are two fields where a code of honor is enforced with great intensity by the practitioners themselves.

As an example, read this great article I cited here a year ago in Esquire about Teller of Penn and Teller fame going after magicians who've stolen some of his tricks. 

TV's greatest comedy

I've been a bit slow on the draw recently, but I loved David Lipsky's essay comparing Seinfeld and The Simpsons in the semifinals of Vulture's bracket to determine TV's greatest sitcom of the past thirty years. Reading the essay was so nostalgic I immediately wanted to immerse myself in episode after episode of each series again. The Simpsons is the only one of the two still on air, but the sensibility of Seinfeld was so distinct that every tweet from the hilarious Twitter account Modern Seinfeld crystallizes in my brain with perfect clarity.

I'll let you click through to find out the winner, but one choice excerpt:

So what The Simpsons immediately offered was how the world looked to extremely intelligent people in whom high school had perhaps encouraged skepticism and unconfidence. The result is a chaos of noisy, less-intelligent people holding onto authority by bullying and jargon. Cops and doctors are incompetent; the bartender keeps caged pandas. No straight men; everyone is funny. It wasn’t so much an observational show as one written by ear. When Seinfeld does a parody movie title, it’s something like Sack Lunch or Agent Zero. You nod. Pretty good, yeah, that does sound like a movie. When The Simpsons does this, it’s so exact it stops you. A romantic comedy called Love Is Nice. Homer visits an experimental lab named the Screaming Monkey Medical Research Center. The show is so tight, these jokes come within 30 seconds of each other. The comedy of the particular dialect any job and worldview locks you into; it’s something that writing staff hears too. Lisa Simpson provides timely advice to an in-crisis TV producer. “That’s it, little girl,” he says. “You’ve saved Itchy and Scratchy!” A lawyer steps forward: “Please sign these papers indicating that you did not save Itchy and Scratchy.” Hideous space aliens, impersonating the presidential candidates, are unmasked before a startled crowd. “It's true, we are aliens. But what are you going to do about it? It’s a two-party system: You have to vote for one of us.” Human crowd-member: “Well, I believe I’ll vote for a third-party candidate.” Alien: “Go ahead — throw your vote away.”

What Seinfeld and David heard with special fidelity were the surprising things their heads said. The inner world, not the outer. George to Jerry: “She just dislikes me so much, it’s irresistible. A woman who hates me this much comes along once in a lifetime.” Jerry to Elaine: “You’re attracted to him because he can’t remember anything about you.” Elaine: “But that’s so sick.” Jerry: “That’s God’s plan. He doesn’t really want anyone to get together.” Jerry meets a woman — she’s more or less a female him — he can finally love, and reports, “I just realized; I know what I've been looking for all these years. Myself. I've been waiting for me to come along, and now I’ve swept myself off my feet.” A few scenes later: “I realized what the problem is: I can’t be with someone like me. I hate myself.”

Here's the guest judge's commentary on the finals, which pitted one of these two semifinalists against Cheers (which you can watch, in its entirety, on Netflix now).

Louis C.K.

I saw Louis C.K. do a standup set at Louis Davies Symphony Hall tonight. This was a stop on the tour that earned some fame when Louis C.K. announced he'd sell tickets only off of his website, at a fixed price of $45 a ticket. No ticket brokers allowed, and scalping the tickets above face value would be grounds for having your tickets revoked.

I'm not sure how seats were assigned, but I did log in first thing when the tickets went on sale to snag some for his first date in San Francisco. Some time later, I received an email with a link to print out my tickets, and I set them aside for the interim months before the show date.

Marie went to the theater straight from work, and as I was waiting in a cab line to get myself to the venue, she sent me a text: "Nice seats".

I arrived at the Symphony Hall and was pleasantly surprised to find us sitting in the second row, dead center. Furtively, I took this quick pic with my iPhone near the end of his set. Sitting close to the stage doesn't always matter, but for some types of performances, it does, like opera or theater or standup comedy, where the facial expressions convey much of the emotional through line. Louis C.K. (I'll keep referring to him by his full name as writing simply Louis or C.K. feels odd) didn't have any projection screens behind him to blow up his face, so I was happy to be able to see his goofy impressions up close.

Obviously, he's riding a wave of momentum right now, from the standup special he sold off of his website for $5 to his critically acclaimed, amazing self-titled TV show. It's for those reasons I'd like to think he was so self-assured on stage tonight. No flop sweat, no nervous tics. In fact, I can't ever remember a comedian that seemed so utterly relaxed on stage. Some comedians, like Chris Rock, seem to be on cocaine during their performances, and that live wire energy is core to their persona.

Since Louis C.K. plays a version of himself on his TV show, and since he often builds both his TV show and standup material around his persona as a sad sack divorced, balding, overweight middle-aged man, it's easy to confuse Louis C.K. the actual real-life standup comedian with his TV persona.

So it was supremely satisfying in a "revenge of those once less fortunate" way to see him stroll on stage and then be in utter command of the audience and his material from start to finish. He never  had any nervous breaks, throat-clearing pauses, or moments of frustration with either himself or the audience. No sweat under the spotlight, no moments when he lost his way and had to go for a drink of water to collect himself. When he wandered off of a joke for a detour joke and forgot which way he'd come, he seemed almost amused and talked his way back to the main route. He tried a bit about Jews that he wasn't happy with and flipped it into a joke: "I'm going to add on some extra material at the end to make up for this Jewish bit, don't worry, it didn't really...yeah..."

The connection between a standup comedian and his audience is tighter than that between almost any performer and their audience. Every joke is a moment of judgment, to be adjudicated by the dispensation of either laughter or silence, and so a standup set is a series of dozens and dozens of judgments rendered one after the other in rapid succession. It's the reason why a comedian who flails on stage stirs up such sympathy discomfort in the audience. When comedians feels themselves struggling, the audience feels complicit in withholding laughter. It causes the audience to feel an odd mixture of guilt and disgust at having been put in such a situation, and some comedians react badly when things are going bad and turn on the audience, trying to shift all responsibility for the fiasco on the people sitting in the darkness.

Watching Louis C.K. tonight, I felt none of that nervous tension. He was so collected and controlled that the emotional wire connecting comedian and audience put us in a state of relaxed anticipation.

More than that, the audience was thoroughly on his side from the start. Given how he's forgone higher budgets to retain creative control over his TV show and how he's spent the past year offering up his great material for low prices (DRM-free in the case of downloadable content) through his website, Louis C.K. has become a beloved figure. He was admired before for being a great comedian (I have no hesitation in declaring him the best standup comedian working right now), but he has engendered a real deep affection from his fans now.

Lastly, he's clearly in a better place in his life, and his material reflected that. He admitted that he'd come into his own. He waved a selective circle over his entire body with his hand and said, "This doesn't work too great at age eighteen, but at 45, with some more income, this is not bad." He spoke with some satisfaction about his relationship with his ex-wife ("You know what's great about divorce? It's forever. Marriage is for as long as you can stand it, but divorce is forever. I'm not telling you not to get married, if you love someone you should go ahead and get married, but then get a divorce.") and his children ("I'm a great dad, very listening, kind, and you know why? I get to say goodbye to them every week.")

But don't mistake for this happy state of affairs for toothless comedy. The joy of his material is still how he manages to bring you to the border of what seems inappropriate and then make it feel logical and safe to just hop right over it with him, but it comes from a happier and more enlightened age. He spent time making fun of his own ridiculousness, like his incidences of road rage, and put it in some sociological context (as in Zimbardo's Stanford Prison Experiment, being in an automobile changes us into homicidal assholes). He managed to counsel us to be more tolerant to each other (notably towards gays) while still making us laugh, like some folksy philosopher king. And he was able to wrap it up with a perfect little sequence he called "of course...but maybe...". It was the perfect encapsulation of his comedic ethos.

The best comedians are our keenest and most honest observers of the human condition, like Chris Rock on relations between the races or between men and women. Louis C.K., riding a wave of success, is heading not into a middle-age crisis but a middle-age coronation, and in doing so while continuing to put out so much great material, is showing us that one doesn't have to be an angry failure to dispense wisdom as the court jester.