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Can Robots Do Stand-Up Comedy?

If you’re old enough to remember Spitting Image, the TV satire show using exaggerated, caricatured latex puppets of the great and the good in public life, you might have thought such humour was immune from the developments of interactive technology.

Not so. The makers of the original series (1984-96) led by Chris Chapman, who was former head of research and development with the show, are raising over half a million pounds to create an online interactive show called Phyzog.tv.

It will be accessible through mobile apps and Twitter via technology which brings animations to phones in seconds. The project will be interactive, so members of the public can suggest sketches and ideas, and the brains behind it think inventive people will queue up to lampoon the famous.

Mr Chapman said “I could dine out on people’s desire to lampoon our political leaders for the rest of my life’. The original, a Sunday night TV favourite, used to poke sometimes quite savage fun at the government, opposition, US President Ronald Reagan, Royal Family, church leaders and celebrities.

It portrayed Mrs Thatcher as a strong, almost dominatrix in a suit and her successor John Major as totally grey. The Queen Mother was an alcoholic. Union leaders, political commentators and many national treasures were portrayed as generally spineless, unlovely people.

A Good Investment

Audiences loved it. Roger Law and Peter Fluck, the co-creators of the idea made their names and fortunes. They are seeking a television application for the technology to raise more funding, so a contemporary, digitalised Spitting Image could arrive.

Fluck has promised to invest in this venture, which if successful will see the technology applied to marketing brands interactively through mobiles or any other use people see for it, as it will be licensed out. He called it ‘new technology for satire in the 21st century’.

What is also different about this project, is that they are using Crowdcube, a peer-to-peer finance site which allows small investors to put relatively modest sums (perhaps just £100) into any number of start ups or business expansions looking for funding.

Companies a little off the wall are rarely eligible for mainstream bank assistance, and investors are wary of losing their savings in untested projects overall, but like a flutter on one or two left-field ideas, which might just work.

This is crowd-sourcing in action, and to date Crowdcube have raised over two million pounds for developing companies, spread over hundreds of investors. Phyzog.tv expects to achieve an £8.5 million turnover within four years and profits that would more than repay a modest investment now.

Risky Robotics

Perhaps a little more risky would be investing in trials of robots that can make people laugh (as opposed to make them tear their hair out). US news channel CNN reported in February 2012 on a test performance by Data, a small robot comedian in Pittsburgh.

He/it had a voice like a ‘geeky adolescent boy with helium-sucking addiction’ and told jokes about the Swiss army, a doctor-patient gag and old jokes lifted from others. The audience held up green or red cards reflecting their opinions as the ‘performance’ went on, and his sensors responded, changing jokes and styles.

It’s part of an experiment by social roboticists to connect people to technology, but it struggled to recreate the improvisational, responding to changing circumstances that the average stand-up does instinctively. Humans can ‘read’ others and situations. A laptop with sensors can’t do that.

Indeed, the pressure from actual performances not going to plan can have a beneficially creative effect on entertainers.

Robots have a way to go, although computers can generate new material quickly. The human touch comes in that we don’t just draw on our personal history beginning, developmentally, the moment we are born, but absorb the history and experiences of previous generations too. Artificial intelligence systems have insufficient memory to replicate us in that respect.

In the meantime enjoy the jokes, the banter and satire, spoofs and pastiches that mark us out from the androids, as long as we can.

Not to be left behind in terms of the future of human delivered comedy, that branch of showbiz has already begun to access modern communications. Most comedians blog and Twitter, to promote forthcoming shows or simply to raise something of a (controversial) profile to help sell more DVDs. It’s all about proactive communication and promotion.

Is there any business, any field of any activity that doesn’t need exactly that?

Read On:

Mobile Marketing. Phyzog set for summer launch.
Crowdcube.
wpbf.com. Can a Robot Improvise Comedy?
Many Minds Make Light Work of Challenges.
Crowd-sourcing is Now the Business.
Stand Up Comedy is Alive, Well and Flourishing in the UK.

Photo: Zoe Goodacre