Studying Comedy with Computers

by Vanessa Pope, Queen Mary University of London

Smart speakers like Alexa might know a joke or two, but machines aren’t very good at sounding funny yet. Comedians, on the other hand, are experts at sounding both funny and exciting,  even when they’ve told the same joke hundreds of times. Maybe speech technology could learn a thing or two from comedians… that is what my research is about.

Image by Rob Slaven from Pixabay 

To test a joke, stand-up comedians tell it to lots of different audiences and see how they react. If no-one laughs, they might change the words of the joke or the way they tell it. If we can learn how they make their adjustments, maybe technology can borrow their tricks. How much do comedians change as they write a new show? Does a comedian say the same joke the same way at every performance? The first step is to find out.

The first step is to record lots of the same live show of a comedian and find the parts that match from one show to the next. It was much faster to write a program to find the same jokes in different shows than finding them all myself. My code goes through all the words and sounds a comedian said in one live show and looks for matching chunks in their other shows. Words need to be in the same exact order to be a match: “Why did the chicken cross the road” is very different to “Why did the road cross the chicken”! The process of looking through a sequence to find a match is called “subsequence matching,” because you’re looking through one sequence (the whole set of words and sounds in a show) for a smaller sequence (the “sub” in “subsequence”). If a subsequence (little sequence) is found in lots of shows, it means the comedian says that joke the same way at every show. Subsequence matching is a brand new way to study comedy and other types of speech that are repeated, like school lessons or a favourite campfire story.

By comparing how comedians told the same jokes in lots of different shows, I found patterns in the way they told them. Although comedy can sound very improvised, a big chunk of comedians’ speech (around 40%) was exactly the same in different shows. Sounds like “ummm” and “errr” might seem like mistakes but these hesitation sounds were part of some matches, so we know that they weren’t actually mistakes. Maybe “umm”s help comedians sound like they’re making up their jokes on the spot.

Varying how long pauses are could be an important part of making speech sound lively, too. A comedian told a joke more slowly and evenly when they were recorded on their own than when they had an audience. Comedians work very hard to prepare their jokes so they are funny to lots of different people. Computers might, therefore, be able to borrow the way comedians test their jokes and change them. For example, one comedian kept only five of their original jokes in their final show! New jokes were added little by little around the old jokes, rather than being added in big chunks.

If you want to run an experiment at home, try recording yourself telling the same joke to a few different people. How much practice did you need before you could say the joke all at once? What did you change, including little sounds like “umm”? What didn’t you change? How did the person you were telling the joke to, change how you told it?

There’s lots more to learn from comedians and actors, like whether they change their voice and movement to keep different people’s attention. This research is the first to use computers to study how performers repeat and adjust what they say, but hopefully just the beginning. 

Now, have you heard the one about the …

For more information about Vanessa’s work visit https://vanessapope.co.uk/ [EXTERNAL]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s