The Joke Matrix: Inside Pandora's Science Of Humor

What makes a joke funny? The head of the Internet radio site's team of comedy analysts shows us the inner workings of its new Comedy Genome Project.

There’s an old quote from E.B. White: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it."

It’s a funny line...or is it? When I tell it to Steve Hogan, Pandora’s Music Operations Manager who is now overseeing the Internet radio site’s venture into comedy, he laughs. The White quote is funny, as Hogan can tell you, because it relies on a clever analogy; and if E.B. White had ever done standup, Hogan would score that bit with a solid 5 under the relevant Pandora "comedy gene." When he’s done laughing, Hogan says, "Well, I’m interested."

Hogan, it turns out, is one of White's "few people." Part of his job is to oversee a team of five Bay Area comedians who spend all day listening to comedy tracks and scoring them based on a list of 100 comedic traits. Just as Pandora has used its Music Genome Project to help listeners discover new music based on their preferences, the company is now using the same mix of human analysis and computer algorithm to recommend comedy. As Pandora explained on its blog when it launched the Comedy Genome Project in May, "Now, instead of talking about ‘minor keys,’ ‘falsetto,’ and ‘extensive vamping,’ our comedy-analysts capture ‘odd juxtaposition’ (A horse walks into a bar...), ‘misdirection’ and ‘spoonerisms’ (a well-boiled icicle, instead of a well-oiled bicycle)." As it branches into comedy, by popular demand, Pandora has debuted with some 10,000 tracks by 700 comedians. That number is growing, with each track meticulously and manually analyzed by a Pandora employee.

Hogan walks me through the mechanics of how its staff of in-house comedians scores such tracks. To illustrate a track that would score high (a 4.5 out of 5) on the "Delivery: Angry/Hostile" gene, he plays me a bit from the late, fantastically unhinged Bill Hicks, where Hicks is berating the audience: "You were in mourning when Thirtysomething got cancelled, weren’t you, this whole table? That show makes me want a nuclear holocaust in two minutes." Hogan stops the track. "Bill Hicks is a pretty cut-and-dry example of an angry, hostile comedian," he says.

Some genes are scored along an axis that runs between two opposing traits. To illustrate the "Deadpan (1) to Animated (5)" axis, he plays me a bit from Steven Wright, who says, almost without any affect at all, "The ice cream truck in my neighborhood plays ‘Helter Skelter.’" Says Hogan, "Wright is a poster boy for the deadpan style"; he scores a 1 here. Then, by way of contrast, Hogan plays me a clip from Robin Williams, that moves at such a manic pace I only catch a few of the jokes. "In the time Steven Wright delivers a single one-liner," says Hogan, "Robin Williams has squeezed in about 10 jokes." Hogan scores the Williams bit a 4.5.

He plays a few more clips for me; Nick Di Paolo to illustrate the gene Pandora terms "Self-Deprecation," Bill Cosby to illustrate "Format: Anecdote," and Emo Phillips to illustrate "Comic Hook: Bait & Switch (Misdirection)." ("When I was 10, my parents moved to Downers Grove, Illinois. When I was 12, I found them.")

All in all, the process is very similar to how Pandora has long scored its music tracks; the human element, with actual person-hours put in up front to help the site’s algorithms eventually do their personalizing magic, is central. And just as Pandora put local musicians through grueling tests before hiring 25 of them, Hogan did the same with a pool of some 20 Bay Area comedians, finally bringing on five. He asked them questions about the "nitty-gritty of what makes jokes tick," he says; he asked them to explain in their own words what devices were at work behind the laughter. He wanted to see that the comedians had a firm grasp of the history of comedy, that they could speak fluently not just about Patton Oswalt and Jerry Seinfeld but also about Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce.

It must be something of a young comic’s dream day job (though Linda Tischler, in an early report on Pandora in Fast Company, learned that some of the musician analysts can burn out a little on scoring tracks all day; "I listen to a lot of NPR now," one confessed). Inevitably, you learn a lot. "They mention they have a real appreciation for how comedy over the years pushes boundaries," says Hogan—how each era has its restrictions and taboos, and how the funniest comics continually find their way into precisely that territory. For this reason, listeners to Pandora’s comedy will often be presented with an explicit language warning; there is a pre-programmed PG comedy station, but Hogan says that it "wasn’t that easy to build."

The other thing you learn when you analyze art all day, breaking it down into its component parts, listing its features and rating their prominence, is that there is an element of the unquantifiable. Often in his work, Hogan has come across two different songs with nearly identical genomes; in dozens of traits, they score almost equally; they are, on paper, the same. And yet you play one, and it’s beautiful, and you play the other, and it’s stale. As much as he believes in the work that he and his staff do, he recognizes that in the final analysis, art defies the final analysis.

"There’s that two percent of magic," says Hogan, of music and comedy alike. "That’s the part the genome analysis isn’t really gonna tap into."

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[Images: Flickr users Luiz Fernando Reis, DCMatt; front page image by Matthew GrapenGieser]

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1 Comments

  • Isobel Kramen

    In the 70s there was a book "Pissing in the Snow" which had been researched and written as a doctoral thesis on the history of 'dirty' jokes. They were analyzed and traced to ethnic groups through history. Many were attributed to prisoners, whose minds were searching for something to do. Today, few people are comics.  They hire people to research the news and write for them.  The art of conversation has been lost to the text msg.