“We’re all comics or developers,” Julian Kross says, looking out at the assembled crowd. “We’re all tired or hung over, and our parents are disappointed in us.” Thus begins his demonstration.
Kross is standing near a cardboard-stenciled On Air sign haphazardly taped over a red light. A stationary camera is trained on him. The comedian is here to present Fox the News, an app that mashes together breaking news and offbeat headlines from around the world, and throws in dirty words for good measure. Kross and his team worked on it more or less all night, and they are about to be judged for their efforts. This app, like all the others that will be presented after it today, is the product of two different schools of thought: humor and technology. MIT meets UCB. Welcome to Comedy Hack Day.
The idea for the event was born a few months ago, when web designer Craig Cannon conceived of a potential project for the comedian and author Baratunde Thurston’s new company, Cultivated Wit. Thurston was interested in merging humor and technology to find new venues for comedic storytelling. It was the reason he’d started the company. The solution Cannon hit upon was to stage a unique hackathon, one that would unite volunteers from either comedy or tech backgrounds, and have them compete together in creating some hilarious new apps. All Baratunde had to do was figure out how to pull it off.
Thurston and Cannon spent the summer researching other hackathons to get a feel for their structure and scheduling, even attending some in the process. They spoke with Hilary Mason, chief scientist at bit.ly and the unofficial “hack queen of New York City,” who gave them advice on how to proceed. Soon Twilio, the cloud communications company, came on board, and Developer Evangelist Jon Gottfried ended up finding most of the necessary sponsors and the New York City venue. Thurston’s main job, beyond planning the event, was to host it. He also convinced Mason, along with comedian Chris Gethard, tech writer and entrepreneur Anil Dash, and The Daily Show co-creator Lizz Winstead to judge the demonstrations through the lens of their varying skillsets.
“I just figured out how to enter dates into the calendar on my iPhone, so I’m pretty much out of my league,” says Gethard, just before the demos begin. “If these people knew that and that I was the one judging them, they would either start laughing really hard or actually get angry. I’m not qualified to judge anything that has to do with technology. I’ll be able to tell if something’s funny or not, though.”
By the morning of Saturday, September 8th, 60 local comedians and developers had signed up through EventBrite and shown up for Comedy Hack Day. At 10AM, the pitchfest began, giving everyone an opportunity to generate ideas, before communally whittling them down to only the most practical ones. Some of the pitches that didn’t make it to the development phase included “Comedy Ad Block,” which would replace ads on YouTube and Hulu with funny videos, and Couch Cachet, which would check users into places on Foursquare while they stay at home. Participants quickly gravitated toward the pitches they liked the most, and soon enough, teams were formed.
According to Thurston, “to get a joke to the right place, it takes telling it a lot of times, and to get an app to the right place, it takes a lot of updating and patching.” After the teams were divided up, they settled in for a long day of tinkering with the idea to try to get the initial demonstration of it right. The comedians in the group fulfilled their duties through idea generation and content creation, while the developers handled the coding.
“Comedians bring a new perspective to what we’re doing,” says Harris Amin, a heavy-lidded developer who had been up all night when I spoke with him Sunday afternoon. People slowly funneled out of the venue at Pivotal Labs near Union Square, until there were only about 10 or 15 of them left, including Thurston, who slept over. Throughout the entire night, at least a couple of people were always awake.
“It was really funny after midnight when it simultaneously started to quiet down and people started getting really drunk,” says Rebecca Poulson, a local stand-up.
Things are considerably noisier on Sunday afternoon leading up to the demonstration. MacBook Pros are strewn about everywhere, sitting like totems in front of sun-starved faces in deep concentration. A lanky developer is sprawled out across a sofa, completely unfazed by the noisy chess game in progress to his immediate left or the appropriately hip-nerdy Childish Gambino track booming out of the soundsystem. In the kitchen, there’s a vast Mediterranean food spread, whose centerpiece is a falafel assembly line. There’s a fridge filled with drinks, alcoholic and otherwise, with a handwritten note that reads “Please drink PBR only: we’re trying to keep things classy around here.” Basically, it looked a little like the coder audition scene in The Social Network.
Around 3PM, the demonstrations begin and things get somewhat more orderly. Each group will have five minutes to present their app and explain how they made it. Then they will face questioning from the judges. There are 26 apps total to present, and it’s clear right away that we’re going to go way over time.
Presentation skills count toward helping to sell each idea, and it’s always abundantly clear who within the group comes from the coding side and who comes from the comedy side. There’s no shortage of pit stains, self-deprecating humor, and beers on hand from either side, though.
Some of the websites looked cleaner than others, but you can see how some of them might evolve over time, through various iterations, into actual items that people might want. FitBitch, for instance, is a variant of FitBit an existing app that keeps track of exercise activity. Not only does FitBitch keep track, though, it motivates users to do more work with extreme profanity-ridden admonishment. (“You’re a pathetic waste of space. You should have shot yourself 4,586 feet ago.”)
The name Scatroulette generates palpable fear in the audience, and it turns out to be exactly what everyone is afraid of. There is an NSFW warning, before but this app is clearly Not Safe For Life. Ultimately, Scat proved to be one of two different variations on chatroulette (one of which was inspired by Catroulette.)
Hurry Your Ass combines running with giving things away on Craigslist; it’s an app that tracks where free stuff is available, and calculates the best route to run there through GPS, so you can beat anyone else interested. Anil Dash asks the team who created the app whether they’ve thought to cross-reference the app with the bed bug registry. The presenter from HYA thoughtfully considers, then responds: ”Phase one involves things people are running toward, phase two involves things people are running away from.”
Overall, there is a diverse range of ideas that veer wildly between utterly practical and almost unspeakably silly. “I didn’t know whether I was going to be seeing apps that would help people in comedy or apps that were just funny,” Lizz Winstead says, later. “There’s been plenty of both.”
Eventually, prizes are awarded. The big winner of the event is ShoutRoulette, which connects opinionated users to other people with the exact opposite opinion, allowing them to shout at each other. Each member wins a class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, and entry into the New York Tech Meetup. Other winners include the McKayla Is Not Impressed Chrome Extension (a meme generator), and Spacebar to Money Shot (um, don’t ask.) Even ScatRoulette wins something: The Chris Gethard Memorial Award, which consists of a hug from the judge that goes on for an exceedingly long period.
Once the prizes are awarded, everybody begins to file out. There is a sense of accomplishment in the air, though. Everyone seems happy, despite being hallucination-level tired and perhaps not having won the Robin Williams tickets that were up for grabs (Best Delivery prize—also taken by ShoutRoulette). In fact, numbers are being exchanged around the room, one sign of a successful event.
“I’ve always been really interested in combining storytelling and technology and I have been exposed in more ways to how that happens in the last 36 hours than ever,” says Rebecca Koulson, who contributed to the girlfriend simulator app, Crazy and Sexy. “I don’t pretend to understand the underpinnings, but I know what they are better now, and it’s been exciting.”
It makes sense that comics and developers would end up working well together, though. There’s actually a lot of commonality between the two groups. “Comedians create with words, and developers create with codes, which is really just words, but with a different syntax and structure So they’re both building worlds that other people can inhabit,” says Thurston. “Both are out of the system a little bit, there’s some dissatisfaction—they think they can improve things, and either by telling a better version of it or manually developing a better version of it. There’s some cynicism in both, but at the heart of it, there’s some optimism.”