Playing Quiplash With 11 Comedians Trapped in Their Homes

Inside a game of Quiplash with comedy writers. Photo: Courtesy of Nate Jones

The age of social distancing has given us many hours to fill, and many options for how to fill them. If you’re on Instagram, you’re probably baking an Alison Roman recipe. If you’re on Facebook, you’re probably asking a lot of questions about 5G. And if you’re a funny person in Hollywood, you’re probably playing the five-year-old mobile party game Quiplash.

“I will play Quiplash with anyone! It’s my new favorite game,” late-night writer Sean O’Connor tweeted last week. Actress Katy Stoll solicited games that were like Quiplash but were not Quiplash, since “one can’t Quiplash every day.” Las Culturistas’ Matt Rogers announced his desire to be a writer for the game. In the surest sign that the trend is real, people have even started referencing Quiplash while making fun of Joe Biden.

Quiplash is an answer-prompt game, similar to Apples 2 Apples or Cards Against Humanity, except that instead of choosing a response from a handful of pre-written options, competitors come up with their own. Two punch lines are pitted against each other, with everyone else voting, and points are determined by the percentage of votes each receives. (A unanimous vote is called a Quiplash.) The game is ideally suited to the age of Zoom; since all the action takes place on everyone’s phones, little is lost from not being in the same room, or even the same state. According to Jackbox, the game’s developer, normal weekend usage is currently on par with the numbers for pre-corona holidays like Thanksgiving or New Year’s Eve.

One vector for the industry’s Quiplash obsession is Simpsons writer Christine Nangle, who has been hosting sessions for a small circle of comedy nerds. As Nangle told Vulture over email, the game’s popularity stems from the way it exercises the brain’s comedy nodes. “Most of the time you need to be thinking not A-to-B, or even A-to-C,” she explained. “It’s going quickly through A-to-G, then deciding if you should circle back to B if you think other people are going to be at G.” For comedians starved for human connection, the experience is the closest thing they have to an improv show — play long enough, Nangle said, and sub-games and callbacks will emerge, Quiplash twisting in on itself.

Last week, I sat in with Nangle’s Zoom session, which was filled with a diverse group of TV writers, stand-ups, and other assorted funny people. The festivities started with a pun, as Robot Chicken’s Andrew Ti nearly got a Quiplash with his answer for “The title of a drama clearly gunning to win an Oscar” — “Paraswhite.” Like Nangle said, it didn’t take long for things to get meta. “[Redacted by Vulture],” a nod to the process of negotiating which parts of the game would be on the record, earned the night’s first Quiplash. This was followed by a more esoteric reference, as producer J.D. Amato earned a Quiplash for a gag about balloon boy Falcon Heene. On “The weirdest thing to whisper to a ceramic doll,” one of the answers was a bizarre, misspelled sentence fragment. “I fucked up and my phone freaked out and it’s all just random letters,” explained Mrs. Maisel writer Alison Leiby. The chat was now definitely haunted.

Though the game may have been intended as a distraction from the coronavirus, through either chance or some infernal algorithm, the crisis kept muscling its way in. First, a prompt about buying paper towels. Then, one about the worst thing for a truck driver to have to deliver. (“Bad news to people you love and family” beat “Himself to your mom.”) Finally, in the second game of the night, a question about the hardest decision a president had to make resulted in two separate punch lines about mass death from government neglect. “I love the comedy element of this,” Leiby deadpanned.

Given the crowd, a certain amount of comedy analysis was inevitable. On “The title of a cookbook written by a cowboy,” Nangle might have triumphed had anyone gotten her punch line, “I Wish I Knew How to Quick Stew,” before the timer was up. “That’s a slow roller, Christine,” Leiby said. “My bread-and-butter, baby,” she replied. (“The Cows I Loved,” by the Daily Show’s Zhubin Parang, won instead.) Later, “Yahtzee” won a prompt about the Salvation Army, not because it was especially good but because it worked so well as a punch line for the other answer, which was about newborns. “That was a weird alchemy with those two answers,” Parang noted. SNL’s Paul Brittain brought a scoop: According to a friend at Jackbox, the company was currently working on Quiplash 3. (It turned out the news had been announced in early March, but a few other things were going on at the time, so it got lost in the shuffle.)

In the final round of each Quiplash game, everyone gets the same prompt. In the second game, this meant writing a caption for a cartoon of a bear getting into a taxi, with the driver asking “Where to?” The winning answer was “My Quibi pitch,” but what prompted more discussion was one that mentioned “Bear-a-Lago.” What were the rules of a world where such a place existed? “Bear-a-Lago isn’t necessarily bad. It’s not Mar-a-Lago,” Nangle argued. Late Night With Seth Myers writer Mike Scollins disagreed: “In the bear world, it’s all the same as the human world.”

Before they came to a definitive conclusion on the nature of Bear-a-Lago, it was time to say good-bye. The comedians had nine or so more games in them, but for me, sitting in from the East Coast, it was bedtime. Did anyone have any final thoughts?

“Since I don’t have any other skills to contribute to the war effort, I just organize these games to help people feel connected and laugh,” Nangle said.

“This is my only skill,” joked Leiby, who’d placed near the bottom in both games. “And I’m not even good at it.”

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