the future

6 Stand-ups Analyze ChatGPT’s Attempts to Steal Their Jobs

“It’s eerie, but there are comedians who are worse than this.”

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Getty
Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photos: Getty

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Artificial-intelligence technology has come a long way since Netflix released “The First Stand-up Comedy Special Written Entirely by Bots” on YouTube in 2021. Written by comedian Keaton Patti, that “special” imagined the type of material a robot might write if it were trained on “400,000 hours” of raw stand-up-comedy data — jokes like “I am now so old my birth certificate is death certificate” and “Free speech? Not no more. Costs $17.” Two years down the line, Netflix no longer needs to speculate. Thanks to the rise of AI text engines such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, anyone with access to the internet can now generate an artificially intelligent tight five about any topic their heart desires. YouTubers have performed stand-up written by ChatGPT for vlog content, it has inspired popular Reddit threads, and ChatGPT itself once generated a stand-up routine in place of an error message to let users know its servers were at capacity. These experiments reached the height of their publicity in early February, when an endless Twitch stream of an AI-generated, Seinfeld-inspired sitcom called Nothing, Forever (built using OpenAI’s technology) was temporarily taken offline by the platform because the show’s AI “Jerry” delivered a transphobic monologue during one of its stand-up interstitials.

Stand-up comedy offers a unique stress test of ChatGPT’s skills because even though it relies on replicable patterns, the best of it revels in qualities considered unmistakably human: the ability to shape a distinct persona, the creativity to form unlikely connections, and the instinct to read and react to an audience. To see how much progress ChatGPT has made in this regard and how far it still needs to go, we asked six comedians to provide feedback on three bits generated by ChatGPT in an approximation of their style. The prompt — “Write three stand-up-comedy bits about aging in the style of comedian [comedian name]” — was chosen based on its potential universality. Participants discussed ChatGPT’s understanding of comedy principles, its cultural biases, whether they see a future for AI tools in comedy, and more.

Round 1

Gary Gulman

Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images

ChatGPT joke:

“Have you ever noticed that as you get older, you become more of a collector? When I was young, I would throw everything away, but now I can’t bring myself to part with anything. I have a drawer full of old cell phones. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll need to call someone in the past. And don’t even get me started on Tupperware. I have so much Tupperware, I could open up my own Tupperware store. But here’s the thing: I can never find the matching lid. I’m convinced that Tupperware is playing some sort of cruel joke on me.”

Gary Gulman: The first thing I thought was, I can’t imagine the computer would have an understanding of what “in the style of Gary Gulman” means. I don’t know what it’s drawing from because I would have a hard time describing my style. I have a few precepts and restrictions, but for the most part, I just sound a certain way. The next thing was — looking at joke No. 1 — the line “Have you ever noticed” is this horrific ’80s phrase that gave birth to a million comedians. As soon as I hear “Have you ever noticed,” I stop listening because I know it’s just going to be another really lazy observation.

I have to say, though, there’s one really good line: “Maybe someday I’ll need to call someone in the past.” That’s a really good sentence! But then, almost to undo its goodwill with me, it says, “Don’t even get me started on …” That’s Mr. Saturday Night. The character’s whole catchphrase was “Don’t get me started!,” and the audience would repeat it. It was so corny. “I have so much Tupperware I could open up my own Tupperware store” is like something an old mom would say. “I can never find the matching lid” is like a “You always lose a sock in the dryer” joke.

“You know what’s great about getting older? You don’t care as much about what other people think. When I was in my 20s, I was so self-conscious that I wouldn’t even go to the beach without a shirt on. Now, I’ll walk around in a speedo and not think twice about it. Of course, now that I’m older, nobody wants to see me in a speedo, but that’s beside the point.”

G.G.: The Speedo thing was a big thing for comedians to talk about in the ’80s, but it is kind of impressive that it isn’t mishmash and gibberish. The computer actually tried to give this joke a tag: “Nobody wants to see me in a Speedo, but that’s beside the point.” You don’t need the “but that’s beside the point,” but I see what the computer is going for by trying to end it with another laugh.

When I first started, my tags were very weak like this. It should be something like an analogy that breaks it down — one of those weird Speedo analogies like “It’s like two raisins and a whatever.”

“As you get older, you start to notice that things just don’t work the way they used to. Like, I used to be able to eat anything I wanted and not gain a pound. Now, if I even look at a piece of cake, I gain 5 pounds. And my memory is shot. I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast this morning. It’s like my brain has a delete button and it’s getting a workout. But the worst part about getting older? The aches and pains. I wake up every morning feeling like I got hit by a truck. And I didn’t even do anything the day before. It’s like my body is punishing me for all the things I did when I was younger.”

G.G.: I don’t think I’ve ever heard a comedian talk about having a delete button in their brain. That’s the kind of absurdity I figure would be beyond the computer. But right before that, there’s the premise of “I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast.” Every old person you run into can’t remember what they had for breakfast. That’s always the example of the thing they can’t remember. It’s become an idiom with no meaning.

One of the things that I found really helpful for a long time in spurring creativity and keeping me honest was this idea in a list of journalistic techniques George Orwell had written about how you should never use a cliché or idiom that you’d seen in print. And the computer should be great at not repeating itself. The Orwell thing was one of the comedy tips I published, so I’m surprised the computer wasn’t able to keep track of that.

It’s eerie, but there are comedians who are worse than this. The computer may be able to be a bad comedian, but it won’t be able to convince you it’s a competent comedian — at least not yet. It’ll probably be able to write fart jokes for kids and things like that before it’s able to write something along the lines of Mitch Hedberg or Maria Bamford. A computer cannot replicate Maria Bamford.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 1

Round 2

Maria Bamford

Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images

“I’m not sure how to feel about getting older. On the one hand, I’m more experienced and wiser. On the other hand, I can’t remember anything. I went to the grocery store the other day and forgot why I was there. So I just walked up and down the aisles until I found something that looked familiar. That’s how I ended up with a cart full of butternut squash and cat food. It’s like my brain is slowly turning into a random number generator.”

Maria Bamford: I thought it was interesting that this says “in the style of” me, because it isn’t personal. My stuff is all about mental health or personal experiences, and the way the chatbot did it was very observational and crowd-pleasing — nothing that anybody would be uncomfortable with. It felt more like a very popular club-comic act, which can be great.

“You know what’s the worst thing about getting older? You can’t do anything without making weird noises. You stand up, you groan. You sit down, you grunt. You bend over, you wheeze. I feel like I’m auditioning for a sound effects library. And don’t even get me started on how long it takes me to get out of bed in the morning. It’s like watching a sloth trying to pole vault.”

M.B.: “It’s like watching a sloth try to pole-vault” is a legitimate, excellent punch line. It’s taking a low-energy animal and then having them do something spectacular. If you read comedy books, they say the way to make something funny is to amp it up to the nth degree and say something unexpected, so in that way, it’s done a great job. It also used butternut squash, which is wonderful comedic phrasing. I do do a lot of stuff about energy. And maybe “sound-effects library” is a commentary on what my act sounds like to a computer.

“I’ve noticed that as I get older, I have more and more medical issues to deal with. Last week, I went to the doctor for a routine check-up and came out with a laundry list of problems. My cholesterol’s too high, my blood pressure’s too low, my iron’s too high, my calcium’s too low. I’m like a human see-saw. And the worst part is, the doctor always tells me to exercise more. Like, do they not understand that I’m tired all the time? If I had the energy to exercise, I wouldn’t be here in the first place.”

M.B.: I think the thing that was sad, for me, was that I felt like I didn’t know the chatbot. It just needs more development. The initial premise of the joke about being “more experienced and wiser” but not being able to remember anything, that would be a setup to saying, “I can give really great advice — I just can’t remember what I’m talking about.” And “auditioning for a sound-effects library” is not a very strong punch line. It’s not an experience that many people have, and it’s a hard thing to picture. It is funny, it’s good, and depending on how well it’s acted out by the computer, it might be great. But, again, I don’t care too much about this chatbot.

I think working with the chatbot could maybe be a new art form. It’s just a new way of expressing yourself and combining the thoughts of a human being in the world with technology and seeing what happens. I don’t see how that’s any less legitimate than photography: taking light and using it to capture an image. I don’t like to feel afraid of technology. I think it’s going to be okay.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 2

Round 3

W. Kamau Bell

Photo: Rebecca Sapp/WireImage

“So, I recently turned 40, and let me tell you, aging is like playing Jenga with your body. You start taking out blocks from the bottom, and suddenly your knees don’t work the way they used to, your back hurts all the time, and you can’t eat spicy food without regretting it for days. But the real fun is when you start losing things. Keys, wallets, your mind… I mean, I once spent 20 minutes looking for my glasses, only to realize I was wearing them the whole time. And don’t even get me started on trying to keep up with technology. I feel like my phone updates every other day, and every time it does, I lose another piece of my soul. Pretty soon I’m going to be one of those old people who still uses a flip phone and thinks the internet is a passing fad.”

W. Kamau Bell: When these jokes came in, my wife was on the same email thread, so she read them out loud. My 11-year-old and 8-year-old were there, and my 8-year-old was covering her eyes while she was reading them because she was so embarrassed. There are barely punch lines here! The joke about looking for my eyeglasses and realizing I was wearing them? That’s a joke so old that it’s public domain. It felt like somebody had told me to write a Bill Engvall bit and then I lost my steam halfway through it.

There are comedians that do bits about aging in this tone, but they’re better than this. If a child brought this to me and said, “I wrote jokes,” I’d be like, “Good for you! Keep trying!” I wouldn’t say, “We’ve got to get you to SNL.” 

“Aging is a strange thing, because on the one hand, you start to realize your mortality and the fact that time is running out. But on the other hand, you stop caring about a lot of stuff that used to bother you. Like, when I was in my 20s, I used to worry about what people thought of me all the time. I would spend hours getting ready for a party, trying to look cool and impress everyone. But now that I’m in my 40s, I don’t give a damn. I’ll show up in sweatpants and a stained t-shirt, because I know the only person I need to impress is myself. And even that’s a stretch some days. Plus, at this age, you start to realize that most people don’t care about you anyway. They’re too busy worrying about their own stuff, like their kids, their job, or the latest episode of some show on Netflix. So, you might as well just do you and let the chips fall where they may.”

“As you get older, you start to notice that the world is changing around you, and not always for the better. I mean, I remember when people used to talk to each other face-to-face, instead of staring at their phones all day. And don’t even get me started on the music. When I was growing up, we had real musicians who played real instruments and wrote real songs. Now it’s just a bunch of auto-tuned robots who can’t sing or play anything. And what’s with all the abbreviations and acronyms? I can barely keep up with LOL and OMG, and now there’s YOLO and FOMO and I don’t even know what they mean. It’s like the English language is being slowly eroded, one letter at a time. But hey, at least we still have stand-up comedy. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a comedian. I’m saying that because laughter is one of the few things that can transcend age, gender, and culture. So, let’s all just laugh together, before the robots take over and we’re all living in a sci-fi nightmare.”

W.K.B.: My wife said, “ChatGPT thinks you’re a 60-year-old white man.” Maybe it thought the prompt was “Write jokes in the style of W. Kamau Bell’s white father-in-law.” I’m the guy who grew up in the hip-hop era who’s mad at kids for not using instruments? That made me feel ChatGPT might be mad at me. That felt aggressive.

Even if I was to sit down and go, I’m going to write a bit on aging, I would still do it through the lens that I’ve brought to comedy throughout my career. I can’t imagine I would talk about anything for that long without talking about race and racism in America. It steers clear of the topic of race completely. It tells you who’s programming it.

This is how technology has worked in this country since the dawn of technology. It’s like the camera that doesn’t recognize Black faces, and yet it’s supposed to identify people in a picture. So maybe I’m the thing that breaks ChatGPT. If you’re afraid of controversial topics, you’re probably not going to write anything in the style of W. Kamau Bell, because that’s kind of my wheelhouse. But also, don’t write bits in the style of Marc Maron, Doug Stanhope, and steer clear of a bunch of different comedians.

I think all technology improves over time, but we’ve found that technology does a better job delivering content than it does creating content. I believe ChatGPT can get good enough to write New Yorker cartoons because that’s a very specific style of comedy with a formula that’s been working for years. Or you might write something and say, “ChatGPT, do you have any tags for this?,” or “Can you think of a cultural reference that fits here?” It might become the performance-enhancing drug of a comedy act. But you’re not going to see ChatGPT headline Madison Square Garden or release a comedy special where we all look at it and go, That’s good comedy.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 4

Jenga-reference count: 1

Round 4

Atsuko Okatsuka

Photo: Amy Sussman/Getty Images

“You know you’re getting old when you start getting excited about mundane things. The other day, I got really excited because I found a great deal on some paper towels. I mean, what’s next? AARP membership? A subscription to Reader’s Digest? Before you know it, I’ll be that old lady who wears the same clothes every day and talks to her cats. Oh wait, I already do that.”

Atsuko Okatsuka: ChatGPT must think I’m really old. When I was in my 20s, I upped the age on my Facebook to 45 as a joke, so maybe that’s why it’s confused about how old I am. “AARP membership” would be a great first-time joke for my grandma, who people know through my act and social media. I might give this to her. You have to be 65 and older for Medicare, so maybe it’s listening to interviews of me talking about my mom and grandma and it’s like, This bitch is next. I do like the bait and switch of “Oh, wait — I already do that.” I like that the bot knows how bait and switches work.

“Getting older is like playing a game of Jenga. Every year, you remove a block from the bottom and hope the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down. And if it does, well, at least you have Medicare. I mean, who needs a solid foundation when you have affordable healthcare?”

A.O.: The first two lines of “Getting older is like playing a game of Jenga. Every year, you remove a block from the bottom and hope the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down” made me laugh. But if I really think about it, I don’t understand the metaphor. “Every year, you remove a block from the bottom”? What is that a sign for? What is that in real life? It also knows the rule of C sounds in comedy: Crashing is a funny word; words like cacophony are funny. It’s interesting that it knew “crashing down” would get giggles at least.

It’s interesting that the wording and references of these jokes are, to me, very white American. Things like AARP, Reader’s Digest, and Jenga are things my immigrant family didn’t really grow up reading or playing. I had to find out what these things are on my own. What they’ve done with these three jokes is pretty general. You really don’t get to know the person. You don’t really know what irks them, you don’t really know what tickles them, and you don’t know their perspective, really, besides “Getting old — am I right?”

“They say age is just a number, but sometimes that number feels like a prison sentence. Like when I turned 40, I felt like my body was betraying me. I started getting hot flashes, my knees started creaking, and my memory started failing me. It’s like my body was saying, ‘Thanks for the good times, but now it’s time to slow down and start enjoying your prune juice and bingo nights.’”

A.O.: I have a weird cadence, sometimes I make up words, and the way I deliver things is not what an AI bot would have gotten used to — like a Seinfeld type of setup–punch line or what you’ve seen on late-night TV. I’m a very physical performer, I am offbeat, so I don’t know how you program something like that. Even when I do have a setup–punch line, I will also say something personal about me, so it ends up being hard to mimic or copy. The only jokes I can think of from using ChatGPT are things like “I tried ChatGPT, and these are the jokes it came up with.” I don’t think I would get ideas from it — because right now, they’re not that good.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 4

Jenga-reference count: 2

Round 5

Pete Holmes

Photo: Michael S. Schwartz/Getty Images

“One of the weirdest things about aging is that you start to look like your parents. And I don’t mean in a good way. I mean, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror and I’m like, ‘Oh god, I have my dad’s nose.’ Or, ‘Is that a wrinkle or a scar from where my mom hit me with a wooden spoon?’ It’s like my body is betraying me, turning into this weird amalgamation of my mom and dad. And then I start to wonder, am I going to start acting like them too? Will I start telling the same corny jokes and wearing socks with sandals? It’s like I’m living in some sort of genetic horror movie.”

Pete Holmes: I would classify a lot of these jokes as passable for conversation. But I’m not pooh-poohing them; I’m blown away. The “wooden spoon” thing — “Is that a wrinkle or a scar from where my mom hit me with a wooden spoon?” — is the closest thing I’ve seen to it saying something I could do onstage that would work. When it’s that good, I’m like, Where’d that come from? It’s so specific, and it takes this weird left turn. It’s taking the concept that you get your looks from your parents to a new, absurd height, which is, “My mom scarred me with a spoon.” That’s not genetics; it’s abstracting it.

At this stage, I would say it’s writing what I would consider very standard open-mic-level comedy. I think Jim Gaffigan had a joke about socks and sandals in 2003? It was at a time — and I think Jim would agree — where “socks and sandals” was just the example going around. “A cell phone clipped to your belt” and “sunglasses on the back of your head” were also in the “socks and sandals” folder.

“I’m starting to realize that getting old isn’t just about wrinkles and gray hair. It’s also about becoming increasingly uncool. Like, I used to think I was pretty hip, you know? I could keep up with the latest trends, I knew all the hot new bands. But now, I listen to the radio and I have no idea what any of the songs are. I go to a bar and I feel like I’m in a different country. And don’t even get me started on TikTok. I tried to make a video once and it just looked like I was having a seizure.”

“Getting older is like being in a slow-motion car crash. It’s like, you know it’s coming, you can see it happening, but you can’t do anything to stop it. Like, I used to be able to eat a whole pizza and wash it down with a six-pack of beer, no problem. But now, if I have two slices and a single beer, I feel like I need to lie down and take a nap. It’s like my body is saying, ‘No, no, no, we can’t handle this much excitement anymore. Slow down, grandpa.’”

P.H.: ChatGPT is sort of circling one of the things that really troubles me: Every comedian has a certain antenna for when things lose their shelf life. That’s part of our job. But when I go to an open mic or I watch amateur comedians, one of the first things I notice — just like any comedian would notice — is that they’re doing things that we’re just not doing anymore.

But I don’t want to be the guy that’s like, “This isn’t impressive.” It’s incredible. I had a call today with a streaming service, and I wrote into ChatGPT, “Pitch a show about …,” and I wrote what my show was about in five words, and it came up with a better title than the title I had for my show. It gave it a funnier title with better alliteration. I didn’t change it, because honestly I liked the more cumbersome title I had.

At what point is human error part of the charm of human ideas? I don’t really like scientific-izing comedy, but I agree with the theory that comedy is a benign violation. And one of the benign violations is that a human being is choosing their topics imperfectly: Of all the things you could talk about onstage, you’re talking about breakfast cereal? You have all of these people listening, and it’s so human that you’re just talking about delicious cereal. That’s the beginning of it. We like imperfect comedy. We like to see the struggle and the foibles of it.

I sometimes say onstage, “We don’t like jokes a fax machine could get,” and I think you could apply that to the more modern extension: We don’t like jokes that ChatGPT would get. We want jokes that pass the “I’m not a robot” test.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 5

Jenga-reference count: 2

Inaccurate reference to inactivity on, or disinterest in, TikTok count: 1

Round 6

Vir Das

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

“Getting old is like playing a video game on hard mode. When you’re young, you have all the power-ups and abilities, but as you age, they start to disappear one by one. First, it’s your eyesight, then your hearing, and eventually, you’re just a grumpy old man with no special abilities left. And don’t even get me started on the bosses you have to face: arthritis, high blood pressure, and worst of all, teenagers who won’t get off your lawn.”

Vir Das: Calling these “jokes” is quite a compliment. ChatGPT writes jokes like the vice-president of sales at your company, which is not how I think I write jokes. This feels like your first stand-up-comedy class, when your teacher asks you to write down premises, before you figure out you shouldn’t be in a class for stand-up.

“When I was a kid, I thought adults had it all figured out. But now that I’m an adult, I realize we’re all just faking it. We don’t know what we’re doing any more than a baby knows how to drive a car. And as we age, we just get better at pretending. That’s why old people are always telling stories about how things were better in the past, because it’s easier to pretend you know what you’re talking about when you’re talking about something that already happened.”

“They say you’re only as old as you feel, but what they don’t tell you is that feeling young is a lot harder than it used to be. When I was in my twenties, I could go out all night and still feel great the next day. Now, if I stay up past 10 PM, I feel like I’ve been hit by a truck. And don’t even get me started on trying to keep up with the latest trends. I don’t even know what TikTok is, but I’m pretty sure it’s some kind of witchcraft.”

V.D.: I think ChatGPT is American because it knows very little about me. You gave it the word aging, so it went down a rabbit hole with that. Nobody my age has arthritis and high blood pressure. The only thing it got right is that I like to go to bed at 10 p.m., but that’s just because I like to sleep. And TikTok is banned in my country, so maybe when it says, “I don’t even know what TikTok is,” it’s coming from that.

People are on two sides of this issue. One group of people feels like this is the future and it’s going to take over everything. The other feels like we need to shut it down and that this is the beginning of our Terminator phase. I don’t like either side. I always thought this would be more of an advertising-copywriting tool or it was for kids to cheat on exams. I never thought it would get into anything truly creative.

The one thing I am using AI for is to design posters. I put a few up on my Instagram, and it got a decent amount of traction just because it was funny. They come out scary and creepy as hell. For now, I’m happy to keep it at arm’s distance. When the robots come for my house, we can have this conversation then.

“Don’t even get me started” count: 7

Jenga-reference count: 2

Inaccurate reference to inactivity on, or disinterest in, TikTok count: 2

6 Stand-ups Analyze ChatGPT’s Attempts to Steal Their Jobs