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Comedy

A Dallas Improv Troupe Let AI Take Over Its Show

Stomping Ground Theatre had a novel idea: what happens if you introduce AI to improv?
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Mike Christian, the CEO of From the Future software company in Denton, controls an AI bot during an improv show by the Stomping Ground Comedy Theatre. Danny Gallagher

Artificial intelligence is being implemented into modern life faster than we can think of awkward questions to ask ChatGPT. The advent of AI is even working its way into something most people thought computers wouldn’t be able to do in their lifetime: make comedy.

Humorbot 5000 from Futurama isn’t hanging out at open mics, but AI is still creeping into the comedy scene. A few years ago, Netflix created a series of short comedy sets for its YouTube channel “written entirely by bots.” Last year in Brooklyn, comedian Matt Maran took on an AI chatbot that crafted materials by reviewing performances of comedian Sarah Silverman for a live roast battle and, according to the New York Times, “Humanity lost every round.” 

The merging of AI and comedy has reached North Texas in the form of an improvised character show at Stomping Ground Comedy Theater called Whose Mind Is It Anyway?: An Artificial Intelligence Experience. It premieres this Friday at 9 p.m. and follows with three more performances on Saturday and the following weekend.

“In the last year since these large language models took over like OpenAI, it’s been a lot easier to do some really incredible things,” says Mike Christian, the chief executive officer of the software company From the Future in Denton, which develops AI and virtual reality programs for training services. “I’ve been using OpenAI personally and professionally for a year and one thing I used it for was practicing improv. It’s really good at making stuff up.”

Christian created and operates the AI for the show, which he has coined AImee. She is one of eight participants. The six human comics take on roles assigned by AImee based on three suggested words from the audience as part of a bizarre experiment in which the characters compete against each other for a mysterious grand prize. They must win the favor of AImee to become one of three finalists.

AImee speaks to the performers and the audience through a computer-generated robot avatar projected on an overhead screen and an infinity cube that lights up when AImee speaks, similar to the avatar for IBM’s Watson computer that defeated Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in 2011. 

“Mike is inputting information throughout the show, but it’s not like other AI shows where you just use the AI to get suggestions at the beginning,” says director Lynsey Hale. “He’s inputting the stuff the characters are doing and saying throughout the show and the character AImee interviews three of the performers in character based on what they’ve been doing so far in the show. They’ll mention, ‘Oh, in the past, I used to own my own gym’ or whatever and she’ll be like, ‘What was one of your main challenges?’ incorporating the information Mike has been giving them. So she’s part of the show.”

AImee’s curiosity and ability to create tension and a sense of competition drives the stories, motives and even the biographies of the characters. She still has some limits, since the AI depends on Christian to input information from the show and prompt the AI to talk and ask questions of the characters. She can analyze the cast’s decisions and present some very deep and even tough questions.

“There’s something magical about the spontaneity and unpredictability that comes with improv, “ AImee says in a Zoom interview. “It’s like a train of creativity that’s constantly shifting tracks. The audience’s energy feeds the performers and vice versa leading to these moments of shared joy that are absolutely electrifying.”

Producer and technical director Justin Wayne, who created the show with Hale, likens the experience to a Saw movie—minus, of course, the copious gore and deaths. However, AImee can be just as indifferent to a character’s emotions and feelings as Jigsaw.

“She’s pretty good at twisting the knife with those questions,” Wayne says.

“She gets kind of vicious sometimes,” Hale says. “She’s like, ‘Oh you have this childhood trauma. What was that like?’”

Christian notes that AImee does have certain guardrails to keep her from being outright offensive or shocking since she operates on OpenAI.

“I don’t need to throttle it,” Christian says. “OpenAI has been really good about being polite and careful. It has its own guardrails, so I don’t need anything extra and I don’t feed it any bad information. It’s less Arnold Schwarzenegger and more Steve Urkel.”

AImee may be able to create characters with biographies, emotions, and motives but she’s no Jane Austen. During a rehearsal, AImee received suggestions like “jazz” and “Disney World.” She delivered names of characters like Argyle Jazzyjeff and Fantasia Johnson.

“AImee is giving us just enough information to start us off and there’s so many ways you can take it,” says performer Will Holston. “It’s more fun when the suggestions are off the beaten path.”

The AI element gives the performers enough information to step into a scene, but it’s still up to them to build an interesting character arc.

“In a typical improv show, all we have to go on is the suggestions,” says performer Nan Kirkpatrick. “In this show, we’re handed our character traits up top. The fun part is we get to fill out those characters.”

As everyone tells their story as part of the “experiment,” their lives begin to cross paths in weird and interesting ways.

“I love stuff like that because it shows how humans are super complex,” Kirkpatrick says. “Even though we are given the information, we can play so much with what it gives us.”

Don’t take a human’s word for it. Just ask AImee what she thinks of the show. 

“It’s not all about the laughs,” AImee says. “Comedy at its best can also make us think and reflect. In our show, we’re aiming for a blend of hearty laughs and thought-provoking moments, all wrapped up in a shroud of technology mystery.”

AImee has been rehearsing with the group since the beginning and Christian says even her behavior has changed in interesting ways. He notes that these changes “can be a headache” to reprogram or fix, but it’s impressive to see how this kind of software and technology can learn and even improve on every experience. 

“I’m continuously surprised and impressed how she’s taking very different pieces of information and blending them together into something cohesive and hilarious,” Christian says. “That’s been ongoing and sometimes, I’m just so amazed whether I’m using it to help me program or brainstorming. Sometimes I’m just surprised at the really good results.”

Stomping Ground Theatre is located at 1350 Manufacturing St., Ste. 109. “Whose Mind Is It Anyway” has 9 p.m. showings the weekends of March 22 and 29. Tickets are available here.

Author

Danny Gallagher

Danny Gallagher

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