George Carlin

The George Carlin A.I. comedy special — which is, of course, not really a George Carlin comedy special, but an A.I.-generated collection of logical-sounding noises inspired by the works of real-life comedy genius George Carline — is fine.

It doesn’t tarnish the real Carlin’s legacy. The jokes, such as they are, are decently constructed. The voice sounds enough like Carlin’s, which I guess would be impressive and relatively cool if I were playing a George Carlin videogame. I don’t find it funny, but these things are subjective.

Where the A.I. special fails is where A.I. content will always fail: It cannot capture or share a legitimate human experience. Which is the point of comedy.

George Carlin was a person. He fell in love, he got frustrated by things, he decided what to have or not have for breakfast. He tripped sometimes, got weird shooting pains sometimes, smelled things he didn’t like, had heart failure that ultimately killed him, wondered what it would be like to die, worried, appreciated, made peace with his mortality or didn’t, cared.

An A.I. can’t do any of those things, so I can’t bring myself to care what it has to say. No one can.

The purpose of standup comedy isn’t just delivering jokes. If it were, an A.I. might someday be great at it. A very good comedian — he used to be on Saturday Night Live – explained to me once that jokes are kind of like math, in that they follow certain formulas. Of course someday artificial intelligence will be able to come up with jokes as effectively as a computer can do math.

But no one will ever care.

Because what you’re getting with standup comedy isn’t just a bunch of well-constructed jokes. You’re getting someone else’s perspective and experience. I don’t know anyone who lost their dad on 9/11, but I listened to such a person for an hour last night when I watched the new Pete Davidson special. (It’s funny — to me.) I don’t know anyone who has met Lil Nas X at a party but I listened to someone who has for an hour last week when I watched the new Dave Chappelle special. (Also funny — to me.)

George Carlin and Atmeal

Once I heard Dana Carvey, a great comedian, tell a story about the time he worked in a hotel, and served George Carlin a bowl of oatmeal.

“And I put it in front of him, and he goes, ‘Oatmeal. Drop the O, and you have atmeal.’”

It’s an innocuous little story that makes both comedians feel a little more real. Dana Carvey has worked a regular job. He served oatmeal to someone who had his dream job, and wondered if he would ever reach Carlin’s level. Carlin had a moment with a waiter, could maybe sense the waiter wanting something, gave him a little ad lib. It was weird and maybe awkward. A very human exchange.

The kind of weird little moment a computer will never have.

I watch standup to hear about moments like this.

When you watch standup, you’re learning what it’s like to be someone you’re not: A man, woman, Black, white, from a mixed-race household, very tall, very fat, gay, a survivor of child abuse, extremely rich — and maybe all of those things. You’re getting a hopefully funny window into someone else’s life.

The best part is that, because this exchange is fairly one-sided, you’re under no obligation to agree with everything this person says. You can just hear their story, and laugh, if they do a good job. But you can also hear, for a little while, what it might be like to be someone else.

Maybe it will make you more forgiving of other people’s flaws. Maybe not, it’s fine. I know that every time I wash the dishes I think about Bill Burr’s routine about how one person in every relationship does the dishes, and one always lets them soak. Do these routines make me better about doing the dishes? Sometimes.

The real beauty of standup is totally unavailable to an A.I. — you’re watching someone make comedy out of their life, in front of a crowd that wants to laugh and will resent the comedian who doesn’t make that happen. It’s high human drama. When the comedian embraces the bargain — by trying hard things, instead of reciting safe jokes — it’s maybe the purest art form of them all.

Even comedians who invent personas – Anthony Jeselnik is one of my favorites — are still taking risks. They’re creating a drama between their actual selves and the person they’re pretending to be. To tell jokes that are evil and wrong, which Jeselnik does better than anyone, you have to understand exactly why they’re evil and wrong. What line is being crossed.

The comedian is always taking a reputational risk — going too hard, going too soft. Saying something interesting about a subject that’s hard to talk about versus feebly attempting the topic for cheap laughs or shock value.

Plus the countless other calculations, worked out over months of honing a routine, or in seconds, in the moment. The comedian is always looking for a balance between being so real that the routine isn’t funny and being so outrageous that there aren’t any stakes.

For an A.I., there simply aren’t any stakes. There’s no career to be canceled, no feelings to be hurt, no experience to share. Nothing it says matters. Nobody cares.

Main image: George Carlin at a signing of his book Brain Droppings in New York City. Photo by Alex Lozuprone under CC BY-SA 4.0.