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Dev comedy jam: Cultivated Wit's Hack Day chases laughs, not dollars

Nicole Lee, @nicole
10.10.14
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There aren't too many hackathons where finalists include an app to improve cunnilingus, a service for high-fives from strangers and a wearable Furby. It's also pretty rare for a hackathon to take top billing at a theater in San Francisco, draw a crowd of over 300 people and characterize itself as a comedy show.

Comedy? At a hackathon? You've got to be joking.

Gallery: Comedy Hack Day in SF 2014 | 23 Photos

But that's exactly what happened on the evening of September 28th at the fifth iteration of Cultivated Wit's Comedy Hack Day. Held at the Brava, a small independent theater in the city's Mission District, eight teams of developers took the stage to present their creations to a rapt audience and a panel of judges. The goal was not to get VC funding, build a sustainable business or sell out to Google. The goal was to make people laugh. And they did.

The idea came about a couple years ago when Craig Cannon, a former design editor for The Onion, decided to bring his two awkward friend groups together: comedians and developers. "I'd attended hackathons before and noticed that teams who presented in a funny way often did quite well," he said. "I thought it'd be fun to plan a weekend around making funny apps and hoped that the communities would get along."

So he and a few friends set up the first Comedy Hack Day in 2012 in New York City. Somehow, they cobbled together $7,000 in sponsorship money and got around 60 participants. It was "very bootleg," said Baratunde Thurston, a fellow editor from The Onion. Thurston eventually became one of the founding members of Cultivated Wit, a creative consulting company that was formed around "colliding comedy, design and technology." Comedy Hack Day was essentially Cultivated Wit's first project.

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Though the first Comedy Hack Day was "a total shit show" according to Cannon, it was also a validation. "These are two cultures that are based on working with each other, like riffing," said Cannon. "Comedians joke back and forth, while developers talk to each other about building stuff." Through the next three Comedy Hack Days -- two more in 2013 and another earlier this year -- they learned a few tricks, like hiring real event planners and implementing a vetting process to make sure the finalists were actually funny.

For the fifth Comedy Hack Day, the process started two days prior at a coworking space in San Francisco's South of Market neighborhood. After sponsors showed off their APIs, around 70 participants queued up to pitch their ideas and form teams around them. Some of the earliest included a "Shazam for cars" to figure out what a vehicle's sounds might mean and a site that translates your angry rants into something more passive-aggressive. They stayed up all night Friday and through Saturday to work on their projects. Then, Cannon and his team sat through the demos and selected projects to make it to Sunday's show. From there, the finalists prepped for the last day by finessing their projects, but more importantly, sharpening their presentation skills, which Cannon said is undervalued in the tech industry.

"We coach the finalists on Saturday night to help them prep for Sunday," he said. "Ultimately the demos on Sunday are a show."

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And what a show. It was packed with demos of apps and sites that would never pass at a normal hackathon. There was an alarm clock app that wakes you through blackmail (like texting your ex, for example), a Chrome plugin that populates your Amazon search history with questionable products to scare off account squatters, a service that lets someone else take the fall for your mistakes and a Twitter leaderboard for pun-makers (which our own Conrad Muan, a front-end developer, helped build). Meanwhile, the app "I'm a Huge Fan" was like a CliffsNotes for cocktail party conversations.

Comedy Hack Day wasn't just a group of people showing off PowerPoint slides, either. During a demo for a "Lyft for high-fives" -- aptly titled High Fyves -- a man barreled down from the theater exit, rolled onto the stage and gave the presenter a monster of a high-five after she requested it on the app. The cunnilingus skills site, dubbed Duolingus, was also very popular with the crowd. Originally the idea of Nicole Calasich, a local comedian, Duolingus offers a series of tests that evaluates your rhythm and precision to supposedly improve your oral sex skills. Her fellow presenter went through a demo called, ahem, "Finger Jazz," where he tried to accurately click on a spot on the screen. At the end, you get a score that you could potentially post on your dating profile. "We're addressing the wider pool of online dating candidates and bridging the egregious pleasure gap," Calasich said to the giggling audience.

The winner of the fifth Comedy Hack Day, though, was a wearable Furby. The team called itself Awwcog and its API was dubbed "the Wearable Augmented Cognition Open Furby platform" or WACOF for short (pun intended). Indeed, the team actually built an open Furby Python API for the electronic toy. "It can listen to particular keywords," said Conor Doherty, one of the team members. "You can send messages to the Furby using this audio protocol." In essence, they transformed an ordinary Furby into sort of a weird Furby-Siri hybrid that you can strap to your shoulder. On stage, they demonstrated a few functions for commands, including looking up restaurant recommendations on Yelp and giving directions on how to get to Starbucks. It even showed a tiny bit of sass by suggesting Philz, a local coffee shop franchise, as an alternative.

"Comedians are often blown away by this thing," said Thurston, because not only do they get to joke around, but they also get to build something. Developers, on the other hand, get to use their talents for something expressive and creative, which Thurston said could be a breath of fresh air if they're in a well-paying job with little meaning.

"It's unlike any other hackathon that most of these people have ever been to," said Thurston. "It's certainly unlike any other comedy show or improv troupe that these people have been a part of. So that mix, and the relationships that come out of it, that's ultimately what this is about."

"It's also about the money," joked Thurston, poking fun at startup culture. "It's definitely also about the money."

[Original image credit: Craig Cannon]

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