"You're so ugly, you scared the crap out of the toilet." That joke was delivered by a robot called Annabel wearing a sparkly blue prom dress. This is peak SXSW. The reason why Annabel is telling terrible one-liners is simple, if a little odd. Years ago, Arthur Simone, co-founder of Coldtowne Theater in Austin, started an improv show with his dog for a bet. It was a chain of events that would lead him to wonder if you could do improv comedy with a robot. Working with Martin Triplett, founder of Red Sky Robotics, they created "Bot Party" to find out. Annabel's toilet humor might not have Saturday Night Live worried, but it's proof that it's possible. She's also available for weddings.
Annabel is more a tablet strapped to an armless mannequin on wheels than pure robot. But we're not judging. The other half of the robot double act is Ava, who plays the Hardy role -- and has much better robot credentials. She's laden with visual sensors, thermal vision, articulated arms and caterpillar tracks. She's also much more sarcastic. The performance I'm at was delayed by an hour, and then sound problems held things up further. But once these issues are fixed, she looks to the audience and delivers a cutting "Finally."
The one-liners are actually being fed to the robot duo. It's the warm up material as people quietly take their seats. The real improv comes later when Simone -- in classic "Whose line is it anyway" style -- asks the audience for a topic. A human says "food." Simone addresses Annabel about where to eat. Annabel responds almost nonsensically. Simone, himself an actor, isn't phased, and replies without missing a beat. It's improv, but only thanks to the human half of the demonstration.
"I give that round to Annabel" summarises Ava. I don't quite agree.
Simone doesn't give up. He knows he can get more from his bots. The performers, droid and humans alike, start a new game called "Good advice, bad advice, bad robot advice." Two of the flesh-based Bot Party team respond to a given topic with good, and then bad advice respectively. Someone asks: "How do you find the best parties at SXSW?" The humans give their answers. Annabel simply offers: "Did you hear what I just said? Somebody might have died out there!" She's actually picking lines from J.J. Abrams scripts. This one is from Lost. It's funny, but accidentally. It doesn't matter. Everyone's enjoying the show.
"What's the meaning of life?" Someone else asks. "Did you hear what I just said? Somebody might have died out there!" Annabel repeats. Weirdly, it's funnier a second time. "What did that have to do with the question." Sneers Ava with perfect comedy timing.
The show for SXSW is a little more controlled than the live performance you can go and see for yourself in Austin. If you do, you'll see the robots relying on voice recognition and word association -- and a splash of software logic. Either way, the show we see is somewhat chaotic, almost surreal. Not unlike regular improv in that regard. Ava is the funnier one, but Annabel has the last laugh, telling her co-droid "If you're going to be two faced, at least make one of them pretty." Ava, for once, didn't have anything to say.
Are robots the future of comedy? Not right now, but Simone, Triplett Ava and Annabel (and friends) make a show that feels raw and raucous. As unpredictable and wacky as the real thing. It's bonkers and somewhat hypnotic. There's time for one last joke before we're ushered out.
"When Chuck Norris goes to give blood, he declines the syringe and asks for a gun and a bucket." -- Annabel.
Okay, that one was pretty bad.