What’s so funny about technology?

A tech ethicist and improv comedian meet in “Funny As Tech.”

Chris Ip, @chrisiptw
February 28, 2018
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    Moments after he stepped onstage, Joe Leonardo sensed the crowd would be difficult to win over.

    It was a recent Tuesday evening at the Peoples Improv Theater, a New York comedy venue with photos of Stephen Colbert, Will Ferrell and Tracy Morgan on the walls and mantras -- "Follow the fear" -- next to the stage entrance.

    Leonardo and David Ryan Polgar were running behind schedule for their show -- technical difficulties with the projector -- then came out for a cold open.

    "Tonight, we're talking about the future of work," said Polgar. "What are you worried about with the future of work, Joe?"

    "We're all gonna be replaced with robots," Leonardo shot back, looking half expectantly at the crowd of about 30 people, who looked back.

    Polgar moved on to the recent Boston Dynamics video, which bears a disturbing resemblance to the Black Mirror episode "Metalhead." A four-legged robot precisely opens a door for another robot, then holds it for the companion to enter.

    "They're already making me look bad, because there's, like chivalry in robots now," Leonardo said, to murmurs of chuckles. "He opened the door for another robot to go through. So not only is he taking my job, he's making me look like a piece of crap on top of that."

    "The apocalypse is going to be very polite," Polgar replied.

    Polgar is a speaker and writer on technology ethics. With his law degree and blue jeans/black blazer/brown brogues combination, he is more like a professor in the show. Leonardo is an animated improv actor on the famous Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre's house team. He voices the concerns of the everyman, grounding abstract concepts in personal anecdotes or analogies to lighten up the discussion.

    In 2010, the two met at Sea Tea Improv, a Connecticut comedy club Leonardo founded, then started the show Funny As Tech last summer. The idea is to bring discussions about technology's impact to a mainstream audience, with monthly shows as well as a podcast tackling subjects like cryptocurrency or tech addiction.

    While shifts in technology now affect all of us, they're usually discussed in the ivory tower or at industry conferences. Like any subject involving niche expertise, future speculation and no clear-cut answers, it's hard to make entertaining. A show like Funny As Tech presents an alternative: an expert who quotes studies from PricewaterhouseCoopers with a comedian who can make it digestible on the fly. "I'm the flavor to a bland meal," Leonardo told me. "I'm good spicing."

    One theory of what makes things funny is "benign violation": a disruption of our expectations or values but in a harmless way. This is basically what John Oliver does for wonky public policy or what Jon Stewart pioneered for media criticism. Talking about something serious in a comedic fashion allows people to engage with touchy issues without feelings getting hurt. It highlights the absurdities and the BS.

    "Honestly, the most truthful person is the jester next to the king," Leonardo said. "The jester can say things that normal people can't in the court because the jester makes it a joke."

    Whether it's fake news or smartphone addiction, tech today is full of potential violations to our quotidian lives that can be made unserious, and comedians have repeatedly mined it. A Saturday Night Live skit about an Alexa device for elderly people punctures the idea of a clean dialogue with AI through the rambling of actual human communication.

    In Chris Rock's latest Netflix special, he skewers our always-on smartphone culture even as it relates to the weightiness of his divorce. "In 16 years, I had more contact with my ex-wife than my parents did in 40 years," he said. Missing somebody in this day and age is impossible, he continues, because they're constantly in your pocket. "I know everything you did today and I know how people felt about it ... I gave you three smiley faces and an eggplant!"

    The conflict of whether our future is a utopia or dystopia and between the smooth efficiency of technology and our disheveled realities -- all of this creates fertile ground for laughs. In the case of Funny As Tech's future of work show, the recurrent root of the jokes was a fear that automation is destroying jobs, violating our dignity in the process. With a recent Bain & Company study predicting that 20 to 25 percent of jobs may be eliminated in the next 12 years, it may happen sooner than we expect.

    As the show continued, Polgar raised topics like universal basic income with the three guests from the technology world -- Charlie Oliver from Tech2025, which hosts technology events; Galina Ozgur from accelerator Grand Central Tech; and Lisa Cervenka from careers site The Muse. For the most part, it wasn't dissimilar to an academic panel discussion, except it had more quips and a segment where the guests played an improvisational word-association game.

    An audience member asked when we will have the leisure time that widespread automation promises, and Polgar cited 1960s cartoon The Jetsons, where work had become nothing more than pressing two buttons. It sparked an idea for Leonardo, and he tapped Polgar on the shoulder.

    "And how gendered is that show?" Leonardo said. "Their [homemaker] is female. There's no reason to generalize that."

    "Well, we do have Alexa and Siri," Polgar replied.

    The crowd had loosened up by then and was laughing along. In mock outrage, Leonardo banged his fist on an invisible table: "Ah, we're living in The Jetsons!"

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