Dawn of the Software Comedian

Microsoft Songsmith, designed to be a software aide for musical composition, has instead proved to be a great tool for comedy, as early adopters have exploited its bent for generating hilariously inappropriate accompaniments to famous artists’ vocal tracks.

This is an example of how unanticipated or even subversive uses of technology often yield the most creative results, as when early rockers deliberately caused their guitar amps to distort, or rappers invented turntable-scratching.

But I think this particular case also raises an essential point about comedy: that it often arises from people unintentionally behaving like machines. As noted by Suzanne K. Langer and others, comic characters are often those who must helplessly follow the dictates of their obsessions, addictions, or other pre-occupations, right into some ridiculous disaster. Think Homer Simpson pursuing food, beer or TV.

Songsmith is inherently comic because of the way, by following its algorithms, it blunders into inappropriate musical choices. But Songsmith is not a person brought down by mechanistic behavior, it’s a machine brought down by mechanistic behavior – a machine that parodies itself. That is something.

Maybe there’s potential here for something new: non-human comedians. Say, for example software that, instead of doing work, just constantly suffers Charlie Chaplin style pratfalls for our entertainment. Microsoft was already part-way there with Windows and Internet Explorer, but those products’ failures are just infuriating, because they purport to enable work. Songsmith, on the other hand, makes no such promise. So when it misses the mark in spectacular fashion, it’s kind of adorable – and funny.

Also published at O’Reilly Broadcast.

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