With writers on strike, can an AI chatbot be as funny as Stephen Colbert?
- By Chelsea Bailey
- BBC News
3 May 2023
Hollywood writers are on strike - and late-night TV is on hiatus. Could AI be a substitute?
For the first time in 15 years, TV and film writers are putting down their proverbial pen in protest, after union negotiations between the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and major studios broke down over concerns about not just wages, but also the use of artificial intelligence to write scripts.
The WGA likened the use of AI in screenwriting to plagiarism and said it was fighting to regulate the technology because it "undermines writers' working standards including compensation."
Among the first casualties of the strike is late-night TV, which relies on a bevy of writers to quickly turn the day's events into comedy gold. So far, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon have all announced a hiatus as writers take to the picket line.
EXPLAINED: Writers Guild of America Strike
We put ChatGPT to the test to see if it could match the brilliance - and comedic minds - of America's favourite late-night hosts and the teams of writers behind them. Within seconds, the bot had drafted a series of jokes. But were they funny?
Can it write a late-night monologue?
First test - we asked ChatGPT to write an opening monologue for Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon with jokes about the writers' strike and artificial intelligence.
Here's some of what it wrote:
"Hey, hey, hey! Welcome to The Tonight Show, everyone. As you may have heard, the Writers Guild of America is on strike, and as a fellow union member, I stand with them in their fight for fair compensation and better working conditions.
"And let me tell you, folks, it's not easy coming up with jokes on the fly without our talented writers. I mean, I'm no robot, but I might have to start using AI-generated punchlines if this strike goes on much longer!..."
"Now, some people might say that we don't need human writers anymore, that machines can do everything better than us. But I don't buy it, folks. I mean, sure, AI can generate jokes based on data and algorithms, but can they come up with a truly original, off-the-cuff joke like this one?
" Okay, here goes: Why did the chicken cross the playground? To get to the other slide! See, that's the kind of classic, timeless humour that only a human brain can come up with. Well, that and maybe a five-year-old's brain, but you get the idea."
As a Late Night with Jimmy Fallon viewer, I felt the AI did a good job capturing Fallon's sincerity about the writers' strike. At the Met Gala, the comedian told Variety he "wouldn't have a show if it wasn't for my writers" and I think you can sense his support for the strike in the AI's monologue.
The "chicken crossing the playground" bit wasn't exactly side-splitting, but it's not far off the mark. Fallon's corny dad-jokes are one of the many reasons viewers love him.
Who's funnier: Stephen Colbert or AI Colbert?
On Monday night, Late Show host Stephen Colbert's opening monologue include a segment about President Joe Biden announcement that he would run for re-election despite concerns over
Worried about his age, and the other 50% were Joe Biden. But let's be real, folks, Biden's age is not a big deal. He's got the energy of a 30-year-old, and the memory of a... well, I forget what I was going to say."
The Biden joke isn't half bad, but there's an important caveat. Biden is actually 80 now, so the joke about him being 78 highlights the algorithm's biggest weakness: The ChatGPT can only reference events that have happened up until 2021. That means it wouldn't be much help to daily late night shows that comment on current events.
I also asked the bot to give me the polling data for the joke about 50% of Americans saying they're worried about Biden's age. It told me "I don't have access to current polling data." For some experts, the lack of accuracy is a huge problem and highlights concerns around AI and the spread of misinformation.
Can it joke about the news?
OK, back to the heart of the matter, can an AI crack a joke? We asked ChatGPT to write a Fallon-style joke about last night's Met Gala and actor Jared Leto's costume. Here's what it came up with:
"Did you guys see the Met Gala last night? It was wild. Jared Leto showed up wearing a full-body chandelier costume. I mean, I've heard of people trying to make a statement with their fashion, but Jared just straight-up said, 'I want to be the fanciest lamp in the room!'"
This joke might have been funny if you hadn't seen any photos from the Met Gala. Jared Leto has worn some daring costumes in the past (including one year when he carried his own head), but he's never dressed as a chandelier. That sartorial honour goes to Katy Perry, who illuminated the Met staircase in 2019.
So what's the verdict?
Rumours of Hollywood's demise at the hands of artificial intelligence appear, at least for the moment, a little exaggerated.
ChatGPT is still in a "research phase," according to its creators, and while the AI is indeed powerful, smart and adaptive, there's still a lot of work to be done when it comes to accuracy and comedic timing.
Overall, I was impressed by ChatGPT's ability to mimic the monologue style and tone of America's biggest late-night hosts, but even it knows its jokes are missing a human touch - just ask AI Stephen Colbert:
"Let's be real, nobody wants to watch a robot do a monologue. Unless it's a robot with impeccable comedic timing and a charming personality. But, you know, good luck finding one of those.
"Anyway, let's hope the WGA and the studios can come to an agreement soon. And if they don't, well, maybe we'll all be out of a job and replaced by robots. Hey, it wouldn't be the first time I was replaced by a machine. Just ask my Roomba."