Baratunde may host Comedy Hack Day, but Matt Klinman might now be considered the star of the show. Matt, if you read that sentence and laugh, thinking to yourself “that’s absurd,” well it’s NOT! Okay!? You’re a star, Matt! A two-time champion and A STAR!!
Sorry. Where were we? Right, last month at Comedy Hack Day at the MIT Media Lab Klinman contributed to the winning Truth For Humanity team, but he also took the stage alone to demo Clickstrbait. This was one of the most satirically pointed demos we’ve ever had at a Comedy Hack Day, targeting sites like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Upworthy, and others guilty of tweeting out links with text like, “You’ll never believe what this 10 year old did with his allowance!” And as somebody who once fancied himself a journalist this demo particularly tickled me.
I talked with Matt a few weeks back about the inspiration for this creation.
This seemed like a little more of a passion project for you. What sparked it?
I wanted that target. I picked the target first because I just hate that click bait shit. In San Francisco I pitched an idea that identified click bait and turned it all into a message that said “fuck you.” But I fine tuned it a little and landed on something that hit the target a little better.
What is it about click bait that drives you so crazy?
It’s because there is that part of your brain that makes you do it. Sometimes I’ll click on some Buzzfeed article or something and I’ll immediately close it before the page even loads. Because I get mad at myself. It’s hard for me to even imagine a corollary until the internet. Honestly, I prefer what the New York Post does, and the post is the bottom of the fucking barrel.
So how does that rage get channeled into a Comedy Hack Day idea?
Friend Nick Mirra made a cool Tumblr where he took old, classic papers like the Hindenburg front page and made them into click bait. This type of journalism—if you can even call it that—it’s such a stupid, dumb little thing that I feel like we can take it down if we just make fun of it enough. If we shame it enough, we can maybe bring it down. It feels empty or fragile. It just can’t be that strong.
It’s interesting that you call it empty, and I agree. Or maybe I would call it shallow or cheap, but I feel you. And yet a major satirical target of Clickstrbait is clearly Upworthy, which positions itself as having a little more of a purpose behind it.
I don’t know, maybe it’s how sanctimonious they are about it. I understand what they are going for, but that teasing or playing to the least common denominator, it’s just not worth it. Maybe that approach has helped some important causes? But I’m not sure if it’s worth it?
So explain how it all came together at the Media Lab?
The idea of making the site randomly generated was the way to try and show that robots could do this. The hope being that that aspect would point out how stupid it is. Kevin Foley from Squarespace approached me and said he thought he could do the click bait thing. My original idea was just to pair pictures and the headline. I wanted to make every noun interchangeable, but it seemed simplest over a weekend to do two halves of sentences. It worked surprisingly well. I laughed every time I refreshed.
It’s interesting that you moved toward an attempt to—at least somewhat—automate comedy. When Baratunde spoke at the Media Lab earlier this year a lot of the conversation was about whether comedy could be programmed. I’m curious of your take on that based on this experiment.
Somebody made a joke generator at some point, I think, that was in the construction of “I like my _____ like I like my _____: ______” A lot of it wound up anti-jokey, and didn’t work. But randomness is a comedy thing now. I used to have this ad executive character I’d crafted who would always be saying “our ads are not random enough!” … Humans need structure, but the computer will always subvert your expectations. That’s the place where it gets interesting, but you can always trace the logic. So much of comedy is following things to their logical conclusion, and in the case of robots or whatever it’s a different sort of breaking down. You assess the “joke,” and try to see where it went wrong. Discovering that is often where the humor becomes present for that stuff.