An unfunny thing happened on the way to AI

January 29, 2024 3:00 am

AI takes on comedian George Carlin. In this 2004 photo, Carlin speaks about his new book, “When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?” at a book signing at Barnes and Noble in New York City. (Stephen Chernin/Getty Images)

Sometimes I open my mouth and a grumpy old(er) man comes out, a cartoon character in mismatched plaids and pants hiked way up. Inside the comic strip bubble above my head I’m yelling, “Hey, get offa my lawn!”

This may be one of those times. Only now the bubble reads, “Hey, Biff. Just because you can use artificial intelligence, doesn’t mean you have to. Especially on George Carlin.”

Normally, I’m prone to embrace new technology, even when I don’t fully understand its capabilities or how to manipulate it. My experience is that having a young person you trust nearby has saved my bacon and bytes more than I can count. That said, I have passion for progress, so neither newfangled nor gee-whiz nor cutting edge gizmos and gadgets send me screaming into the night, a reaction I’ve noticed among some of a certain generation: Mine.

That embrace includes artificial intelligence, AI, the current holy grail among techsters, predicted to change the world as we know it and, according to some, a potential danger unless we understand and use its enormous capabilities well.

I’ve said as much in this space, bemoaning AI’s intrusion into the college essay universe and its power as a tool for misinformation campaigns, but marveling at its possibilities in science, industry, medicine, virtually any arena.

But an hour-long George Carlin concert, with an AI-generated Carlin and audience, a laugh track from the ’50s and animated images to buttress every joke, few of which I found either Carlinesque or funny? Why?

A couple of podcasters using a comedy AI called Dudesy created the Carlin concert, which they call, “I’m Glad I’m Dead.” The title briefly amused me, but the other 59 minutes and 58 seconds had me wondering what the spin rate was for a dearly departed comic genius in his grave.

For many of us, George Carlin was a transformative comedian. His keen, edgy observations on life were at once hilarious but often steeped in searing truths that made him a comic icon, from his days as Al Sleet, the hippy, dippy weatherman, to his “seven words you can’t say on television.” Foolishness was a favorite target of his as he once said, “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”

That’s why we have videos or CDs or even albums of Carlin. We find him, as well, on YouTube. We have ways to watch and rewatch, hearing his extraordinary and expansive comic mind at work in its original form. 

Here’s where we’ve taken ourselves: More than once Dudesy reminded us — rather emphatically — that the video we were about to watch was not really George Carlin. No kidding? 

But bless Dudesy’s little artificial heart. In a world of deep fakes, synthetic speech and the wider palette of generative adversarial network images, it never hurts to check reality these days. 

Never mind the laugh track and the endless arty accouterments, this AI didn’t sound like Carlin. Plus, we never see his face. His expressions and mugging were an integral part of Carlin’s storytelling, humor and insight. 

The AI Carlin riffed on reality TV, mass shootings, social media and, in a bit of irony, AI. Reading the comments from viewers on social media, I found many who loved the show. I get that. One person’s funny is another’s tragedy.

What “I’m Glad I’m Dead” underscores is what AI can never truly recreate: humanity, in this case the distinctive human gift of a comedic virtuoso like George Carlin. That’s the nature of “artificial.”

His daughter, Kelly, recognized as much. “My dad spent a lifetime perfecting his craft from his very human life, brain and imagination,” she said. “No machine will ever replace his genius. These AI generated products are clever attempts at trying to recreate a mind that will never exist again. Let’s let the artist’s work speak for itself. Humans are so afraid of the void that we can’t let what has fallen into it stay there.”

Even though “I’m Glad I’m Dead” covered AI, if Carlin were alive, I would pay good money to hear him gut the idea that just because we can use AI to create George Carlin, layer in a few jokes and observations, sprinkle with AI-generated images, why would we? 

Do I sound like a crotchety Luddite? Yeah, maybe. But shouldn’t we — on our way to a wonderful, AI-infused world — let the singular, human minds of masters be just that: singular and human?

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George Ayoub
George Ayoub

George Ayoub filed nearly 5,000 columns, editorials and features in 21 years as a journalist for the Grand Island Independent. His columns also appeared in the Omaha World-Herald and Kearney Hub. His work has been recognized by the Nebraska Press Association and the Associated Press. He was awarded a national prize by Gatehouse Media for a 34-part series focusing on the impact of cancer on families of victims and survivors. He is a member of the adjunct faculty and Academic Support Staff at Hastings College. Ayoub has published two short novels, “Warm, for Christmas” and “Dust in Grissom.” In 2019 he published “Confluence,” the biography of former Omaha World-Herald publisher and CEO John Gottschalk.