Circling around the comedy writing sphere are tales of wonder and fear about a particular beast, a name spoken of in hushed tones only: ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating language model which is going to take our jobs, kill the entire field of creative writing, et cetera et cetera.
In reality, not quite. Its actual ability to pump out good jokes is hit-or-miss at best,
and simply nonexistent at worst.
It seems that, for now, our comedy writing jobs are safe from ChatGPT’s cold, mechanical, but apologetic grasp. Let’s ask the inverse question: can ChatGPT help us at all as comedy writers?
So, here are some ways that we’ve found ChatGPT to be helpful in our comedy writing:
As we just saw, ChatGPT isn’t necessarily the best at coming up with killer jokes every time. However, its ability to generate many iterations on the same idea makes it pretty good at coming up with angles for jokes.
Okay, clearly these aren’t that great, and most of them don’t really make any comedic sense (jokes 7 through 10 are just puns of other, non-egg-related foods). In fact, these jokes sound more like Dave Letterman shouting at a wall in a nursing home. Fair enough. But what can be helpful is taking ChatGPT’s ideas and refining them into punchlines that actually make sense.
For example, take Joke #4, “I heard the egg shortage is so bad, the Easter Bunny is now hiding plastic eggs.” This isn’t the worst thing ever, but it isn’t great since it actually is common to have plastic eggs hidden instead of the very traditional hard-boiled ones. This ChatGPT joke fails given the cultural context. That said, this joke’s angle– relating the egg shortage to Easter egg hunts– is one that I, at least, didn’t think of immediately. The comedy writer can then use this angle to write a joke that actually makes a little more sense based on that original angle from ChatGPT (something like “I heard the egg shortage is so bad that the world has become a real-life Easter egg hunt.”)
But the joke could be improved further. ChatGPT may trend towards the corny because it can only identify as a joke what is explicitly referred to as a joke in a text source somewhere online. This is why you may notice that a lot of the joke formulations include hackneyed setups like: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” and “I heard X is so bad that….” These kinds of overwrought setups lead the listener to expect a joke. This expectation may go against the purpose of a punchline which is often intended to surprise. So, perhaps, a more subtle variation might read: “A shortage in eggs has led many consumers to spend hours searching for available eggs. But the good news is: we’re all super prepared for Easter.”
As a note, not even all of them are that bad – Joke #2 in particular is actually pretty solid. And even if you don’t like the punchline of “scrambled air”, it’s easy to keep the angle and just change the punchline to “scrambled water” or “scrambled dollar bills” or whatever you think is the real comedy meat-and-potatoes.
As any comedy writer will tell you, a significant amount of time is spent Googling random nonsense like “most pretentious names for a dog” or “place names in England that sound really old” to help nail the voice that goes into your setup and punchline. This is one area in which ChatGPT really excels, since– despite some controversy about its factual accuracy– it’s pretty darn good at giving weird specifics for all sorts of voices.
While this task isn’t that hard to do on your own, ChatGPT can make it easier and more efficient, and it can even inject a little bit of new creativity in the same way that working with a partner can. I might not have thought of “ghost ship in the clouds,” and that’s valuable help, even if it doesn’t end up getting used verbatim.
Here some other examples of ChatGPT being helpful with some comedic voices:
The life of a comedy writer is filled with notebooks, Word documents, and scribbly Post-Its with ideas that sometimes make you look like a schizophrenic in the sober light of day. A recent look at my notebook reveals these uncut gems: “invisalign Joe Biden,” “thong diaper” and “hipster scribe.” We generally refer to this as the premise of a scene or sketch.
The premise can be the hardest and most creative part of the comedy writing process. It is the “je ne sais quoi” of comedy. It is the “fart doctor” of the art form.
While comedy writers have their own methods of generating these ideas (personally, I just walk around and write down random funny thoughts triggered by what I observe), ChatGPT can be helpful in spurring ideas and identifying strange juxtapositions that lead to comedy.
Once you’ve got a premise in mind, the next step is to turn that premise into game, which is the repeated pattern of funny behavior that escalates the scene. For example, the “game” of a sketch parodying nature documentaries could be that the lead cameraman is afraid of animals and keeps dropping the camera, or that David Attenborough keeps calling animals by the wrong name because they aren’t paying him enough for this one, and so on. All of these are examples of taking our premise–a parody of a nature documentary–and turning it into a game.
This is where ChatGPT falls the most behind.
As we can see in this example, ChatGPT gives some more specific options for the premise of the sketch, but never delves into any specifics on the game, preferring instead to refer nebulously to the characters’ “hilarious” antics. This reminds us: ChatGPT doesn’t actually know what’s funny, and that’s up to us to figure out.
Here, ChatGPT again fails to really get a game going. We provide the premise–someone who is afraid of bananas–but ChatGPT doesn’t really develop that much in the “funny” direction. The only pitch I really liked here was #7, following the universal truth that “serious situation + banana = funny”, but ChatGPT still only provides the barest idea.
While it’s a genuinely creative premise, it’s not really getting to a game. ChatGPT can help us get to a more specific premise (maybe I like the work presentation idea so much that I decide to write that one), but it doesn't really get us to game (which would be something like the character making increasingly ridiculous excuses about why they can’t do the presentation).
As we can see here, ChatGPT isn’t really great at blending concepts to create game, either. Some sketches / scenes can come together from the combination of two ideas, which requires a nuance in weaving the two concepts together. Despite missing the word “children’s” in the prompt, we see ChatGPT use both ingredients (Congress words and soccer things), but it doesn’t really combine them into game. Rather, it just has the Congresspeople play a game of soccer and use Congress-sounding metaphors. A true blend would look more like a beat where a goalie scores on themselves to appease their constituents, or where a player gets so into playing that they bet their district on a penalty kick. These examples integrate soccer and Congress at a base level, rather than just in some surface-level wordplay.
In our contemporary John Henry vs. the Machine (Comedy Writer vs. the Chatbot), that’s one point for us.
Once you’ve got a game in mind, ChatGPT can once again be helpful in executing the specifics if you feed it the game. Coming in with the general direction of “let’s poke fun at nature documentarians for filming animals getting eaten all the time”, ChatGPT spits out some ways to play the game of the sketch. It misses the point of the prompt a bit–these premises aren’t all necessarily making fun of the callous nature of documentarians per se–but it does actually generate quite a good and creative list of potential sketches very quickly (personally, I really didn’t see “Eat, Pray, Film” coming).
For a sketch writer, it’s easy to see how some of these could translate into a sketch with the original intent quite well. For example, “Nature’s Next Top Predator” could escalate by having the filmmakers view grislier and grislier animal deaths with extreme ambivalence, and then the kicker / button is that the trophy is made of the prey’s remains, the winner is ecstatic, and the host is grossed out. Boom, a solid and creative sketch outlined in <5 minutes.
For those comedy writers who lean more in the TV or web series direction, ChatGPT is also a great way to kick around some episode ideas.
Even if these aren’t enough to power an entire episode on their own, they can be a great jumping-off point. Honestly, these pitches aren’t that great. Pitch #4 could definitely be a full episode. Combine this idea with some other help from ChatGPT…
…and you’re well on your way to a full episode outline, with a few concrete jokes to boot.
Whether writing for sketch, TV pilots, or web series, naming characters can be a huge pain (“No, that name’s too common, but no, that one’s too weird…”) and a major time sink. ChatGPT is great at generating lists of names with specific attributes, and then you can look around and find one that fits from there!
As you can see, ChatGPT has some great name options for the protagonist of my sitcom pilot satirizing the 16th-century Byzantine Empire.
Whether you need help with your punchlines, angles, or premises, ChatGPT can help to generate a lot of material fast. Then, you can focus your creative effort on refining and focusing those gems in the rough that ChatGPT manages to spit out.
Ah, ChatGPT. Faithful to the end.
For more info about what ChatGPT can and can’t do for us writers, check out our other blog post about it here.