“I want to kill everybody who listens to me as I stumble around this world,” says the character Anthony Bourdain in one scene of a short three-act sketch called “Parts Unknown.” “So what happens if I want to eat up a big freaking octopus?” Bourdain asks later. “What do you think of food and water?” Though the lines may seem like inscrutable nonsense, they’re actually based on the most common phrases the celebrity chef uses on his CNN show.
The human hand behind Bourdain’s blather is that of Jamie Brew, head writer of the Onion‘s viral-content parody website Clickhole, who guides a custom application that creates sketches based on predictive text. It’s script writing as a Choose Your Own Adventure game: Brew types in a word and, much like a cell phone will suggest words or phrases, the application offers up a few guesses as to what the next word might be. He picks one, gets a few more options based on that choice, and the whole thing goes on until he decides he’s written a scene. The result is The Program, a live show featuring sketches, music, visual art, and a machine on stage that Brew calls a “Hal-like computer.”
Smartphones predict words based on common conversational phrases, but Program’s most-used expressions feed off a variety of sources. “One sketch is generated using all the one-star Yelp reviews for the Statue of Liberty, one starts with Romeo and Juliet as a source and adds some other things in there,” Brew says. “What’s the most likely next word based on the combined sources of Romeo and Juliet and a contemporary erotic novel and the lyrics of Prince?”
Brew first dabbled with the idea of using his phone’s predictive function to write short sketches and songs, then applied the knowledge he acquired from a few college computer science classes to write a program that would draw from specific source material. This year he used it to produce an X-Files script, Craigslist ads, and a scarily accurate transcript of the GOP and Democratic presidential debates.
This is the first time that scripts generated by Brew’s computer will be performed live, and he hopes it won’t be the last. “I don’t know if it will be sketch shows, musical revues, or whatnot,” he says, “but I don’t intend for this to be the end of the line.”
The Program 6/3-6/24: Fri 8:30 PM, iO Theatre, 1501 N. Kingsbury, theprogram.online, $14.