I’m a stand up comic and I love New York City. Though more or less a California native (I wasn’t born there, but grew up in southern California starting at the age of 2), I had a stint in New York for close to 6 years, and the City never left me, even though I have been back in California, and Los Angeles specifically, since 2008. Some places speak to you. Others take up permanent residence inside of you, no matter where you may travel. New York, stupidly expensive rents and all, has done that to me. I bring this up for two reasons. One, to explain why I jumped at the chance to take part in a weekend-long, comedy-centered hackathon in New York, even though I live on the other coast. Well, actually, I think I just explained it. Two, because the reason I love New York so much ties into some broader impressions I learned that weekend about the nature of comedy, collaboration, and evolving mediums for both.
Let’s start with the title of this post. Comedy Hack Day 8 was an event put on by Cultivated Wit, the awesome website and company founded by four brilliant, funny and freakishly kind human beings known as Baratunde Thurston, Brian Janosch, Craig Cannon, and Adam Peterson. As you can probably guess, Comedy Hack Day 8 (“CH8”, from now on), was the 8th comedy hackathon that the company had put on. I knew little about what these hack days actually entailed. All I knew was they looked to merge comedy with tech in a somewhat satirical, somewhat competitive atmosphere, and at the end of it, a group of teams presents a funny app that they developed over the weekend to a panel of judges.
New York: The common sentiment about Manhattan is that it is an island, inhabited by over 9 million tiny islands unto themselves. A bunch of isolated souls, stuck in a rat race, and blah blah blah. This is prime petri dish conditions, in theory, for a stand up comic. After all, what is more isolating than the would-be stand up comedian, up on stage, just a person and a mic, trying to make a bunch of jaded individual citizens of The Metropolis lose their edge, or maybe lean harder on it, through a perfectly realized comedy set? It’s a crucible and a tightrope walk, and it all depends on what the guy or gal with the mic is saying and doing. Perfect for the city that inspired Philippe Petit to balance on a tightrope between the Twin Towers in the 1970's. Another added bonus of being a stand up in the city is the constant stream of human anthropological examples, both mundane and extreme, on constant display. When everyone is locked in their own tiny selfie-verse, running around, it is easy to be a journalist of sorts, looking at everyone and not being noticed, taking it all in, and filtering for broader comedic truths, contained in tiny specific nuggets.
I think some of that last paragraph is true. But the full truth is of course more complex, and mostly, contradicts that last paragraph as well. New York is way more cuddly than the individuals in a rat race stereotype would have you believe. It’s a city that absolutely should not work, but does, because everyone who lives there and visits there, enters a sacred compact where everyone is going to get their hustle on, but not without conceding on some level that they are part of a much bigger organism which connects everyone. There is a near mystical order to the chaos that is New York, and it comes from a million little collaborations between its citizens and visitors everyday, whether those collaborations are explicit or simply a part of internal muscle memory or logic. From the subway system, to the maze of the Village, to the shared space of all the parks, to just crossing the street when there are no cars coming, even when the sign says you aren’t supposed to; all of these little agreements add up to a place where the energy is constant and part of a greater flow, and which also allows the city to constantly regenerate and redefine itself. The individual souls keep taking from the giant energizing battery that is the city, and the city keeps receiving from the constant collaborative agreements that allow it to not only function, but oftentimes thrive.
Which brings me to my Comedy Hack Day 8 experience. There were four broad categories of Comedy Hack Day participants — comedians (general category which could apply to writers, stand ups, improv peeps, and so on), user experience people, designers, and programmers. Some people were a combination of these things, while some like me came in with one skillset. I was one of the soloists, with my specialty being comedy.
After some mingling we started a marathon round of pitching app ideas, the purpose of which was to attract others to your idea or ideas so you could build a superteam that would then spend the next 36 hours or so trying to make an app that was both functional, and funny.
I did my best with quickly pitching around six half-baked ideas. While I thought all of them had some merit, none of them were quite strong enough to attract a team, so I joined a partially formed team and proceeded to dive deep into an idea we all settled on after a few hours of batting things around. It was an app called Emoji-Me, which utilized basic “facial recognition software” to examine a photo for faces, and would process the face to reveal what the face is actually feeling, as opposed to what is only being expressed. It would show this emotion in the form of an emoji. Or, put more simply, it is Google translate, for your face. Of the twenty four or so teams that presented, only seven would make it to the final round where we would present to a panel of judges. We had a successful initial round and were lucky enough to make it to the final round, though we didn’t “win” the competition.
The thing was, for all the teams, it really wasn’t about winning anything. There was no real prize to speak of, other than admittedly cool shout outs from some respected comedy and tech leaders. Here is where I want to draw a line to my earlier statements about what makes New York work. The entire process at CHD8 was about building something together, and collaborating in a team environment so that we could not only make a functional app in record time, but also about bringing some silly joy and hopefully some real thought to an audience that just wanted to see smart and creative and funny people come together to make something fun. There was no individual jockeying for the number 1 position. Every single team sank or swam based on the strength of its collaboration, not on the power of any individual personality. Nearly every person on every team was a strong, smart and funny person in their own right, so the only way to make something in a short amount of time that worked and that also hit the comedy sweet spots was to kill all ego in service of a bigger, funny idea. This point was reiterated on the morning of the final show, when the teams who were selected to go to the final round were treated to the equivalent of a giant TV writer’s room meeting . Everyone was given the chance to talk about each others’ presentations, giving notes on how to make things smoother, punching up jokes to make them funnier, and so on. It was all about every person involved putting on a great comedy show, so that everyone involved could shine, no matter which team you were on. It was quite a beautiful thing.
The weekend was all about humor and truth and smarts, but it had less to do with an individual personality, than about the bigger comedic idea, and the pragmatic knowledge needed to bring it to life. Indeed, even when presenting on stage at the Finals, the apps being demonstrated on the big screen behind us were far bigger “stars” than any one person on the stage from any team. For a stand up comic who is used to being a solo prize fighter, seeing the power and the benefit of a bunch of smart minds coming together like that was pretty transformative. It was a revelation for a stand up comic like me. Suddenly, improv people made sense to me, just for starters.
More than anything, it was a generosity of spirit, spearheaded by the Cultivated Wit/Comedy Hack Day organizers, which permeated the proceedings from the moment all of us arrived, till the glorious drunken moments when we were all celebrating each others’ beautiful ridiculousness after the show was done. Whether you work in tech, app development, or comedy, you are always on your hustle. But like the glorious city which hosted this particular Hack Day, once you give in to its rhythms, you realize that your hustle is in service of and indebted to a million little secret and not so secret collaborations that lead to a big roiling laughing silly beast that gives and takes and gives and takes. There are no selfies being celebrated here. Only a big room full of brains and belly laughs.