What is Botnik and How Did They Write That Weird CollegeHumor Video?

Hi, I’m Nat Towsen, a writer/editor at Botnik Studios, the creative tech company that wrote the script for the video that you just watched. (If you haven’t, watch it now or you won’t understand this article.)

Botnik: What We Do

Botnik is both a tech company and a creative studio. We build creative writing tools and use them to write comedy that neither a human nor computer could create on their own. Our primary tool is Voicebox, a predictive text keyboard much like the word suggestions in a text messaging app.

Where your phone suggests the words that you would most likely use next (by analyzing everything you’ve ever typed — try not to think about it), Voicebox can suggest the words most likely to come next in any body of text you choose. So if, for example, you wanted to write like J.K. Rowling, you could upload a .txt file of the Harry Potter books and use the suggested words to write your own chapter.

Voicebox in action.

How We Wrote This Script

I led a team of three writers to put this piece together. We started by taking fifty-nine scripts from previous Hardly Working sketches and using a simple program to separate the dialogue by character (okay, one of our developers did this for us). This gave us one text document for each character, containing all of that character’s dialogue (and one for action/description).

We uploaded each document to Voicebox, creating a predictive text keyboard for each character. You can try them for yourself: Ally, Grant, Katie, Raphael, Rekha, Siobhan, Trapp, Action

Using these keyboards, we held our first writing jam, creating lines of dialogue and action with no plot in mind. The only requirements given to us by CollegeHumor Head Writer Mike Trapp were that the script be 3–5 pages and that it be set in their office. He also provided brief descriptions of each character — we were familiar with the source material, but these summaries helped us keep their voices in mind as we wrote.

Writing with Voicebox can be require abstract solutions. Sometimes, you have an idea of what you want to write, but you just can’t find a way to phrase it with the words available (bear in mind, each character’s keyboard contains only words they’ve spoken in a CollegeHumor sketch). The phrase “…it looks like a oil paint” was as close as I could get to what I was trying to say, which was that everything gets blurry. I could have finessed that line in the editing process, but I chose to let it stand to let the process show and to see what the CollegeHumor team would do.

Noticing a lot of lines starting with “How about…” where characters were making suggestions, we decided early on to set the sketch at a pitch meeting. After a few days of submissions, we voted on our favorite lines of dialogue using a simple, reddit-like voting tool called Wodehouse. I exported the votes to a spreadsheet and copied the most popular lines to a blank document, adding a few favorites of mine that didn’t get many votes.

I began arranging the dialogue and action into a rough plot, starting with the pitch meeting. We seemed to have written a lot of surreal action — permuting and recontextualizing language leads to some bizarre results. So I decided that, throughout the sketch, the reality would progressively break down. I added the throwaway scene in the beginning (before Trapp enters) as a way of keeping some of my favorite lines. It also establishes that this is a normal day in the office, while still indicating that something is a bit off from the start.

As the script started to take shape, I made note of what was missing: more characters expressing confusion, characters realizing that they are in a computer simulation, Trapp saying that there’s no way out, etc. We then held a “targeted jam” over Slack: I gave these prompts to the writers, who used the Voicebox keyboards to write new copy. Often, I’d give them feedback and they’d use the tools to rewrite.

Using the new copy from the targeted jam, I filled in the gaps of the script, putting together a rough draft. The final scene, the Duck Amuck homage in which we pull out and realize that Trapp has been controlling the reality, was something I thought of while working on this draft. I wrote the scene by myself, using the Trapp keyboard and the Action keyboard. After many attempts, the closest I could get to “Ain’t I a stinker?” using the Trapp keyboard was “Ain’t I a shitty bitch?” I laughed to myself in my dark apartment at 3AM.

I showed the new draft to the group. We discussed the supernatural elements, disagreeing over whether the giant, winking hole in the floor would be feasible. We compromised by keeping the hole, but making sure all other reality breaks were only described within dialogue, allowing CollegeHumor to decide what to depict visually.

We also disagreed over one particular line of action, the second sentence of the entire script: “He will pass away underneath the couch exactly one year from today.” One writer made the compelling argument that we should only include action/description that can be seen visually. Ultimately, I kept the line to signal to the performers early on that this would be a less straightforward script than usual and because I felt it was a good indicator of the fragility of Grant’s innocence. Interestingly enough, the folks at CollegeHumor found a way to depict the line visually (with that wonderfully sinister focus rack).

With a full script in place, we tallied the lines of dialogue spoken by each character. We learned that some characters had twice as many lines as others and decided to reassign some of their dialogue. To make sure that a line sounded authentic to another character’s voice, we either rewrote the line using the other characters Voicebox keyboard, or pasted the line into the keyboard and edited it piece by piece until it felt more natural.

Deciding that the video needed a title, we fed the titles of every Hardly Working video into Voicebox to create a new keyboard. Finally, we sent the script to Trapp, who had a few small notes. We made the adjustments and submitted a final script, identical in form to a usual Hardly Working shooting script.

The Final Product

I’m amazed by how much CollegeHumor chose to depict visually. The granola bar gag is perfect. I didn’t know what Katie speaking “like a sprinkler” would look like, but I love what she actually did. The set change for “the desks aren’t usually this sasquatch” goes above and beyond what I could have expected. And, as simple as it is, the way the cast sits around “like a bunch of dumb candles”

We did not discuss the decision to include the scrolling script or the narrator. I didn’t know about it until I saw a rough cut. I like how it adds another layer of self-reference to the video.

Outtakes

As with any Botnik project, there were lines of copy that we loved but could not find a place for. Here are a few favorites that didn’t make the cut:

GRANT: I can’t just drink a bunch of water. It’s so friggin boring. Urine, now that is soup to me.

TRAPP: It’s that American garbage that we call organized crime and I’m the turkey that can beat it, sucker.

Trapp was supposed to say this while dressed as a detective but we cut it for pacing.

TRAPP: To take a break, let’s all have a tiny shower, then come back.

This made it to the penultimate draft but was cut to save the cast from having to wet their hair.

GRANT: Pitching sketches is overrated. What about being sarcastic?

KATIE (sarcastically): You’re real brains.

This was cut from the pitch meeting for time, and because Katie already had the second-most lines.

KATIE: You know what? See how you guys like it when I don’t interact with you ever. Hey! Stop ignoring me!

We could write another sketch with the Katie lines that we cut.

KATIE: My ass vibes are freaking butts today.

ALLY: I ashed on you.

Katie flinches.