At Comedy Hack Day, technologists and comedians wring laughs out of freshly coded tech products, which also actually function as described.
The winning app from the most recent hack day in New York City, Got This Thing, went live on the web Thursday. It’s an app that makes sure you always have an excuse on your calendar when someone asks you to go somewhere you don’t want to go. If that concept strikes you as funny, that’s precisely the point.
The app arose from the unique ferment that was Cultivated Wit’s Eighth Comedy Hack Day, which took place in New York City in May (it runs a whole weekend—calling it ”hack day” is its first joke). It’s a weekend of generating technology products and belly laughs at once, despite, in the case of this event, losing its Internet connection.
Brian Janosch, a Cultivated Wit cofounder, described this approach as the company’s filter in a recent phone conversation, saying that the hackathons make “comedy, while making sure you don’t lose the smarts of it, and technology is the smarts of it.”
Cultivated Wit was founded by three alums of The Onion and an animation whiz. The Observer spoke to Mr. Janosch as well as the leader of the winning team, Nat Towsen, in order to get a better sense of the environment that ultimately led to this:
See more about the app itself and the business models it might pursue at CNN Money.
Here’s how mixing code with humor enabled the Got This Thing team to make it this far:
Not his first rodeo
“I think it helped that everyone was really lubricated at that point. They also provide these really delicious banh mi sandwiches.”
Mr. Towsen told the Observer that he’d taken part in the New York Comedy Hack Day last year and he hadn’t won, but he spent the time taking mental notes about what seemed to work. His big takeaway: “The concept itself makes people laugh out loud. You don’t have to get to the funny part,” he said.
Mr. Towsen is a rising standup comic in New York City. He’s been hosting Nat Towsen’s Downtown Variety Hour at the UCB East for the last few years.
Mr. Towsen said he walked into the hackathon with two brand new ideas, slightly strung out from a week of late nights doing comedy. Events like this begin with people gathering in a group and individuals pitching the kernel of an idea to everyone else. You “win” the pitch by attracting talented people to work with you. Mr. Towsen was able to recruit a team around his second pitch, in the pitch session’s lightning round at the end.
“Even the pitches, it felt almost like a comedy show,” he said. The pitches had followed an opening social where Cultivated Wit plied everyone with whiskey (what Cultivated Wit cofounder and author of How To Be Black, Baratunde Thurston, likes to call “Whiskey Friday”). “I think it helped that everyone was really lubricated at that point. They also provide these really delicious banh mi sandwiches,” Mr. Towsen said.
Once he had a team, the event got interesting for Mr. Towsen, as he had to ask himself what he could really bring to a group with legitimate technical chops.
“As a writer and a comedian your skills can feel kind of ephemeral,” he said.
But then the organizers took the stage to charge the teams with their work, and that laid all those insecurities to rest. “From the moment they took the mics and explained what was going to happen, everyone was on equal footing,” Mr. Towsen said.
Mr. Janosch, however, has learned to see that same moment from the perspective of the designers and developers. He said that Cultivated Wit hackathons attract people who make technology but have always loved consuming comedy, never having a chance to be part of it.
Then they come to a Comedy Hack Day and use their talents to make real products, but products that are funny.
“Oddly when they asked me I was both honored, and, also at the same time, was like: ‘I got work to do.'”
The work on Saturday took place at General Assembly in Manhattan. Mr. Towsen said his team immediately commandeered one of the conference rooms with huge glass walls that all the other hackers would pass by and see into. A wall inside was all white board. He made a list on the board in huge letters so the other teams could see it as they passed by. It said:
“WAYS TO DEFEAT OTHER TEAMS, CONT’D”
He started the list at #92, cataloguing ideas on the board such as “‘Worms, i.e. computer virus’ and ‘Worms, actual worms.’”
As teams got down to work, the Cultivated Wit team began work on a video they have promised to one of the sponsors, Slack. Lots of hackathons make highlight videos, Mr. Janosch said, but of course theirs has some funny mixed in.
The premise of the series is that at each hackathon they enlist a special mentor, and the mentor makes everything worse. For the New York event, the idea is that a celebrity mentor didn’t show, so they made everyone install mentor software on their computers. Only the software was terrible, spammy malware.
They asked Mr. Towsen to be part of it at one point, for one of the scenes where everyone is freaking out about how bad it is. “Oddly when they asked me I was both honored, and, also at the same time, was like: ‘I got work to do,'” he said.
That’s the response they are going for, Mr. Janosch explained. Another hackathon might set up a ping pong table or invite a guru to come in and give mini-lectures. Making a funny video is the Cultivated Wit approach to give participants this side spectacle that hackers can pause to watch or even take a bit part in.
Mr. Janosch describes that as, “injecting comedy in the right ways but not losing the good parts.” The video, which will cover several hack days, will come out later this year.
They weren’t just providing distractions, though. Mr. Towsen said they also brought a lot of really great pretzel chips.
“Somehow we managed to do a tech event with no internet.”
Mr. Towsen said the team’s developers had to solve two tricky problems along the way.
Initially, they thought to make a minimum viable product using fake events. That was too much, though, so the team shifted to populating with real events, using the Eventbrite API. It made for a better product and better jokes in the demos (the NYC Parks Department Tree Census really is a thing), but it proved to be trickier than they thought it would be.
The real technical leap was the difference the developers made on the ghosting feature. The idea there is that, if you’re out at something and you want to leave, you can hit “Ghost” on the app and it will find a nearby event and give you a notification to use as an excuse.
For the Saturday night demos, Got This Thing’s ghosting feature was taking two minutes to find an event and make a notification, so Mr. Towsen and his fellow presenter and teammate, Evan Kaufman, had to do some sleight of hand to time it right on stage on Saturday.
By the finals, Sunday, the devs had that down to ten seconds.
The comedians themselves hacked their own presentation during the Saturday demo that put them in the final seven.
“Having another comedian to rely on makes a huge difference,” Mr. Towsen said of his presentation partner. “He’s a rock solid improviser,” Mr. Towsen said, which proved critical on stage.
Mr. Towsen explained that when the second to the last line of their script got a much bigger laugh than they expected, the two presenters exchanged the tiniest look and they both decided to stop it right there, coming out of their demo on the highest note they were going to hit, which helped send them on to Sunday, and, ultimately, the championship.
Sunday, Sunday, Sunday!
Mr. Janosch said that he always feels a little funny about the Sunday morning of Comedy Hack Day. After the demos on Saturday, the teams got whittled down to seven, all of whom then had the chance to refine their projects further and demo them in front of a live audience and comedian judges. In this case, that included Aparna Nancherla and Michael Ian Black.
On the other hand, Mr. Janosch is also aware that the finalists are made up of people who have been working hard for more than a day now, on a weekend, and that’s when organizers say to them: congratulations, now you get to do even more work.
Cultivated Wit immediately tries to bring everyone together around the common goal of the show at the end. Mr. Towsen said that the organizers told them Sunday morning, “’We are putting on a comedy show together, not a tech presentation.’ It was a comedy show in the shape of a tech presentation.”
This is another way that the Comedy Hackathon differs from a lot of others. Cultivated Wit has a certain reputation among comedy fans. People who just like watching funny shows actually buy tickets to come see the finals, not to geek out on tech, but to laugh.
Those seven acts just happen to be showing off a product that really (or at least mostly) works.
Mr. Janosch said that some of their audience doesn’t understand that the funny things they see at the Hack Day finals actually work, but he’d rather have that problem than trying to explain why things that work are actually funny.
Who needs the Internet, anyway?
“I think it helps change the mood when you say, ‘We’re all putting on a comedy show.’”—Brian Janosch
Live shows are prone to disaster. Comedians know this. It just so happens that the finals at the most recent hackathon suffered the most disruptive failure that the company has had to overcome in all eight events so far.
“Somehow we managed to do a tech event with no Internet,” Mr. Janosch said.
The finals took place at an auditorium in the New School. It had a good price and a good location. The organizers only saw one problem with it: cell service inside the auditorium was lousy. AT&T and Verizon got effectively nothing. T-Mobile got a little. This could be good, though, they thought. It could mean that their audience isn’t playing on their phones when they should be paying attention to the show.
Except it also meant that they didn’t have a backup if the New School’s Internet went out, and it did. All across the campus, which was only a problem for every single one of the teams.
“There’s no guilty party except Internet service providers, but they are already guilty parties on a lot of levels,” Mr. Janosch said.
In a way, what happened next reflected what was best about doing a funny hackathon. Teams understood they were doing a show more than they were trying to beat each other. So, first, they brainstormed ways they could demos without Internet.
Then, one of the developers found that her T-Mobile phone had some connection. It got better when they opened a door in the back of the stage, that led to an alley. She turned her phone on as a wifi hotspot, taped it to a brick wall where it seemed to work best and connected a computer that everyone could work from by wi-fi.
While they rigged that up, Mr. Thurston kept the crowd laughing and the event staff handed out the Lagunitas beer, another event sponsor. It meant the crowd got a little more beer and a little more comedy.
And, as Mr. Towsen told it, it bonded the finalists together a little more tightly as they worked around this latest setback to put on a good show anyway.
They pulled it off as a group because comedians and technologists both have an important mental discipline in common: they both know how to find success while working within constraints.
By winning, the Got This Thing team won access to Cultivated Wit’s extensive network, expertise and promotional skills. The last Comedy Hack Day winner, Well Deserved: A Marketplace for Privilege, went somewhat viral at launch. Got This Thing is working toward an iOS app next with Android to follow. It is also fundraising. They are looking to raise a trillion dollars, Mr. Towsen told us.
See the team’s finals pitch, plus the judge’s follow up questions, below: