On Stage: artificial intelligence meets artificial stupidity

From The Chicago Reader, Friday, October 21, 1994.

Daniel Goldstein loves rules. As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin he studied artificial intelligence, the branch of computer science that imbues machines with the rules of thought. As a graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago, Goldstein works on computer models of cognition, studying the rule sets that govern how people perceive the physical world.

But in his off hours Goldstein is an improv actor. On its face this might seem like a contradiction. Surely improv doesn't suit the temperament of a binary guy like Goldstein. In improv, you're supposed to push the limits, break the rules, go a little nuts. But Goldstein likes to perform, and in Hyde Park any performer worth his salt improvises. What to do?

Design a computer program to generate rules for improvisation, of course. And base it on the dumbed-down world of TV sitcoms.

Goldstein's idea was born in a computer lab course called Practicum in Artificial Intelligence, taught by Kristian Hammond, who along with being a world-class computer scientist is the handsome but usually troubled lead in Cast on a Hot Tin Roof, the improvised spoofs of Tennessee Williams plays performed by the Free Associates every weekend at the Bop Shop. When Hammond charged his students with coming up with programs that would have "cocktail-party appeal," one student designed a system to help people select movies according to their tastes. Another wired a computer to a VCR to monitor how people played the Nintendo game Street Warrior and offer suggestions for better play. And Goldstein conjured up something called "Structuralist Gilligan."

"It used structuralist principles," he explains with academic seriousness, "to find plot resolutions to episodes of Gilligan's Island." The concept was that sitcoms, like languages and computer programs, have a grammar, or basic framework, on which all new iterations of the form are built. "First there's an initiating event, like news that the island is sinking or someone is arriving unexpectedly," says Goldstein. "Then there are the conflicts, how different people respond. Third, there are the actions, how the conflicts play out, and finally the resolution that restores everything to the way it was before the show started." Goldstein fed a computer the plot elements from many sitcoms and had it to analyze them for common structural elements. Then he designed a program that could apply that structure to any set of circumstances. Artificial intelligence meets artificial stupidity.

Goldstein's program soon went from lab to stage. On a car trip down to Memphis, he and fellow improviser John Bourdeaux got to talking about the program, and Bourdeaux suggested they form a troupe and try it live. Back in Chicago they assembled a group of actors, drilling them in the grammar of the sitcom and in how to stay within the form's half-hour time constraint.

The troupe--named Sitcom, appropriately--doesn't re-create or spoof specific shows; rather, it follows the same rules as Goldstein's computer program, applying the look and feel of a television comedy to characters and situations created on the spot. Using a collection of 56 cubes, the actors construct sets as they go, creating tables, loveseats, and kitchens on demand. Two musicians spin jaunty new theme music to punctuate the action. The performance I saw involved a pair ot twins who had inherited an Eastern European spy headquarters and hoped to turn it into a cabbage restaurant. The first act was a "pilot" episode; the second act presented another episode with the same characters, concerning the wacky consequences when one of the twins confused a recipe for a bomb with a recipe for a pie. The characters and improvising were strong and intelligent--in an appropriately dumb kind of way. But the most enjoyable part came in learning just how much we know about sitcoms, how absolutely predictable they are, and how they hook us nonetheless.

Goldstein eventually hopes to move the show to a permanent north-side venue, and he has dreams of applying his program to bigger fish. "I hope we can eventually start a mill for cranking out sitcoms plots to sell to Hollywood. We generate an enormous number of plots, and all we have to do afterward is type them up." Now there's a way to fill up those 500 TV channels we've been promised.

Sitcom performs Thursday through Saturday, October 20 through 22, at 8 PM in the first-floor theater of the Univeristy of Chicago's Reynolds Club, 5706 S. University. Tickets are $6. Call 702-7300 for info.

Copyright, Ted C. Fishman

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