LOL: Why comedians and developers are collaborating on app ideas

New York-based hackathon included professional joke tellers to generate more creative mobile products.

At most hackathons, the worst thing that could happen to a developer is having the crowd burst out laughing at the product ideas they present. At an event in New York City last week, however, cracking up other developers and judges was an essential ingredient to winning the top prize.

Comedy Hack Day, held Sept. 8 and 9 at Pivotal Labs on Broadway, might have been the first time mobile app developers were given an opportunity to compete on teams that included professional comedians in the quest to develop an innovative software idea. At press time, around 100 people had registered for the event, about three-quarters of whom came from the developer side. Comedy Hack Day also attracted a few high-profile judges from both fields, including serial tech entrepreneur/blogger Anil Dash and Daily Show co-creator Lizzy Winstead. Although the participants were not restricted to creating apps, many of the ideas that were offered in the lead-up to the event focused on creative use cases involving mobile users (see chart below).


Organizers of Comedy Hack Day included Cultivated Wit, an organization founded by several former staff members of the satirical newspapers The Onion, which acts as a boutique communications agency. "The whole thesis is that if we bring technology and comedy together, we could make fun and useful products," said Craig Cannon, one of Cultivated Wit's three principals. "This came about as a broader testing of that thesis."

Twilio, which offers cloud-based voice and messaging for mobile apps, was the other Comedy Hack Day co-producer. Twilio saw value in the idea because it reflects some fundamental truths about app creators, said its developer evangelist Jonathan Gottfried. Many developers already have a great sense of humour, he said, and many comedians are more savvy than some would expect, making use of social media platforms like Twitter to reach new audiences.

Twilio's Jonathan Gottfried jokes about development at Comedy Hack Day.

Source: Culivated Wit

Each side can also further develop the other's skills. Developers, for example, are often great on working within tight timelines under enormous amounts of pressure, much like comedians have to come up with a routine or a punch line standing on their feet. Comedians, meanwhile, are experts at improvisation and winning over an audience--an ideal quality for developers who want to do the same with investors or customers. "Hackathons are already very off-the-cuff in terms of how people create these products or apps," Gottfried said.

While the mix of people involved may have been different, the format of Comedy Hack Day mirrorerd other hackathons. Groups brainstormed ideas, formed teams (in this case including a comedian or two), working on code and presenting the initial results to the judges at the end. Prizes were based both on the quality of the product idea and the quality of the comedy, Cannon said.

"We didn't give the judges any constraints on how they would weigh the two things," he said. "We did think about categories like, 'most hiliarious use of data.'"

It remains to be seen how many of the ideas that came out of Comedy Hack Day will actually make it to anyone's iPhone or Android-enabled device. Gottfried said the intellectual property would remain with the teams that presented an idea. The prizes, meanwhile, largely consisted of tickets to comedy shows and other events. Neither money nor prizes were the main reasons developers were willing to invest their time with comedians, however, Gottfried said.

Cultivated Wit livestreamed the event for developers and comedians who couldn't make it to New York.

"The market for developers now is really competitive, but people only do it because they enjoy doing it. They probably work all week for five or six days building software and they come to hackathons as a continuation of that," he said. "It's about the enjoyment of doing the work itself. They want to come somewhere where it's interesting to them and where there's interesting people for them to work with."

Cannon said the organizers were hoping to see similar events run over the course of the year, perhaps in other locations. What's equally important is maintaining a sense of community between the developers and people from the comedy space. This is already a part of Cultivated Wit's culture and that of The Onion alumni, who are known to host Whisky Friday get-togethers.

"We're like this roaming band of tech and comedy folk that take over bars every Friday night," he said.

Whether they made it to Comedy Hack Day or not, Cannon suggested that developers should tap into their inner comedian as a way to create apps that will not only entertain users but strike a chord as well. "Beyond the laughs, comedy can sometimes send an important message," he said.