Empty Laughter

Ed Zitron 15 min read

Amongst the sludge of AI-powered everything at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, a robbery took place.

“Dudesy —” allegedly a “comedy artificial intelligence” with its own podcast — put out an hour-long “impression” of George Carlin, in which it had “listened to all of Carlin’s material” and “[done] its best to imitate his voice, cadence and attitude, as well as the subject matter [it] thought might have interested him today.” The special was created without the permission or blessing of Carlin’s family, with his daughter Kelly saying that “humans are so afraid of the void that we can’t let what has fallen into it stay there.”

Before we go any further, it’s worth discussing how we got to this point, as it’s illustrative of the motivations and desperations that lead to such a craven act of grave robbing.

The Dudesy podcast itself is deeply bizarre, featuring comedians Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen acting on the whims of Dudesy, an “artificial intelligence” that does everything from create a fictional diary of Sasso’s childhood to surprise them with guests like Neil deGrasse Tyson, all while sloppily lining up as many opportunities for Sasso to croak out his own impressions. The reason I keep writing “allegedly” whenever I refer to Dudesy as an AI is that I cannot seem to find, other than its slightly clunky voice-work, any tangible information as to how much of “Dudesy” is, in fact, artificial intelligence.

An investigation by Claire Wilson of Business Intelligence for B.C. claimed that Dudesy is a company that works with Sasso and Kultgen, and that a Non-Disclosure Agreement forbids them from discussing it further. An expert told Wilson that the AI is likely “involved,” with “some aspects…probably manually managed and curated by humans,” with another positing that Dudesy has an AI team of “prompt engineers” (IE: people that know what to type to get what they want out of generative intelligences) using a combination of tools like ChatGPT, and I’d guess one of the many pieces of voice cloning software like ElevenLabs, which raised $19 million in 2023 from investors like Deepmind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman.

Dudesy’s “state of the art entertainment AI” is far more likely someone typing stuff into a chatbot and “surprising” two comedians with things like “getting a colonoscopy” and “a fake autobiography of Tom Hanks where he says curses.” Despite the claims that Dudesy has somehow ingested Sasso and Kultgen’s work, or that it somehow “learns” and “generates data that will be used to make the next episode better,” it appears to be more likely that it uses a combination of readily-available tools patched together to “surprise” two comedians clearly in on the act.

When you remove the artifice of “Dudesy, the entertainment AI,” Dudesy as a podcast becomes something far more grim — two comedians awkwardly riffing with a disembodied voice, all with the chemistry of two people being held hostage by a contract they deeply regret signing. The podcast has also struggled to retain its initial momentum, with viewership tumbling from 160,000 views on the first episode to around 40,000 an episode for the last 9 months, with the exception of the George Carlin special which sits at 55,000 views at the time of writing.

This may be why the team (be they Sasso, Kultgen, or some sort of unnamed artificial intelligence company) is getting desperate, with Dudesy creating an hour-long “Tom Brady” stand-up special in April 2023 that led to almost-immediate threats of legal action as a means of drumming up interest in the show. The special itself (which was removed by Dudesy but remains online elsewhere) is both deeply unfunny and poorly-executed, featuring a two-minute-long “riff” about money that is — and I don’t say this lightly — one of the single worst things I’ve ever heard.

“Dudesy” claims to have generated the jokes based on “hours of Tom Brady interviews and hundreds of thousands of hours of astonishing standup comedy to generate the first simulated hour-long stand-up comedy special in history,” and while I dispute the amount of training data used, I fully believe that this was generated by somebody who has read the text of thousands of standup routines as a means of creating one “joke.” It’s hollow, agonizing, and shows an utter loathing for creativity and art, seeing human beings as a collection of things they’ve said rather than existing in a continuum of their own lives.

Digital Larceny

Dudesy’s George Carlin special, technologically-speaking, feels far more polished and runs with several preemptive defenses, insisting that it is "an impersonation” and “not George Carlin” before proceeding to call it “George Carlin’s I’m Glad I’m Dead.” AI Carlin’s voice — other than only kind of, sort of sounding like him — lacks any of his grit and venom, replaced with a sanitized voice and, crucially, none of the facial movements and actions that gave his work such power.

While I’m not going to walk through the entire routine, it begins by violating Carlin’s legacy with an agonizing rant about God — how we thank God for the good things, and frame bad things as a “test.” In a vacuum, this joke is painfully trite, feeling far more like something you’d hear from a college open mic night, rather than one of the most important comedians of the 20th century, with a legacy that remains highly relevant to this day:

Dudesy: People are always thanking God for the good stuff in their lives, but somehow they conveniently forget that it's the same God who does all the bad shit too and he does a lot of bad shit. You get a promotion, praise Jesus. You get fired. God is testing me. You meet your soulmate. God brought us together. Your soulmate dumps you. God is bringing me someone else. You survive a tornado. I'm so blessed. 20 other people do not. God wanted them in heaven. It's all bullshit.

What makes this joke far more offensive is that Carlin actually had a routine about religion:

George Carlin: In the bullshit department, a businessman can't hold a candle to a clergyman because I got to tell you the truth, folks, I got to tell you the truth. When it comes to bullshit, big time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe, in awe of the all time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims. Religion. No contest. No contest. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do every minute of every day…

Even in an act of obvious plagiarism that claims to be creating new material, generative AI cannot help but make a shitty facsimile of actual art.

Dudesy: And cancer is just one of many, many, many methods God created out of thin air in order to murder you. You know how much God loves killing people? He loves it so much. He's killed every person that has ever lived. He created earthquakes, lightning strikes, dehydration, drowning, obesity, starvation, infant death syndrome, old age, car crashes, train crashes, plane crashes, sex, drugs and the common cold, all for the express purpose of killing you. No matter where you are in the world, God can pull out one of these goodies from his bag of tricks to end your life at any time for no reason other than he just gets off on making people suffer unnecessarily and die arbitrarily.

As above, this inarticulate rant is deeply trite. Damn, God is pretty crappy huh? He makes stuff up to kill you! Very bad. And, of course, Carlin himself already did this joke — and it was actually funny.

Carlin: I tried to believe that there is a God who created each of us in his own image and likeness and loves us very much and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that. But I got to tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize something is fucked up. Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the icecapades, something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resume of a supreme being. This is the kind of shit you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude.

Carlin’s humor is personal, thoughtful, and delivered with a brief pause for effect with “icecapades” — a product of an old man who has made his mark on a world by analyzing it with a grizzled cynicism. His joke isn’t that “I hate God and he’s bad” but how he, George Carlin, would personally judge God, generated from his experience, emotions and memories, not from remembering every single joke he’s ever told. Carlin’s delivery was venomous, fluid, and matured through the years, going from a softer and faster tone in his earlier career to one that was raspy and resentful of both the establishment and, at times, himself.

It’s hard to believe that Carlin would launch into a boring, shock-jock rant about how AI will allow us to have an “AI Bill Cosby” with “all of the Cosby jokes with none of the Cosby rapes,” nor would he talk about an AI Louis C.K. that had “innovative jokes about jerking off…without any of the actual jerking off.” None of these are jokes that come from a place of humor, lived experience or even imagination — they are blunt-force statements, ones that could be said by any number of interchangeable standup comedians with absolutely nothing new to say about the world. C.K. himself once said that Carlin inspired him to “…dig deeper, start talking about your feelings and who you are,” something which is impossible when you have no experiences other than those you’ve consumed in an act of plagiarism.

When “Dudesy” revealed that it had uploaded the George Carlin special on a podcast episode, both Sasso and Kultgen looked surprised in a way that I have a hard time believing was faked, and on hearing clips of the special, Sasso looks genuinely disgusted. In a discussion on whether this would take over comedy, Sasso and Kultgen awkwardly amble through their discussion, worrying that it will be “tough for up-and-coming standups to compete with” an AI capable of generating an hour of comedy, the kind of thing you only say when you have completely forgotten what comedy is, or have decided you have to, for whatever reason, incredulously accept the promise of artificial intelligence without actively interrogating what it actually does.

Sasso and Kultgen end their discussion of the AI-generated Carlin special by comparing it to lab-grown meat — a truly disgraceful conversation where Kultgen says that “if it can be synthesized, if the only version of it you can get is lab meat, isn’t it the same?” These two men are active stooges in the destruction of comedy, cronies for a faceless corporation that is actively trying to sell the concept that artificial intelligence can replace them, all while engaging in the half-assed kayfabe of one controlling their podcast.

Sasso and Kultgen should be deeply ashamed of tying themselves to this podcast, and even moreso for their association with an act of digital necrophilia. Sasso offhandedly says that “George Carlin is a voice…we could really use in 2024” to justify an enterprise where he is financially involved with violating the name and legacy of one of his so-called heroes. He spends several minutes agonizingly defending “Dudesy” (interrupted by an entire tangent around burping) before Dudesy itself cuts in, ending the discussion so that it can change the subject — and, of course, to sell the audience some Dudesy merchandise.


While I agree with Sasso that George Carlin would indeed have been a voice we could use in 2024 if he were not dead, I do not believe that any “need” for a particular artist’s voice justifies creating an abominable digital clone with someone else’s words in its mouth.

Carlin was born, in his own words, in a “damp, sand-flecked room of Curley’s Hotel in Rockaway Beach, New York,” three years before the beginning of World War 2, and the first chapter of his autobiography describes his mother considering aborting him. He worked as a radio host, was arrested for performing a monologue that was considered too raunchy for a festival, and a radio station playing his routine led to the U.S. Supreme Court setting a legal precedent for the FCC censoring content it deemed offensive. Carlin’s life was chaotic and unique, and his humor was not derived through, it seems, any deep pursuit of “being funny.”

What gave Carlin the ability to write and perform and laugh and offend was not the things he’d written before, but the experiences he’d had and the people he’d met — wonderful, horrible, wretched and beautiful people, some of which he loved and many that he hated. Carlin was not funny because he was a comedian, but because he was a walking lump of scar tissue, one with a powerful ability to express the anger and frustration that many felt with an at-times painful clarity. He regularly found humor — though rarely joy — in truly dark places, sometimes echoing a kind of nihilism that would be disturbing were it not for his delivery.

Yet there are some who believe that the creation of art like Carlin’s is a result of consuming enough comedy to “get” what’s funny, or enough work to know what the next piece of art should be rather than noticing how people react when you deliver material and building from there. It’s devoid of the trial-and-error that’s inherent in stand up, where comics laboriously test and refine new material, gradually working towards a polished set that leaves a mark upon audiences.

Carlin wasn’t funny because he told good jokes. He made us laugh because his observations were delivered in a way that meant something to us while also entertaining us, delicately walking the line between dangerous and offensive.

To a generative AI, Carlin’s comedy is saying that “being mad at Trump is like being mad at your diarrhea for the choice you made to eat a rotisserie chicken from a gas station at 2AM after a night of heavy drinking” and that we are “blaming the turd [Trump] not the shitter [America],” a clunky simile followed by the suggestion that this could be Biden’s slogan. What makes this “joke” more agonizing is that Carlin has already articulated his relatively nihilistic views on America before. He didn’t vote and believed that our freedom of choice was being taken away by the narrowing of options in our most important institutions, from political parties to banks, and even newspapers.

So what, exactly, are we looking at here?

I believe that “Dudesy” could be an entity using Sasso and Kultgen to market a new category of entertainment where the artists themselves are entirely divorced from their work. We do not know who owns or funds Dudesy, nor will Sasso or Kultgen reveal it. It could be a tech firm, a podcast network, a marketing company, or Sasso and Kultgen themselves. There are absolutely ways that they could have developed this themselves. An expert (TallBart, who has created several extremely well-done and very silly AI voice parodies) I discussed this with believes that they used ElevenLabs V2’s text-to-speech generator (a $99-a-month software subscription) that can be used to clone voices, or hired a firm to do so.  There’s no easy way to tell.

As a product, Dudesy is a deeply depressing attempt to flog technology as magic, where two desperate comedians have their chemistry and flow regularly interrupted by a deeply unfunny third comedian masquerading as an AI. The voice of Dudesy may indeed be AI-generated, but I would wager a human being is either writing or heavily editing a script. Many on the Dudesy Reddit believe that it’s entirely made up, with some suggesting that even the Carlin special was written by Kultgen. I definitely think that generative AI was used here, because even though it's crap, there is somehow a great deal of it.

In the event that this is a firm trying to sell a product, it’s deeply insidious while also being somewhat laughable. Nothing about this Carlin special is remarkable, other than the fact that it was peddled by two seemingly-respectable comedians. The jokes were bad, the voice was soulless and inaccurate, the pace was languid, and the world will have forgotten about it in two weeks unless Carlin’s estate sues (and I desperately hope they do so). It isn't clear what the product would be, other than selling the ability to piss everybody off.

What I think is far more likely is that “Dudesy” is a collaboration between Sasso, Kultgen, and an unnamed artificial intelligence company, and the result is equal parts despicable and ridiculous.

This is entirely my intuition, but AI-Carlin’s jokes feel like they were generated by feeding transcripts of his real work into a generative AI, with the resulting CarlinGPT bot prompted by Sasso and Kultgen and its outputs heavily edited.

If this was entirely written by humans, it is even more shameful, both in how terribly unfunny it is and how little they understand Carlin’s work. If this is the best Sasso and Kultgen can do, they are irredeemably washed, as the only reason I am capable of considering that this might be generative work is that it feels so terribly hollow. These don't feel like jokes written by somebody based on their life experiences, or even by someone trying to imagine another person’s unique perspective and earnestly putting themselves in their shoes, but based on a shallow approximation of what they believe someone else may have thought.

Regardless of its providence, it's hard to tell whether the comedians are in on the scam. Sasso and Kultgen laughed once as they watched and listened to a clip from the special, but otherwise sat in confused embarrassment before leading into an incredulous explanation as to why it was good.

Perhaps they’re angling for a future in which they reanimate comedians’ corpses and claim their humor as their own. Perhaps their benefactors are making a desperate attempt to pump life into the dwindling audience of a podcast started in 2022 just as the Zero Interest Free Money economy began to die.

Or perhaps it’s a symptom of a larger disconnection between media production and art itself.

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Artificial Sweetener

Throughout this situation, I haven’t been able to shake my disgust around Sasso justifying violating the memory of George Carlin because we could “really use his voice in 2024.”

Art by definition is finite, and is empowered by the context of the artist. Artists grow old and live their lives around the creation of their art, and the continual adaptation is what produces its magic, not attempting to generate the "next" piece of art. You cannot create a new George Carlin, as he was created not only by the precise history and events that he participated in, but the relationships he had with other humans in parity with his own thoughts and emotions. These are not things that are simulated or simulatable. The “data” you would need to do so comes down to things like sight, smell, medical conditions, substance abuse, historic events, and the unique mental state of anyone and everyone at the times in history he existed in.

We are not owed more comedy than a comedian creates, just as we are not owed more music from a musician or more movies from a director. We are not owed more creativity than the human that wants to provide it, and what makes art special is the amount of it that a human being can produce is, like a human life, limited. We are not vending machines, and creativity is not an unlimited source. It becomes harder in different ways as we age and we grow around those challenges to keep doing it. And sometimes people run out of energy, or have to adapt.

That's what creates the pain and anguish and laughter and horror that makes George Carlin — not a continual mechanical reconsideration and evaluation of what a Carlin joke is in the hopes we can generate another. And at some point, we must be ready to accept that we have reached the end of something. Death is as much a part of the human experience as life is, both the ones we witness or are affected by and our own.

Even copying another style requires a soul, and the most soulless and depressing copies are those done by someone without their own kind of magic or voice. And I believe there are an alarming amount of people with so little soul, so little being, and so little personality behind their work that chatGPT does seem magical because — just like them — it doesn't have any of its own ideas. Like a hustle culture goon preening about having read 300 books in a year, it is less about the deeper meaning of any text than it is being able to arbitrarily remember its contents. They may believe George Carlin was funny because he was old, grumpy and swore — and that as a result, all one needs to do is to analyze a sufficient amount of Carlin to create more of it.

Last year, hbomberguy published a 4-hour-long video skewering James Somerton for a remarkable amount of plagiarism, which he ended with a remarkable conclusion on why people plagiarize:

"…that’s a human being with purpose. There’s someone who’s not anxious about their place in the world anymore. It’s very difficult to not want that completeness for yourself, not to just be like someone, but to be them — to attain that sense of knowing. In real life [The Angry Video Game Nerd] is a human being with all sorts of problems and fears, but that doesn’t stop people from wanting to be like the person he seems - someone who knows their place in the world.”

“I do worry that there are people out there who will never get the chance to become who they are because they’re too busy trying to be like someone else who, at best, has it figured out for themselves just a little bit.”

I believe that those most excited about generative AI “letting them write” or “letting them create art” are those who do not understand that what we can create is, much like an artist, limited by the person itself. We are not all capable of doing anything we want, and through experimenting with our own limitations we discover our talents, sometimes through sheer force of will, and even then, sometimes we can put hundreds of hours into something without being as good as somebody who barely tried. Those championing replacing human artistry with generative art are either afraid of trying and failing, too lazy to put in the work to get there, or can’t accept their own fallibility. An AI cannot experience time, frustration, jealousy, yearning, sickness, fatigue or any of the emotions that play into or impede creativity. One cannot teach these things — they are only experienced.

Our inabilities inform our lives as much as our abilities, as do our limits inform the art we create. Those who rely on artificial intelligence to make “art” are fundamentally incurious and feel entitled to somebody’s else’s life, creativity, and effort.

There is a fragility in this movement — a desperation, entitlement, and resentment toward those who are able to do things that others wish they could. It is tough to accept what we cannot do, and tougher still when we see someone who has soared so much higher than we ever thought possible. Sometimes it’s a case of accepting we haven’t made it yet — and in others it’s accepting that we’re never going to.

We must all accept that we are imperfect, and do what we can to make our art without pillaging others in the process.

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