Comedy writers should breathe at least a small sigh of relief once they hear the results of an experiment that Army Reserve veteran and “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda conducted for his podcast “Clear+Vivid.”
Alda asked the artificial intelligence program ChatGPT to write a new scene for Hawkeye Pierce and B.J. Hunnicutt. The script would be the first new dialogue for the characters since the show’s final episode in 1983.
ChatGPT, the hottest thing in media right now, has shown an ability to hold a coherent conversation via questions typed into a computer. It’s even been used to generate news articles. College students have been experimenting with ChatGPT as a shortcut to write papers.
Results have been mixed, but every person who plays with the AI program helps it improve. ChatGPT is expected to eventually get good enough to replace some of the more repetitive writing tasks in the world, but will it ever be good enough to replace television comedy writers?
Alda’s experiment suggests that, while ChatGPT knows what a joke is, the computer program hasn’t learned how to make up a good one. Alda asked the program to create a scene about Hawkeye’s missing underwear and his interrogation of B.J. as to where they might be.
Hawkeye: Where are they? My shorts.
B.J.: Your what?
Hawkeye: My shorts — the ones I wear every time I have important surgery. I know you took them.
B.J.: I wouldn’t be caught dead in your underwear.
Hawkeye: They’re not just underwear; they’re comfortable and I like wearing them and they’re missing.
(Not so good so far. The scene continues.)
B.J.: Oh, you mean your lucky shorts?
Hawkeye: They’re not lucky. I don’t believe in that nonsense.
B.J.: Like the time you insisted on wearing the same pair of socks for a week because you won a game of poker in them?
Hawkeye: I am not superstitious! Those are just my normal, everyday shorts.
B.J.: Right, just like the time you made everyone walk backward around the O.R. to ward off bad luck.
Hawkeye: That was a joke — I can’t believe you’re taking that seriously. I am not superstitious. And those are just my normal everyday shorts. I wear them because they inspire me and they remind me of my grandmother.
You may be wondering if the scene plays better performed vs. being read on the page. Alda recruited actor and Marine Corps veteran Mike Farrell to read the scene with him for the podcast — the first time the two men had interacted as their iconic characters in four decades.
The results? Still not very good.
In the full episode of the podcast, which you can listen to below, Alda takes a deep dive into the technology with his friend Farrell. You can hear them try to bring some life to the underwear scene.
Many fans of “M*A*S*H” will enjoy hearing Alda and Farrell work together and will enjoy learning the actors’ thoughts on this rising technology.