In case you missed it, some (generous-air-quotes here) “comedians,” Will Sasso and Chad Kultgen, buried George Carlin in the ol’ Pet Sematary, where Carlin arose from death as a Paper-Jam Dipper version of himself, and the aforementioned “comedians” Weekend-at-Bernies’d him into “performing” a “comedy special,” all of which is proof we live in Hell.
That story, and Kelly Carlin’s response, can be found here.
This sucks. Obviously, this sucks. It absolutely sucks in a lot of directions. It is bad, and I hate it, and if you’re a person who does not suck, then you think this sucks, too.
I really loved George Carlin growing up. Carlin cemented my love of standup comedy but not just that — he was so fucking clever, and so very profane, and righteously angry, and perhaps best of all, he really, really loved language. His books put this well on display, how much he loved tinkering with words and the rhythm of the spoken word and how our language was not just interesting because of its construction but because of how it changed and how it exposed the inadequacies and contradictions in society. He was exceptional at dissection. He could rip us down to the struts with one sentence, and make us cry laughing doing it.
He was singular.
So, it was itself a singular desecration to see a couple of Internet jamokes have his memory vacuumed up into the belly of Generative AI, where it then digested him and sprayed the mucky bilious chunks onto the internet in the form of a brand new, and again I must emphasize the sarcastic quotation marks here, “””comedy special.”””
This comedian, this genius, who loved the art of language and the incisiveness of it to both make people laugh and make people think, gets run through the shit-grinder, and the art barf robot barfs out something whose language is graceless, whose wit is as incisive as instant pudding.
Again, this sucks, I hate it, you hate it too, because you’re a good person.
But I also think, this is a very good example of why generative AI sucks. And not just in one way, oh no. In this way, the Carlin special is a fruitful field with considerable yield — it is a manifold example that offers, with almost alarming clarity, the answer to the question of why we should be deeply resentful and distrustful toward generative AI. It reminds us bold-facedly why we should sneer at it, and spit at those who made it, and make sour faces at anyone who tries to use it.
Let’s go through it why this nicely exemplifies how gen-AI is hot garbage:
a) First, the special is bad. I don’t mean this as a moral judgment (though it fails that test, too) — I mean the special is just fucking bad. It is not funny. It does not sound like Carlin in literal voice or metaphorical voice. It isn’t even mid. The best it can aspire to is “fits of pure mediocrity.”
You ever taste something, a soda or a candy or whatever, that’s supposed to taste like another thing (strawberry, let’s say), and you eat it and it’s terrible but somewhere in there you can vibe that someone once maybe thought of a strawberry while they were making this? Like, there’s the ghost of an abducted, murdered strawberry in there? But mostly it’s just gross? This is that. It’s a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of the ghost of an idea of a dream of a old cursed VHS tape. And it’s bad.
I don’t know why we want this. Who is the market for this? “Remember that thing that was really good? Well, I took that good thing and then 3-D printed it with sewage, and now here it is again, just considerably shittier.” Who wants that? Who wants more of the same, just whittled down to splinters? Is that what we want from the human experience? “I really like David Bowie, but he’s dead, so now give me David Bowie again, just awful this time. By the way, my kink is ruining good things.”
It’s not just his poorly-replicated voice, or the shitty material. All the AI-generated imagery that serves as a backdrop, too: mediocre, weird, bad.
b) It can only steal. This exists only because George Carlin made comedy. It cannot exist without George Carlin. It stole his face. It stole his voice. It stole his material. Then ruined all three. The end.
c) To put a finer point on it, ChatGPT cost, what, $100 million to train? They’ve admitted that they could not have done that if they had to pay for rights from what they fed to the machine. If they had to pay for the rights to access and replicate Carlin’s material, that alone would have been a pretty penny. A hundred million is chump change — they would’ve paid billions in licensing fees to feed material to the machine. (And again, consider the active agency here: we speak of AI like it’s out there, roaming the countryside, wolfing down copyrighted works on its own. But there is an active human hand in this. There is human agency. Rich people want to get richer by stealing work. It’s cheap as free to them. They kidnapped all this material, then built the copy-paste button and hope you’ll push it.)
d) This one-hundred-percent confirms the fears that generative AI is not only stealing material, but will grave-rob your shit for eternity. Actually funny (and no-air-quotes-required) comedian Josh Gondelman points out in that article linked above: “There’s the idea of someone’s image being used in perpetuity, including after their death, without consent or appropriate compensation.”
e) The Uncanny Valley just gets deeper and deeper. Hearing this feels like you’re poking some atavistic impulse inside you, a deeply-buried ancestral memory of a time when we were hunted by The Things That Stole Faces. It’s like the men-in-black from Keel’s Mothman book — they show up with semi-human faces and smeared makeup and no eyelids and they’re like, YES HELLO FELLOW MEAT MAN WE ARE FLESH-BOUND HUMAN AGENTS DO NOT TELL PEOPLE OF THE UFOS OR WE WILL DIGEST YOU I MEAN ARREST YOU WHAT DO YOU MEAN I DON’T HAVE EYEBROWS. It’s fucking creepy. It makes me queasy to hear it. It’s like the bad guy from any Doctor Who episode, wearing our skin to steal more of our skin.
f) It’s also a good example of how the media might launder this stuff. Look at the headline here at USA Today when this first hit:
(My understanding is the lede here was added later, in the 1/11 update.)
This definitely vibes like, “Wow, hey, George Carlin has a new comedy special, and his digital ghost has some controversial takes, whoa, crazy!”
The media is very good at laundering negatives as if they’re positives — and it doesn’t help that our media landscape is being gutted left and right, newsrooms bereft of actual humans as waves of layoffs crush our access to news, and why? For what? Well, so AI can come in and just write the articles. It’s AI writing AI for AI from AI and we’re just watching artwork and information turn to muck and mush.
(It’s not a conspiracy if it’s out in the open.)
Listen, I didn’t want to give this oxygen. I still don’t. This is a stunt, and arguably a stunt’s job is to get attention, and I’m giving it attention. At the same time, it’s hard not to deny that this embodies a monstrous effort to… I dunno, reduce us to garbage-eaters and feed us garbage. “Look, we made the Content Recyclers to recycle content into your held-open mouths, so just be quiet and suckle at the Info-Tube. Then don’t forget to shit your entertainment slurry back into the Content Recycler! It’s sustainable content, after all. Like Taco Bell! From the sewer it comes. To the sewer, it returns.”
I think it’s important to talk about this. I think it’s good to point at it and say, “This is shit, I hate it, it’s a problem.” I think it’s good to lacquer all the output from generative AI with a slick sheen of foul-smelling mucus so that nobody wants to touch it. I want us to see that it’s a bad idea. I want corporations to see that it’s a bad idea. That we’re suspicious of it. That we don’t want it. That what we want is for artists and writers and musicians and comedians and creators to be free to create and to be paid for what they do and to not have that work stolen and fed to a machine so that some corporation can photocopy it poorly and sell it to you for money in their pocket.
Yelling about this stuff has some purpose. It ensures that when a company uses AI for a book cover or when a news outlet uses AI to write an article, there’s enough people pissed that they have to walk it back. I like it when companies have to apologize for having used AI. Put a little stink on it. Smear it up. It helps to say, “I won’t buy this if there’s AI involved.” I write books because I’m a person trying to talk to other people. I write stories because I want to grapple with all the goofy scary strange shit that is a part of the human condition. I don’t want an AI to emulate me, to steal my face and chase people down with its too-many-fingers. I don’t want people to want that of me. Why would you? Who really is the audience for this? Are we begging for it, or are corporations begging for us to be begging for it?
I also think there’s value specifically in writers saying that they don’t want to be a part of any of this, and don’t want any of it to be a part of our work. Paul Tremblay, who is an author you should always, always be reading, posted this on his Instagram —
And I think this is absolutely the right way forward. I think it’s good to make it clear that this shit won’t fly. (And in case I have not made it clear, I obviously co-sign what Paul is saying here.) It’s worth going to our agents and publishers and saying, “Yeah, keep all of this out of the AI’s mouth, please. I only want human intervention on my books.”
As an endcap to this, I note the following —
When I posted my last bit about AI (here), someone commented thusly:
And I post it here because it really is, like the Carlin special, an emblem of how bad ChatGPT and these language models are at doing what you want them to do. It is a mediocre answer that fails to understand both the source material and any potential answer to that material. It offers shallow non-answer responses, assumes I’m a visual artist (my “doodles”), insults without meaning or grace, and mostly just says “meh, fuck you, so what if AI sucks” in a variety of ways over and over again. The commenter called it priceless, and it is that, in the sense that it is worth no price, no penny at all.
Anyway. I hope this special earns the two dickheads who made it the very worst kind of attention.
And I hope that Kelly Carlin jams a lawsuit so far up their asses that they can feel American jurisprudence pressing against the backs of their teeth.
OKAY, buy my books or I die. Bye!