Buddy Rivers Live (the automatic comedian)

‘Buddy Rivers Live’ was a live networked performance. The first performance took place on 26 April 2008 at 55 Leroy Street, London SE1, and was simultaneously webcast.

I wrote a background story for the project:

The Leroy Club was a legendary venue in the 1950’s comedy circuit, where many famous comedians started out. One of these was Buddy Rivers, who returned for this benefit gig to help save the venue. He hadn’t done standup for years and feared he’d lost his edge, so in an attempt to modernise his act, he used computer programs and Internet searches to generate his jokes. But how would the audience react?

The core of this project is a computer network generated comedian, who is capable of an endless generated network performance. His jokes and speech are all constructed or written on the fly – live – on the Internet.

For this specific performance, his behaviour is structured – along loose lines, but the performance has a definite start and end point. His performance is driven largely by user interaction and user response, and I built in some primitive artificial intelligence.

In his attempt to become more ‘current’, Buddy is trying to make his jokes more political, and his jokes are initially constructed from Yahoo searches on ‘Bermondsey’ and local social issues, such as ‘gentification’, ‘yuppies’ and ‘property developer greed’ (the floor above this gallery space was occupied by a firm of property developers so the idea was they may overhear the jokes targeted at them).

This is a big move away from Buddy’s traditional material, a bit like Bob Dylan going electric, and he worries how his fans will respond. If it becomes increasingly obvious that new material isn’t working, he will try instead using Yahoo searches on more general London preoccupations such as ‘Boris Johnson’, the ‘Olympics’, ‘Tessa Jowell’, ‘bankers’ etc. If the heckling gets worse he will become more and more irritated, and his jokes will increasingly reflect his personal demons, being constructed from Yahoo searches on: ‘fear of failure’, ‘Little Britain’, ‘Lenny Henry’, ‘panic attacks’, ‘divorce’, among others.

For some years now I have experimented with new media/ online stories, particularly with networked narratives and the idea of constructing stories from web searches. One of the main aims with Buddy Rivers is to construct a character who can be unleashed/ set free and say unpredictable things.

Adding sound to this project took my work into new areas. When a character can speak it feels (to me) like bringing them to life. To make Buddy speak I set up a text-to-speech synthesiser which runs on an Internet server, so each constructed joke is transformed into an mp3 file.

I’ve been keen for some time to make my work more physical, and not just online. When the opportunity came up of presenting the work at Leroy Street I considered how I could wrap a story around the place. The gallery in 55 Leroy Street existed for a few months, and after the building was be developed into luxury flats and sold to Chinese investors, like much of the local area.

April 2008