Merrill Grambell Is an AI-Powered Bot With Its Own Surreal Talk Show

Comedy writer Will Brierly created it for a live act

Merrill Grambell "speaks" with video game journalist Dan Ryckert, gaming media personality Hip Hop Gamer and New York Times journalist Tala Schlossberg. Will Brierly
Headshot of Patrick Kulp

With artificial intelligence and automation set to replace a growing number of human jobs, even late-night TV personalities may not be safe.

But if the absurd meanderings of  talk-show bot Merrill Grambell are any indication, Jimmy Fallon can probably rest easy. The automated persona is the freewheeling host of the recurring comedy series Deep Learning With Merrill Grambell, in which it interviews comedians, artists and other creative types with varying degrees of coherence.

Even creator Will Brierly, a video game designer and comedy writer, doesn’t know what will happen when his procedural generator takes the stage, most often in the form of a crudely sketched man with a pencil mustache and a genial mid-Atlantic accent projected onto a screen next to a panel of guests.

“It’s such a surprise for me watching the show, too,” Brierly said. “You put in all this stuff that you think will probably happen or hope will happen, but you can’t practice it.”

Brierly has run the show a handful times at the Improv Asylum comedy club in New York in addition to appearances at events like NorthEast Comic Con, gaming convention Pax East and this week’s Boston Comedy Festival. He’s also currently in talks with various entertainment networks to turn it into an augmented reality app that would let users superimpose the host onto surfaces in front of them and talk to him themselves.

In place of the typical desk or armchair configuration, the bot-host inexplicably spends the shows seated in a virtual coffee mug, which drifts through a dream-like landscape of bizarre animations conjured at random. Scattered throughout the banter are audience participation prompts and surreal bits of a plot narrative—in only the loosest sense of the term—that match the automated chaos of the rest of the show.

“What is the best thing that has happened to you today?” the bot asked of comedian Bryan Yang in one exchange during a recent show in New York.

“I got a dog today,” Yang replied. “We rescued a dog from the pound. And she’s the absolute best.”

This anecdote might’ve played well on The Tonight Show, but Grambell reacts with brusque nonsense: “Well, my answer to that is ‘no.'”

By the climax of the hourlong show, any pretense of talk show decorum had evaporated as the guests—who also included comedy writer Jay Weingarten, musician Robert Perlick-Molinari of the band French Horn Rebellion and mixed-media artist Hannah Schilsky—took part in a strange storyline that involved procuring milk to console a distraught Santa Claus, scarred by having witnessed every earthly atrocity. They eventually decided to milk a cow with a TV screen in its side that was spawned during an earlier audience-screaming-random-words segment. The process of milking it involved everyone in attendance chanting the word “milk” in crescendo.

Brierly thinks gibberish like this catches guests off guard and leads them to speak more candidly than they might in a more predictable setting. He takes inspiration from surrealist stunt interviewers like Nardwuar, Eric Andre and the creators of the Adult Swim show Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

“When people are laughing and they’re in this strange, surreal world, they’re kind of open to talking about things in ways that might be just a little extra interesting,” he said. “They go on this little journey, and it’s been really neat seeing how everyone kind of bonds together throughout the show.”

Brierly has a manual override backstage, though, should there be any risk the host will cross a line, like making fun of a guest when they talk about something more serious. “I want it to be a nice experience for for everyone on the show,” he said.

The technology behind the bot is procedural generation, a combination of prerecorded voice bits, algorithmic output and computer randomness. Brierly inputs specific information on each guest before the show, and the bot’s ability level grows each time it performs.

With a background in indie video games, Brierly has also conceived of other humor-bot characters, like a standup comedian called Garf that has performed at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Regent Theatre (where it was booed off stage while opening for a Robin Williams tribute show) among other venues.

Elsewhere in the comedy and tech research worlds, others are exploring how automation and AI might play a role in improv, standup or joke-writing. Kory Mathewson, an AI researcher at the University of Alberta, has created a machine designed to contribute to improv sessions, and Stanford researchers are working on an AI pun generator.

@patrickkulp Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.