Robot global domination. Self-driving cars. Tinder profiles. They’re all exciting/terrifying/necessary. But aren’t they also…funny? Joe Leonardo and David Ryan Polgar think so – it’s why they recently started the Funny as Tech podcast, which aims to match comedy with the hottest issues in technology.
Both men come at the topic from wildly different angles. Leonardo is a comic who has been featured at ESPN, NPR and Anderson Cooper Live, while Polgar is a ‘tech ethicist’ who speaks and writes about futurism, and the implications of cutting-edge technology, for a wide range of outlets.
The pair’s first podcast was recorded in New York City last month, and featured guests on wildly different sides of the tech debate–from serial entrepreneurs and industry insiders, to journalists, actors and comedians. The group tackled subjects like social media projection, email etiquette and everlasting life.
HBO sitcom Silicon Valley appeared to pave the way for a new generation in tech-related comedy. But neither Leonardo nor Polgar can figure out why the industry isn’t being laughed with, or at, more.
“Tech is so ingrained into our lives now,” Leonardo says. “We’re so dialed into our phone that it’s just an extension of ourselves. And no-one’s shining a light on it any more. Maybe older people remember not having a phone, but for young people it’s just normal. It’s very human and very interactive at the heart of it. It’s a great place to mine for comedy.”
Part of that humor is that so much of the tech industry–particularly its global ganglion in Silicon Valley–is a theater of the absurd. “It’s the Wild West,” says Leonardo. “No-one knows where it’s going to go. All these companies are just buckshotting, trying something out. It’s like watching children play soccer: when the ball flies somewhere all the kids flock to that corner. From the outside it’s hilarious. But no-one on the inside is looking at it like that.”
Tech’s conference culture helps little to break this echo chamber, adds Polgar. Filling rooms with people who basically think the same way about technology isn’t just sucking out its inherent comedy, he says–it’s unhelpful.
“They don’t speak to the average person,” he adds. “They’re saying this is an academic debate. When actually there’s so much more that should be spoken about: with friends, with family, over a beer.”
Polgar reminisces about one self-styled entrepreneur he met at a conference, who had a startup that “literally did nothing. So many people have used Silicon Valley as a get-rich-quick scheme, where you have people promoting companies that have nothing to promote,” he adds. Equally as funny, says Leonardo, is the huge bank of disappointment and failure that comes with the Valley’s culture of inspiration-laden stories. “There’s a lot of comedy to be mined in that failure,” he says.
Perhaps one aspect of the tech conversation that doesn’t lend itself to jokes is the vaguely apocalyptic penumbra that surrounds so many of its key topics. Take climate change, for example–or a mass job-loss predicted to follow the onset of automation.
“If you’re too educated in the topic you have a domesday scenario,” says Leonardo. “If you’re too little educated you have a domesday feeling. It’s the same with politics. But the average person has seen this come and go, and they know we’ll work through it.
“You can talk about the darkest stuff,” he adds. “Adding that levity makes connections; it’s approachable. We’re being a little wonky with our humor. But we want it to be approachable by anyone. Hopefully they can learn something new.”
Funny as Tech doesn’t have an agenda, says Polgar. That allows it to discuss topics in the open, and in a way that connects with ordinary punters and not just industry insiders. The same neutrality can’t be said for their guests, however: next month’s event, held at The Striker in Manhattan on July 17, features Douglas Rushkoff, author of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus, and journalist Manoush Zomorodi. “We want some sparks to fly,” admits Polgar.
Above all, both men want their show to be funny. And given the slew of scandals, failures and ‘solutionification’ in Silicon Valley and further afield in tech, they aren’t short of material.