Can Algorithms Make You Laugh? Laffster Is Counting On It

"We know what you think is funny."

That's what the folks over at Venice, Calif., startup Laffster are claiming. Last week the MuckerLab-accelerated company closed a $750,000 seed round and launched its first product, an online political comedy-discovery app called Mock the Vote. The app features articles and videos on political news, dividing content by red, blue or undecided leanings. Think The Daily Show and The Colbert Report segments, curated to your politics.

There may actually be a business opportunity here. Besides CollegeHumor and FunnyOrDie, it's a relatively small field for such a huge social interest. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that in 2009, 50% of adults watched online comedy videos, up from just 31% in 2007.

Learning What Makes You Laugh

Laffster is confident its special sauce can make those numbers continue to go up. They really do believe they know what you think is funny. The service uses special IP technology that it says learns over time what makes you laugh. This politically satirical app is the first of what will likely be other themed applications the company plans to publish in the near future.

"We want to marry someone to content and what would make them laugh based on their social media profiles," explained chief executive Dan Altmann. "When it comes to (online) comedy, there's no personalization."

So how do these yahoos come up with laughable content? Believe it or not, it's all science. And math. 

Huh? What? That's not funny. Well...it could be. 

Laffster, Altmann says, taps into peoples' comedic sensibilities by the service's highly detailed software, and by incorporating peoples' online footprints to help understand what they like, much the same way Facebook uses your likes and friends to make suggestions. In the end, it's all psychology.

Can Algorithms Be Funny?

The team behind Laffster created an algorithm that tracks keywords for what makes you laugh. The company hired an academic comedy researcher (A humorologist. Seriously.) at the University of Colorado, a neuroscientist at Dartmouth University, and Bob Mankoff, a long-time cartoonist at the New Yorker. 

The company's co-founders have something of a comedy pedigree, too. Chief technology officer Geoff Plitt, is a standup comedian and a former Google engineer (that's right a code-crunching comic). And chief executive Dan Altmann is formerly of Barry Diller's InterActive Corp., which owns CollegeHumor.

Geoffrey Plitt - Standup Demo from Geoffrey Plitt on Vimeo.

Altmann and Plitt started hosting think-tank like meetings bringing together creative executives and researchers, dissecting what makes us laugh. "Not looking at what is funny but (asking) what about this is funny," Altmann told me. It was at one of these talks that they met the lauded cartoonist Mankoff and agreed to work together. 

Everyone says when you have to explain a joke it's not funny anymore. But maybe this exception to the rule finally shows us how wrong we might have been... and why no one laughs at our jokes.

Funny Money

The company's monetization plan is geared towards in-app advertising, licensing content and sponsorships. Right now Laffster is working with the the comedy club the Laugh Factory, engaging users with political videos coming out of their clubs; it is also feeding and creating custom content with Maker Studios' POLIPOP YouTube channel. 

"One third of all Americans 40 years old and younger see satirical sources like Jon Stewart, Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert as being replacements of traditional news sources," said Altmann, referring to recent analyst reports. "This is how we source our news, believe it or not, through satirical sources. We wanted to lock into something immediately and see what's going on in the world but in a way that Stewart or Colbert would do and laugh at it."