Beer, code and hacks: Chicago’s first comedy hackathon

Sandor Weisz and Henry Birdseye present during Comedy Hack Day

By Emma Sandler

Get together a bunch of web designers, coders, and funny people and mix in beer, energy drinks and pizza over the course of two days.

There you have it—the ingredients for a hackathon. More specifically, Chicago’s first Comedy Hack Day.

At the Cards Against Humanity office near Wicker Park, some 50 people gathered to create humorous and somewhat-functioning apps, websites, and web extensions. Hackathons are widely popular events sprawling from San Francisco to Boston where programmers, designers, and other tech innovators gather to voluntarily relinquish sleep, working intensively on a project over the course of usually two or three days straight. In Chicago, the event encapsulated l’art pour l’art (or in this case, drôle pour drôle).

Teams formed on Saturday morning. Participants arrived bleary-eyed at 8 a.m. and gathered in the small dark theater attached to the office, and everyone was given 60 seconds to pitch any ideas he or she had for humorous apps or web applications. There were originally 87 ideas and eventually that number was whittled down to eight teams with eight different ideas.

Some of the ideas included Procrastination Saver, which would deposit about 3 cents into a user’s savings account so the more time a user wasted, the more money he or she would save. There was also Murderer’s Lost Phone, so if you lost your phone the app attempted to make you seem like a murderer in hopes the thief would “unsteal it or something,” said co-organizer Sandor Weisz during the final event. And a Dick 2 Ducks photo app for when someone would receive an unsolicited dick pic the app would allow through a series of filters and stickers for the user to dress up the penis like a duck and then send it back to the sender if they so wanted.

After the pitches, everyone gathered in the kitchen and mingled over coffee as teams naturally formed. Participants wore a button to advertise his or her skills – green indicated a designer, red a developer and blue a comedian or “funny” person. Buttons helped to speed up the process of team formation so that teams could quickly identify people by skill and could form according to their needs.

Sam Gordon, 25, a tall cropped blonde stand-up comedian with front-end development experience and a tattoo sleeve on her left arm, worked with a six member team on a website called TheGrimBeeper.com. The web application allows users to post to social media after they died. The humorous twist is that after signing up, a user will receive a text every day at noon asking if the person is dead or not.

“If you confirm that you’re dead it will send out from what you filled out to people that are on the shit list or a hit list,” Gordon said.

She explained that a user fills out a form when he or she signs up where they can create a “shit list” of what you wanted to say to people that you hated, and a “hit list” of people you wish you had hooked up with while you were alive.

The website also generates a death for you and will post on Twitter or Facebook and with what like, “Built a time machine, broke up my parents, and accidentally McFlyed myself so I never existed,” Gordon wrote in an example tweet.

She said the idea for the website originated from the fact that a human brain is active for a few minutes after a person’s body has died. TheGrimBeeper was a way to inject some dark humor into it.

“It’s basically an app for dead people,” Gordon said.

Some of the other eight teams created products like 2Moji , a people-watching interpretive scavenger hunt. TrumpFace$, facial recognition software, would bring up a corresponding photo and quote by Donald Trump. BestFriendsOnline  is a product to sell you virtual friends. Don’t Read the Ipsum! generates lorem ipsum fillers. A vague product called Glemns never quite revealed its purpose. CineBadger, offered a movie and texting app. And How Much of Candle, a website using your webcam, tracks your candle usage and tells you how much candle is left using Facebook and Twitter so you and your friends can follow your candles’ story.

Comedy Hack Day came to Chicago after originating in San Francisco through the comedy-based Cultivated Wit. Sandor Weisz, the founder of puzzle hunt company Mystery League, was co-organizer and producer of Comedy Hack Day along with Henry Birdseye. Weisz said that he decided to bring the comedy hackathon to Chicago when he saw Cultivated Wit put out a call on its social media for anyone that wanted to franchise the hackathon. Birdseye works at Cards Against Humanity’s Blackbox shipping company.

“We have this space here that has a lot of people from all those worlds [comedy, design, and coding], and we have a theater here so I thought it would be the perfect space,” Weisz said.

Cultivated Wit provided Weisz and Birdseye with some material from previous hackathons, contacts for sponsors and some guidelines for how the hackathon should run, but the two men did the actual planning and putting together of the event.

“The only thing I was really worried about was that when everyone showed up — team formation is what scared me the most,” said Birdseye. “I wanted to make sure everyone found an idea they liked and worked with a team and felt that they could contribute to something, and it worked out kind of nicely that teams formed organically, and people figured out what roles they needed for their teams.”

After teams had formed, they all retreated to their workspaces. The office space design proved perfect for inspiring hackathon ideas. The office has about 40 people that work there, both Cards Against Humanity employees, and independent workers, and was designed by von Weise Associates.

There are three old red shipping containers plopped in the middle of the office; each converted into themed workspaces like a Moroccan hookah lounge or a tranquil Japanese tea room.

Non-shipping-container workrooms offered amenities such as with action figures and Lego walls. Then there was a lounge that participant David Michaels described as, “a 1920s gangster hunting lodge” with leather couches, a random selection of framed receipts and an oil painting of a man opening his shirt Superman-style, over a fireplace.

The rest of the office was an open space area—the kind favored by many tech-savvy companies with modern white desks and ergonomically designed chairs. Even the ceiling had tastefully exposed air ducts and white wood beams.

The nooks and crannies lent a informal, subdued atmosphere. When lunch arrived on Saturday, participants gathered in the kitchen area and animatedly discussed each others projects. The energy was palpable, but when work resumed the office took on a more studious look. In fact, since groups consigned themselves to different parts of the office, you would hardly have been able to tell a hackathon event was taking place. Individuals clumped together around tables, wearing headphones and hunching shoulders while they determinedly coded.

David Michaels, 25, a shaggy brown haired back-end developer at a Chicago tech company, was working in a group of five people on Don’t Read the Ipsum! Lorem ipsum is filler text commonly used to demonstrate what a website or resume template would look like with the text.

At the time of interview, Michaels was working with Twitter’s API, or application program interface—which is a series of routines, protocols, and tools for building software applications—to pull content to make a new lorem ipsum.

“I just pulled about 500 of Jaden Smith’s tweets … I think they will look really funny when jumbled together in random order,” Michaels said.

The finished generator was able to pull content from Twitter, Reddit, and other social media and allowed a user to create a new lorem ipsum; they could also generate poems, essays, and letters to a congressman with the new jumbled text.

During the final demonstrations, groups unveiled their products. Weisz joked about how autonomous the event was and what he and Birdseye did.

“I swear we tried to help but every time we approached [groups] they’d be like, ‘no, we got this’ and so we were pretty useless this whole time,” Weisz said about himself and Birdseye during the presentations.

Techies and comedians Harper Reed, Tricia Bobeda, Kristen Toomey and Sonia Denis judged the event along with Maya May, who hosted. The judging focused on a combination of humor and application, with the priority on humor.

The vague product called Glemns (glemns.com) won the day, with it’s quirky taglines “for whenn” and “now in a can, like always.” Glemns, created by Noah Prestwich, Mike Wnuk, Jamie Brew, Elaine Lopez, Devin McGinty had a chrome extension app that essentially acted as a piece of malware by replacing all the ads on a web page with ads for the product. A user would have the option to adjust how “Glemns” you would like your web experience to be with a slider that goes from “morbidly,” “violently,” “pleasurably,” finally to the highest, “Glemns,” which would not only replace all banner and video ads with Glemns ads but also text and headlines. (The extension has not been and is unlikely to be approved by the Google app store.)

The audience favorite award went to CineBadger (cinebadger.com), the app to aggressively badger your friends to watch a movie they have not seen with text messages like, “You call yourself an artist? You have no right until you’ve seen Space Jam.”

Winners for both groups received small trophies as prizes, and, of course, the freedom to openly gloat or humblebrag as much as they please.

With the success of Chicago’s first comedy hackathon, Birdseye said that he is very interested in another hackathon next year, and would consider the possibility of a three-day event with more participants.

“The nice thing about running an event like this is if you get enough people with the right mindset together what are going to work themselves out,” said Birdseye, “I like that the ideas run from practical to funny to just plain absurd.”

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