Laughing into the Future: Exploring AI, Humor, and Learning with Melissa Looney (Ep. #90)

Published on
December 19, 2023
Wendy Hanson
Co-founder and COO
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Laughing into the Future: Exploring AI, Humor, and Learning with Melissa Looney (Ep. #90)

Join Wendy Hanson and Melissa Looney on "Building Better Managers" for a lively exploration of AI and humor. Melissa, a learning professional and doctoral candidate, unveils the evolving role of AI in higher education, spotlighting the curiosity around generative AI like ChatGPT.

Delve into the profound impact of humor in instructional settings, where Melissa underscores its innate connection to human communication. Wendy and Melissa engage in a thoughtful discussion on the nuanced benefits of infusing humor into AI applications, enhancing likability and influence.

Don't miss this insightful episode as Wendy and Melissa envision a bridge between academic research and practical application, bringing funny chatbots out of the lab into real-life scenarios. Discover the potential of AI in creating engaging and humorous content. Join the laughter with Wendy Hanson and Melissa Looney on "Building Better Managers" as they usher in the new year with AI and entertainment.

Meet Melissa:

  • Director of Learning, Development, and Engagement Strategies at Bentley University
  • Strategic and passionate learning professional with 13 years of experience in higher education
  • Doctoral candidate at the University of Central Florida, focusing on humor in instructional contexts and the use of artificial intelligence to enhance interpersonal interactions
View the episode transcript


Welcome to Building Better Managers, the Better Manager podcast with Wendy Hansen, where we talk with top leadership professionals about strategies you can use today to create a happier, highly engaged, and more productive workplace. Now here's your host, Better Manager co-founder Wendy Hansen.



Thank you for joining this podcast today. Our theme for 2024 is looking at trends that we're going to see next year. We know AI, artificial intelligence, is a big trend. I don't think you can turn on the TV even without hearing something about it. Your organization or you personally may not be ready for it.


but we need to be at least curious. And our last pad class, we shared some tools you can play with. Today, I have a real treat for you, AI and humor. Oh, it's gonna be fabulous. We have a special guest with us today, Melissa Looney, who is busy studying AI and humor. What a great topic. She'll share her research.


And we'll have some laughs on the podcast. Maybe we can get ChapGBT to tell us a joke. The best way to celebrate the season as we ease into 2024 is to do it with AI and laughter. Let me tell you about Melissa. Melissa Looney is director of learning, development and engagement strategies at Bentley University. She is responsible for providing employees with meaningful opportunities to continually learn,


with, pardon me, continuously learn with and from other members of the Bentley community. Melissa is a strategic and passionate learning professional with 13 years of experience as a faculty and staff member in higher education. In addition to her professional experience, she is a doctoral candidate, which we'll hear more about, at the University of Central Florida, where she studies strategic communication.


with an emphasis on communication in instructional context. Her dissertation focuses on humor and interpersonal interactions in instructional context and how emerging artificial intelligence can use this powerful and innately human trait to communicate with others. She has been known to delight.


overwhelmed people with her endless ideas and unbridled enthusiasm for the things that she loves. And that's just one of the things that makes her special. And I've had the pleasure of knowing Melissa for a while. She's on the partner council at our company and adds so much to everything she does. Welcome, Melissa. Thank you, Wendy. That was such a wonderful introduction. Yeah, well deserved. Thank you. So,


excited to talk to you about this humor and AI today. And first, just generally, what do you see as the impact AI is having at universities? Yeah, so I think higher ed in terms of generative AI, like chat GPT, at first there was a real sense of concern and kind of urgency to address those more nefarious ways in which AI, particularly chat GPT, could be used.


How are students using it to plagiarize or find answers that they probably should be figuring out with their own brains? And really, you know, when chat GPT was hurled into the limelight in this higher ed context, I likened it to the reaction rather to villagers with pitchforks, right? Like it was a lot like, well, what about? But I really think that since then people have softened and kind of started to be more curious than afraid.


And I think it's because of the sheer utility of the technology. I see a lot of discourse now around how it can be used to support teaching or to create content, but also how can it be used to support learners? And I think there are a myriad of ways in which AI is impacting higher ed. But what I'm most interested in is the way generative AI and conversational agents like chat bots can help provide learners with support or resources, sorry, resources rather, in a really kind of on demand and psychologically safe environment.


So you think about it this way, you forget about when an exam takes place, you're too embarrassed to ask your professor, but if you ask a chat bot, it can't really judge you. So I think it's just a really interesting emerging technology in this context. Yeah, wow, it is. And we're not gonna get away from it, so we better be curious and learn about it. So my big question, why investigate humor? Yeah, so.


Before I jump into the long answer here, I have to admit that growing up with a last name like Looney really means cultivating a sense of humor pretty early in life. It's something that I think every member of my family has a good sense of humor because again, last names like Looney. Humor is truly innate to the human condition. We start laughing and experiencing humor as early as four months old.


And that's before we can even speak or understand words. So it's just such an innate trait of who we are. So I ask why not study humor? Its humor is human. Yeah, it is. And go ahead. And I love using it with other people too. I find it so bonding and so disarming. And that's not just anecdotal, right? There's pretty strong support that using humor has major benefits in interpersonal interactions. It makes us more likable.


It makes us more enjoyable conversational partners. It makes us feel more connected when we experience it together. So again, why not investigate humor? Yeah. I love that because it's so true. If you think of having conversations with people and if you don't laugh at all, if there's nothing, if it's all very deadpan and serious, it's not really a good conversation. Yeah. So, you know, we take it for granted. So I love that you're shining a light on it. Thank you.


And what is the benefit of humor in learning environments? You know, I think it's probably very, very important, Melissa, tell us that. Yeah, you know, learning is a very communicative process. It's super hard to learn anything without communication taking place. And we're interpersonal communication is concerned, the ways in which learner and instructor connect with one another has profound impacts. And that's pretty fascinating, right? That connection or lack thereof,


can affect learning, motivation to learn, affinity rather for a subject or even for the instructor. And I think it's a really important element to study. And humor in particular has been researched, I'd say roughly since the 1970s where the classroom environment is concerned. And some of the positive outcomes that have been associated with humor use in general interpersonal communication also translates to those instructional settings, increased likability, increased attention, and our perceptions of competence.


The way it functions in any personal interaction really seems to translate to other particular contexts. And so I also would be remiss if I didn't just acknowledge the fact that it's nuanced, as is humor in general. It's really difficult to read anything about the benefits of humor without coming across the words double-edged sword, because it is, right? As connected as humor can be, it can be equally divisive. And so I have to name that before I start cheerleading the benefits of humor is that


When I talk about those benefits, we're making sure that we understand that it's when it's experienced positively and not in that divisive way between people. Yeah. And it's appropriate. I turn in on some comedy speakers on Netflix and it's like, whoa, that's humor, but you're a little tough here. So you know when your humor is really hitting the chord and when it's not.


And that's really true in learning environments, right? Because we have certain expectations of the people who are teaching us. And so if you're using inappropriate humor, I can have the absolute polar opposite effect of the benefits of appropriate humor. So that is something that has been investigated and continued to be reinforced for humor studies. Yeah. Cause if somebody uses it inappropriately and is offensive, then even the next time they say something that might be funny.


people will look at it and be weary of what's going to be said next. So just as much as research has found that it bonds us, like it's incredibly othering, you know, when you're at the butt of that joke, or you're not in on the joke, it's just it can be incredibly othering. Well, yes, I love that word. Yes, yes, we don't want to make anybody feel like others. Yes. No. So how does this tie back to artificial intelligence, AI?


There are things we know about human to human communication and humor, but we aren't just communicating with humans anymore, right? In terms of AI, I think this is bigger than humor. I think it's about understanding the impact on the users if you humanize this kind of technology and really finding out how we interact with it, what are the outcomes, are the benefits similar or different to the human interaction type things that we see play out with humor. And really when we talk about the impact of humanizing something,


like a chatbot, what is more human than humor? And again, I mentioned earlier that I'm interested in the emerging use of chatbots and conversational agents and generative AI in learning contexts. And I think an early understanding is super important and pretty valuable where practical application is concerned. And while there are a million lenses that you could examine artificial intelligence through, I just selfishly chose humor because I love it and it's fun and it's just something I could probably never stop talking about.


And you went before a committee at the university to talk about this. So just share a little bit of that because they agreed that this was a good thing to study. Yeah, you know, it's really funny. Sometimes humor is a difficult thing to sell. I got very lucky with my committee that they didn't look at me and say, who cares about humor? They were, you know, they have been and continue to be supportive of me following this, but I have had people before, especially in academics, you know, that just...


I don't think it's worth it. But again, they don't have that understanding of that just profound impact it has on communication. So I got some smarty pants on my committee. They know they know it. They know they have a sense of humor. They know that it's important. Yes. Yes. Now, is AI capable of using humor? Maybe? Can you tell us a joke that you've heard that has come out of AI?


Yeah, so, you know, it's complicated, but yes, you know, roughly speaking, it is capable of using humor and, you know, more than one person has referred to humor as kind of this final frontier for AI. And it's just so nuanced and human. And I think in its current state, AI can't fully use or comprehend humor in the same manner as a human can with the lived experiences that you really have to have to wield humor to its fullest extent. And AI is really great.


jokes and puns and wordplay and things like that that are canned and can be easily programmable. But I think it's evolving every day and I asked ChatGPT recently to use sarcasm, which is a super complex form of humor, right? It's not canned, it's much harder. And its response to me was, and this is verbatim, as an AI language model, I don't possess personal emotions or attitudes, including sarcasm. However, I can generate texts that may convey a sarcastic tone


or provide examples of sarcastic remarks upon request. And so I naturally requested it. I said, sure, give me a sarcastic sentence, right? And his response was, oh, because waking up early on a weekend is exactly how I love to spend my time. It's the highlight of my week. That's pretty.


So it could build that sentence, you know, and it contained sarcasm, but it was just totally out of context. Like at no point had me and this chat GPT agent been talking about sleeping or the weekend. It just was like, here's this random amount of context sarcasm. Yeah, but I appreciate that because that's something you didn't have to set it up there. Yes, not every human is funny. So I give AI a little break. I know many people who can't use sarcasm. So.


Right, right. That isn't offensive. Yes, and that was not offensive. Yes. That was great fun from chat GPT. When you use it Sometimes you're able to put in things like make it humorous or make it funny when you're writing something. Is that correct? Yeah, you can do that. And also, I mean sometimes just for fun I'll jump on and ask it like just tell me a joke just to see what it comes back with


And I think the one we were talking about earlier is, I said, tell me a joke about managers because I figured, you know, that's appropriate. And it said, why did the manager bring a ladder to work? Because they wanted to climb the corporate ladder. So funny. Well, that is the context. They're in the right context. It's like a five year old joke. Yeah. And I mean, you can see that it's a building. It knows the basic constructs of a joke and it can kind of build that. But it's just not again, it's that final frontier.


to the space we are as humans. Yeah, yeah. But if you're trying to find a joke, maybe because you're giving a presentation, it's probably a good way to find things. Or if you're a connoisseur of really bad dad jokes and puns like I am, it's really good at helping you just expand your, you know, what I call treasure chest. Some people might call weapons because they hate them, but it can do puns really well. And sometimes I do it for fun too. Right, right, yeah.


Dad jokes. We always hear dad jokes there. I love a good dad joke. I love it. Great. Now, what do you think you're gonna find out as the result of your dissertation? No, so I think some of the benefits in human-to-human communication are probably gonna be true of human-to-machine communication. I've done a little bit of preliminary research that shows that we do find funny chatbots likable.


or rather more likable than a chatbot that doesn't use any humor at all. And I feel like as humans, you know, we can appreciate humor, regardless of the humanity of the source, right? Even just us joking at that manager's joke, we're still laughing, even though we knew it was stupid, we were like, that's so stupid. Right. I'm sorry. You know, I think that likeability will be enhanced. And I always think about when Siri came out, how it didn't take users long to start asking her questions that they thought would produce humor.


And the best part about it is you could tell that the programmers had also thought about that because she would respond with something funny. So, you know, that always made me feel like, oh, Siri's so funny. And so I think, again, that likeability is really something that I'm going to see increase. But, you know, what does that even mean for technology use? And that's what I'm more unsure about and more fascinated by. Right. You know, OK, you have a likable chatbot. Now what?


Right? Likable people can be highly influential and able to make us follow requests. But what about a machine? Right. Can it be more influential if it leverages human characteristics like humor? I don't know. Right. That's something I'm super interested to see that beyond that increases likeability. What are the consequences? Yeah. And how else can we, you know, the lay person like me use the.


chatbot or anything else to be able to bring humor to a situation because I totally agree with you especially in teaching and instructional design, you know if you can be you know have a sense of humor and I'm making this up, but I'm thinking that there's neuroscience that says when you laugh at something you have more of ability to remember it Is that true? Yeah, and and again humor is so interesting where research is concerned because it just


goes across every single field and every single discipline. I looked at it from a communication standpoint, but there are neuroscientists who look at it from their standpoint and psychology and sociology, and it's just, it's everywhere, right? But what they find and what we find is often very similar. We just measure them differently. So yeah, I would be very surprised if it was not. Yeah. Yeah. Well.


Hopefully someone else or maybe this will end up to be part of your dissertation, how it, how it impacts the brain and how the brain, uh, I would love to do that. That's again, I come from a very humble communication background, but if a neuroscientist out there wants to team up with me and offer me that expertise, I am here and ready. Okay. Well, I have a, uh, a colleague of mine who is a neuroscientist, Dr. George Woods, who's also very connected with our company.


I will bring up humor to him and ask him if we can get some feedback on that. I love that. From Dr. Woods. Yes. I also love the idea of loony and woods, like loony woods. It just seems like a place you may want to go. Like I don't know. See, that's your sense of humor and that you bring into all your work. Yes. Okay. See, that would have never occurred to me. Go into the loony woods. Well, if you had been born a loony, it probably would have. Oh, yeah. I can imagine what you have taken.


a lot of grief for that, especially as a child. Yeah, you know, I learned to just beat him to the punch, to be the first person to make the joke. And I think that's why I cultivated such a sense of humor, because if you do it first, then it just takes away all the power for anybody to make a joke about you. Right, right. Did you have Looney Tunes t-shirts or something, too? Oh, when I was a little kid, Looney Tunes was really popular and having t-shirts like that was really popular. And I don't think people even thought twice about it because it was just everywhere. But yeah.


Yeah, you didn't have your own private collection. Okay. No, I did like telling kids the Bugs Bunny was my uncle and seeing how far I could get with that. Well, yes. Dr. Looney. Yes. When you're Dr. Looney. No, no, Dr. Looney of humor. I can't wait. Oh, yes, I can just see what the caricature would be for Dr. Looney of humor. Yeah, I would be lying if I


said that it wasn't about 97% of the reason why I'm getting this PhD is to become Dr. Looney. Like, yeah, the research is fun, whatever. But Dr. Looney, come on, had to do it. Okay. Oh, I can't wait. I can't wait to be calling you Dr. Looney. I won't use it too much right now because we don't want to. Knock on wood. Yeah. We don't want to push that, but yeah. So Melissa, what's one way you'd like to extend this research after it's done?


because now you're doing the hard work, but there's gotta be like, what's over the rainbow? And I won't sing, okay. I was just gonna ask if you would just please give me at least a little verse. I'm always told to stop, so I won't do that to you, yes. Fair, fine. You know, I have to admit that a lot of academic research is often conducted in these, and rightfully so, this is not a criticism that I'm leveraging, but it's in these fabricated or kind of lab environments.


And I think the same is true of my research. I would really love to move these funny chatbots out of this lab fabricated environment and get them into real environments. What are the implications of that? Are they different from what I find? I really have no idea. But I think real life enforcement and investigation is probably the next step. What does this mean in a lab environment? How do we take it to the real world? Yeah, because when I think of somebody's


Very scientific dissertation, you know, sometimes it doesn't always get to see the light of day No, you know only the people that worked on it and maybe their parents, you know that are proud But but not the rest of the world So how think about some creative ways because you're very creative that you would get this out in the world afterwards You know, I am incredibly fortunate because I occupy two spaces right now I occupy my space as a student as a


doctoral candidate who's very grounded in that, you know, academic research that doesn't see the light of day. But then at the same time, I'm a learning and development practitioner. So people who are out there surrounding me, you know, the practical application and looking at things from a more practical standpoint. And what I think is so unfortunate sometimes is that there's not a bridge between those two audiences. And I would love, you know, to kind of serve as that bridge and just take what I do in one area of my life and be able to bring that into the other area of my life so that it's


just dying on the vine in some library in the University of Central Florida. Instead it is seeing some kind of practical application. But TBD, let me know how it goes. Yeah, yeah. When do you think your project will be complete? Yeah, that's a good question. So I would love to say May 2024, but as any doctoral candidate will tell you, blueprints for the future are a fool's errand, hashtag Ron Swanson said that, not me.


So I am preparing for any and all possible setbacks. And so to be safe, we'll say August 2024, but best case scenario, May. Okay. Well, I would be even more general and say sometime in 2024, because I was thinking with all the work you have to do. Yes. That's a brilliant response. I'm just gonna say sometime in 2024. Yeah, just stay tuned because, and you'll have lots of good 2024 jokes. I love that. Thank you. Now,


You must have certain things that are really important to you. So if you could build a chat bot mimicking one comedian's brand of humor, who would it be? Oh, Conan O'Brien, hands down. I don't have to think about it. I joke all the time that my entire personality is 50% my parents, 10% Fred Rogers, and the rest is Conan O'Brien.


I just, I love him so much. And when I was growing up, I used to get in trouble for staying up too late and watching him. And my mom knew I was doing it because she could hear me laughing from the other room. And so she, the next morning she would, I heard you laughing and I'd say, I know you're watching Conan because only Conan makes you laugh like that. So if I could get a chat bot to be Conan O'Brien, well, if I could get it to be him but then also have his hair, I think it would probably be unstoppable. Wow.


I say now this is a way to get it out in the world. Once you're finished in 2024 to let Conan O'Brien know that. And what is it about his humor? Cause I have to say, I must have a different sense of humor because I listen to him sometimes and I'm like, what does he mean? I know that, well, there's the, what just gets me and makes me laugh. Sometimes I think he's so ridiculous that I just can't, like he just hits me just the right way that I laugh so hard. But the other thing I really like about him is that


He never punches down, right? And he's been, and late night, and late night, they are notorious for monologues where they're punching down. And he seems to have a little more integrity . And he's more likely to have self-deprecating humor than he is to just make certain jokes that I think are, you know, take all the fun out of it. So I've just always admired and respected that about him. But at the end of the day, it's just, he's so silly and that's my perfect brand of humor. Like. The silliness, yes. Silly, yep.


So for our listeners, if people wanna kind of try out humor on AI, what would they do? What would be the steps that you would say, give this a try? So I think primarily, just from a fun perspective, find whatever AI it is, whether it's Siri on your phone or whether it's Alexa or whether it's chat GPT and just start asking it to tell you jokes about things. That's one way that I think is super simple and fun.


It's not as good as when Siri surprises you with a joke when you don't know she's gonna say something funny and then she does, that element of surprise is so much better, but when you prompt her, she will. And then just as you were saying earlier about content creation, right? If I'm creating a speech or I'm creating an email or something of that nature, I can plug it into ChatTv and say, add humor to this, but just keeping in mind that the humor might be, like you're gonna need to proofread.


the camera, make sure it doesn't have the opposite effect in your audience and they just grow and hate you after that. Yeah, especially in an email, you're asking somebody to do something and then you try to throw in a little joke to soften the blow. Yeah. Again, humor is a double-edged sword and that's one way. It is. That's good to know. Well, I am going to, what I take from this is I am going to make sure that I go on and do that. And I have to say that Siri has never told me a joke.


And apparently I have not been saying the right things to Siri. Yes. Well, I will tell you this is a spoiler alert. If you want to know the prompts that get her to say things that are funny, you can Google like what prompts make Siri tell jokes. And there are websites that will tell you exactly what to tell her. And then she'll come back. It's not as good as finding it yourself, but it's still a fun way to explore. And like I said, even just thinking about how the programmer sat back and said, we should make her respond with this is just, I love it.


Right, when you picture them all sitting there with heads down writing code and saying, we need to give Siri a sense of humor. Again, humor is everywhere. Even when your head's down coding, you're still thinking about humor. It is human. It is human, yes. Humanity and humor, that's what we have to remember. And I think in all of our interactions, when we care about a situation and people, and you know, we wanna have that humor there. And...


and just show up as authentic and humorous. Yeah. Yep, definitely. That's great. So besides, you know, we're gonna reach out to Conan O'Brien in the future. I can't wait for that. That's wonderful, you know? Maybe we'll get him on a podcast and you can tell him that. Or better yet, we'll go on his podcast. Oh, that's even better, yes. But we'll do some marketing on that. I love it. But for now, if people wanna learn more about what you're doing or...


They have questions for you. What's the best way for them to reach you, Melissa? Yeah, you know, I am one of those people who I love connecting on LinkedIn, unless it's obviously a sales pitch. Because I love connecting with people, it's one of the most depressing things in the world. When I get a request and the person doesn't really wanna talk and make a connection, they just wanna sell me something. But if you wanna connect on LinkedIn, I very rarely say no to a genuine request. And I'm always happy to nerd out and to talk about this stuff, as long as it's just the caveat of,


We're still halfway through. We don't know what we're gonna find. And I can't give the answers just yet, but theoretically I'm happy to discuss it at any time. Yeah. Well, I would be curious if I'm the same as you. If I say yes to someone on LinkedIn and then all of a sudden I get it back that says, oh, would you like to learn about this program that I have? We need to find something humorous to say that. Yes. No, I know. That's a good idea. Yeah, yeah. Something nice.


too snippy, but snippy enough to say, this is not the purpose that I said yes to you. So yeah, you're getting me thinking a lot about humor now, Melissa. Thank you. Thank you. Welcome. And maybe we could program artificial intelligence to immediately respond back to a sales message with a joke. Right. Yeah. And yeah, we know, children get away with telling so many different jokes and everybody laughs. So I think


our AI should. And, you know, for everybody, AI is in our future. And I love how Melissa has brought it down to the human level thinking about how we can laugh and how we can really find that because it's an important part of how we connect with each other. And at our company, you know, we do a lot of coaching and training. And, you know, I am sure our coaching calls are confidential, but I am sure there is humor in those calls because


That's how people really see, oh, yeah, that, oh, I'm doing that. It's interesting that I do that. Isn't that funny? So there are many ways that humor is used and we just love being innovative in our company and hope that as you listen to this, you're gonna think of ways to integrate it. So I am very excited to share this as one of our big trends for 2024.


and that's gonna be a great year for you. You're gonna have to put a 2020-4 t-shirt with a Looney Bird on it, yes. Dr. Looney Bird. Oh yes, even better, good. Oh, all right. Well, if you wanna learn more about Better Manager and you wanna listen to this podcast and other podcasts like it, you can go on better manager.us.


And there'll be a lot of things changing for Better Manager too in the new year. But if you go there, you will still be sent to us. So I appreciate you all listening today and wishing you all the best. And thank you so much, Melissa, soon to be Dr. Looney, for your contribution to what is really important to us as humans as we go into this holiday season and for those listening in the new year.


New Year is a great time to have a sense of humor because sometimes things don't always work out as we plan. So lovely to be with you all. Thank you for tuning in. Have a marvelous day.


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