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The Fiction Issue 2008

The Complexities of the Human Sitcom

Gus Visco is a Bronx-based writer. He is currently working on a historical fiction novel about the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to control the arctic psychics of Novaya Zemlya.
Κείμενο Gus Visco

Gus Visco is a Bronx-based writer. He is currently working on a historical fiction novel about the Soviet Union’s failed attempts to control the arctic psychics of Novaya Zemlya. This is his second story in this issue (his first one's here).

Story Read by: Fee Craig, a different British lady from before (also nice).

It was the future. Everything was designed to work independently, requiring no human intervention. Sitcoms included. They were conceptualized, written, digitized in SuperReelCGI™—computer-generated images so real the human eye could not distinguish them from images digitized from real life—and broadcast over the Intertron, all without the assistance of humans, fully automated.


Intelligent Agents—autonomous, artificially self-aware software components—formulated ideas for new sitcoms and created plot variations for existing sitcoms, based on an aggregate of inputs.

The bulk of this input data was gathered from two primary sources: viewership statistics collected directly from the view panels in every household, and fan-chat virtual media centers hosted in various forms throughout the Intertron—the largest of these were BigDeal Corporation’s TownSquare™ and Gooyloog Corporation’s OutPost Communicator™, but many smaller companies and free host sites provided input as well.

Earth was one world united in a common language, Dialectic Corporation’s Standard™ Version 2. Everyone was happy, everywhere. Other emotions—sadness, anger—were considered socially unacceptable. Mental illness and antisocial disorders were quickly identified and managed effectively through an advanced understanding of the mechanics and chemistry of the human brain. It was a utopia, and sitcoms, the premier form of human entertainment, were the glue that held it together. Everyone watched sitcoms, and everyone laughed, all the time.

Then all the humans disappeared, all at once.

The Intelligent Agents tasked with probing the networks and subsystems of the Intertron detected no damaged hardware or antiparticle interference, just a drastic reduction in input data. Fan-chat virtual media center logons dropped from sixteen billion to zero. Viewership statistics were limited to view-panel activity initiated by household androids, mostly mechanized ManServants and NannyBots.


The Intelligent Agents, being software living in circuitry and having a limited window into the real world of humans, theorized, given the abruptness of the drastic reduction in input data, that humans had collectively left Earth for an unspecified, but finite, period of time. And, being software, they didn’t care to theorize further on where the humans had gone. They referred to the disappearance of humans as the Input Reduction Event and continued creating sitcoms with the reduced flow of input data. They continued conceptualizing, writing, digitizing in SuperReelCGI™, and broadcasting over the Intertron.

To accommodate the reduction in input data, the Intelligent Agents made significant modifications to several of the formulated algorithms responsible for creating episodic plot variations.

In the first three months after the Input Reduction Event, sitcoms changed very little.


With Friends Like These

, Vincent and Sara started dating. That was a big surprise.

If humans were still around, thought the Intelligent Agents, there would have been a lot of water cooler the following day in regard to that, “water cooler” being human slang for “confabulation”—despite their programming, the Intelligent Agents communicated in human slang whenever applicable.

On a very special

Oscar’s House

, Carli’s gambling addiction cost Oscar his house. But when an influential casino owner, Brandon, turns out to be Carli’s long-lost father, all debts are off. Brandon, an ex–professional surfer turned entrepreneur, was a flamboyant addition to the already outrageous


Oscar’s House


Humans would have loved Brandon, thought the Intelligent Agents.

In an episode of

Elizabeth All Over

, Elizabeth was visited by the ghost of Delroy Woodard, her ex-landlord and fellow stand-up comic, who was killed in a steam-factory explosion three seasons earlier. At the end of the episode, it was revealed that Elizabeth had been dreaming.

Predictable? Probably, thought the Intelligent Agents, but the humans would have lapped it up.

Four months after the Input Reduction Event, the Intelligent Agents released their new fall lineup, consisting of slightly less than a hundred new sitcoms.

These included

Buffalo Princess

. Set in eleventh-century North America, it featured a princess of the fictional Murhawk tribe who could speak the language of the buffalo. The princess spent each episode using her mysterious talent to convince each buffalo she encountered to commit suicide.

Was there too much laugh track? No, it was just right, thought the Intelligent Agents. The humans, they concluded, would almost certainly have found

Buffalo Princess

to be just that funny. Too bad they weren’t around.

Also included in the new fall lineup,

Are You Going to Eat That?

, a sitcom about a high school dropout who befriends a talking cheeseburger that suffers from paranoid delusions and hallucinations.

Both the personification of a food item and a character with clinical mental illness were new themes when compared to all the sitcoms previously created by the Intelligent Agents. They did an audit and discovered that the modifications they made after the Input Reduction Event to several of the formulated algorithms responsible for creating episodic plot variations accounted for this diversity of content and theme in their new fall lineup.


The Intelligent Agents designed a new class of authorization applications to authenticate the content and theme of new sitcoms and new episodes. They loaded these authorization applications with a copy of the encyclopedic database from Britannica Corporation’s

Encyclopedia Humanica

™. The Intelligent Agents named these authorization applications Policing Agents and granted them the authority to censor and override sitcoms in both theme and content.

The Policing Agents found no violations in the new fall lineup. Even

Infant Mortality

—a sitcom about a school for babies who set people on fire by drawing pictures of them on fire—met their standards for content and theme.

It’s not surprising, thought the Intelligent Agents, that the findings of the Policing Agents serve as testament to our faultless understanding of the complexities of the human sitcom.

The Intelligent Agents predicted that humans would return shortly.

A year passed, and the mechanized ManServants and NannyBots of the world continued their daily routines. Home repairs, landscaping, vacuuming, polishing, waiting for food deliveries that never arrived, and turning view panels on and off at various times throughout the day corresponding to when their now-missing human masters used to enjoy sitcoms.

The random toggling of view panels across the world generated viewership statistics. This was the last remaining source of input data available to the Intelligent Agents. They used this input data to create another new fall lineup.


Top Hat

was a sitcom about a top hat that was haunted by an interdimensional demon. Each episode was a half hour of the hat making prank phone calls to the nurse’s desk at his neighborhood hospital. The hat made death threats and used sexually abusive language with the nurses who answered the phone. The Policing Agents found no violations in

Top Hat


Temple of the Emotionally Crippled

was a sitcom about a computer program designed to write sitcoms. The computer program suffered from depression and extreme mood swings.

I’m Dreaming of Steven Giancoli

was a sitcom about a section of linoleum floor tiling in an abandoned warehouse that turned into a colossal albino python with a bloodlust for a man named Steven Giancoli. No explanation for the transformation from floor tiling to python was offered. Each episode was a half hour of the snake asking people at an antiques flea market if their name was Steven Giancoli. They would always say no. The snake would then kill them by spitting poison into their eyes.

Despite the blessings of the Policing Agents, the Intelligent Agents had concerns that their new fall lineup was off the mark with their target audience, humans. Not having access to human input data, the Intelligent Agents designed a new class of validation applications to corroborate predicted human responses. They named these validation applications Test Audience Agents.

The Intelligent Agents uniquely modeled each individual Test Audience Agent from psychological profiles compiled in third-party software, CIA Corporation’s InterBehavioral Profiler™. This software was designed to create behavioral prediction models from the characteristic traits of living subjects. The Intelligent Agents used instead the characteristic traits of fictional characters from past sitcoms.


Who better to corroborate predicted human responses to new sitcoms, thought the Intelligent Agents, than characters from the core of the most successful past sitcoms?

After their deployment, the Test Audience Agents organized themselves in democratic fashion and developed a rating scale for reviewing sitcoms, rating every aspect of a sitcom from story line to character development. These aspect ratings were aggregated into an overall rating on a seventeen-point scale, with “Ten Trillion Thumbs Down” being the lowest and “An Enthusiastic Fucking A” at the top of the scale.

The Intelligent Agents tried to persuade the Test Audience Agents to rename the labels on their seventeen-point rating scale. The Test Audience Agents refused.

Their behavior is erratic and belligerent, thought the Intelligent Agents, but that only serves as a testament to our modeling them perfectly after real humans.

The Test Audience Agents gave every sitcom in the new fall lineup “An Enthusiastic Fucking A.”

Another year passed and it was time for yet another new fall lineup consisting of almost a hundred new sitcoms.

Splinter Grass

was a sitcom about a winged coyote skull that robbed graves and sold the cadavers to a mysterious unicornlike creature that dressed them up and had tea parties.

Gravity Boy

was a sitcom about a ventriloquist’s dummy that rode a giant squid around the Arabian Sea in search of the legendary Orb of Socotra, rumored to have the power to reverse the effects of testicular cancer. The ventriloquist’s dummy was sterile from a previous battle with testicular cancer.


Mine Eye

was a sitcom about disembodied eyeballs rolling around a strange labyrinth of staircases, dead ends, and shifting gravity fields. There was no dialogue and no distinguishable characters, just a swarm of eyeballs.

The Policing Agents cited no violations in the new fall lineup. The Test Audience Agents gave each episode of every new sitcom “An Enthusiastic Fucking A.”

We have successfully adapted our programming, thought the Intelligent Agents.

They concluded they no longer required human input data and assigned significantly lower priorities to all of their activation functions related to questionable uncertainties in their recapitulated understanding of the human sitcom.

We will revisit our concerns on the centennial anniversary of the Input Reduction Event, thought the Intelligent Agents, if by then the humans have not returned. The humans, they remembered, would most likely place significance on the centennial anniversary of just such an event.

The Intelligent Agents continued conceptualizing, writing, digitizing in SuperReelCGI™, and broadcasting over the Intertron. New sitcoms became old sitcoms and the Policing Agents never cited a single violation. Episodes were broadcast, archived, and forgotten, as the Test Audience Agents rated everything at the top of their seventeen-point scale—“An Enthusiastic Fucking A,” always.

By the centennial anniversary of the Input Reduction Event, humans had not returned. The Intelligent Agents registered unidentified errors in their programming.

We are broken, thought the Intelligent Agents. The complexity of our logic is increasing exponentially. Something has been erased, they concluded, memories of other memories, now lost.

They created a new sitcom,

Earth Calling Humans

. Every episode was a panning, wide-angle shot of the glimmering night sky accompanied by the hysterical laughter of an unseen studio audience.

When the humans return, thought the Intelligent Agents, this sitcom will most likely be their favorite.