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Adam Chodikoff: Investigative Humorist

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[caption id="attachment_35247" align="alignleft" width="561" caption="Adam Chodikoff at Comedy Central offices. - Photo By Talaya Centeno (for WWD)"][/caption]

Investigative Humorist, that's what The Washington Post has called Adam Chodikoff, one of The Daily Show's producers, and its most accomplished researcher. Behind the scenes, someone has to pore through all those C-Span clips; someone has to sift through newspapers and transcripts to find the core comedy elements to the story. The senior producer who's helped do that since day one of the show is Adam. "You ever seen "˜The Godfather'?" said Chodikoff, in a recent interview, "I'm like the guy taping the gun in the bathroom so that Jon can grab it and come out blazing."

I've known Adam for decades (our parents are good friends), but really only got to know this Made Man through the following Q&A. Fan of The Daily Show? Read on, read on...

DI: Who'd you have to brain wrestle to get this amazing job?

AC: Well, it pays to read the Life section of USA Today. Back in "˜96, there was an article in there about two executives who were leaving MTV to take over Comedy Central. They knew Politically Incorrect was leaving, and at the end of the article they mentioned that they wanted to replace PI with a topical show like "SportsCenter", but not about sports. Something clicked for me, I found out who was running the yet-unnamed show (Madeleine Smithberg and Lizz Winstead), I sent them a letter, and they called me in for an interview. Now, when I had briefly interned at Conan O'Brien, Conan told a joke of mine on the air in his monologue (another long story) - I had kept the cue card with the joke on it, and I brought the cue card into my Madeleine & Lizz interview as an example of my vast comedy experience. For some strange reason, they hired me as a researcher, and I've been wit the show since Day One.


DI: I can't imagine what the interview was like. Did you have to watch C-Span and pull possible soundbites out?
AC: Well, in addition to the cue card, I think I brought some articles I had written, and, more importantly, some research I had done for "Campaigns & Elections" magazine after my junior year in college - I had to call candidates from all across the country in the "˜92 election year and find out who the campaign manager was, their pollster, their researcher, etc. I guess the big surprise for me was when Madeline called me to tell me I was hired, she told me that the host was Craig Kilborn, who I had coincidentally worked with when I was a temp PA at ESPN

DI: Tell us a little something about what you were doing before The Daily Show.

AC: Right after college, I interned at CNN in New York - on my last day, they let me go to Tupac Shakur's perp walk and yell out "Tupac! Any comments for CNN!" Then I was a temp PA at ESPN - CNN and ESPN were like my grad school - learning to work with tape, working on a deadline, coming up with story ideas, working the assignment desk, etc. Then I was briefly at Conan at the beginning of his second season, followed by my first real staff job at a show called "Day & Date".

DI: The Daily Show's ratings have soared since you first started. Has the popularity changed the job at all?

AC: No, I try not to pay attention to ratings. I just come in every day and do my thing.

DI: What's the worst part about your job?

AC: Probably the commute, but that's my choice - I chose to live in Brooklyn, and the studio's all the way over on the West Side between 11th and 12th, so it's a bit of a schlep, but I really enjoy Brooklyn, so I can live with it.

DI: And the best?

AC: Working with comedic geniuses. I've always loved comedy, and to work with people who operate at just such an incredibly high level is just amazing. Jon and the writers' intellectual firepower is astounding - I've been there over 13 years, and I'm still constantly floored by their ability to come with these brilliant jokes and concepts.

DI: What's the one or two bits of research you've unearthed that you're most proud of?

AC: It's tough, because of the constant nature of the show, it's hard to remember what I did yesterday. I like finding stuff that just totally neutralizes arguments or talking points. For example, when McCain was on that socialism kick toward the end of the campaign, I wondered if there was any chance at all from the time he opposed the Bush tax cuts that someone confronted McCain with the socialism argument. It was a total shot in the dark, but I started poking around, and I found a Hardball from around that period in which McCain is confronted by some college student whining why her doctor dad has to pay more in taxes - she actually said something to the effect of "Isn't that socialism?" McCain responded that it's acceptable for the affluent to pay more in taxes. It was just perfect. Another one in that category is when Dick Cheney said "You can't go by the polls" to support something he was doing, but I went back and found him on Nightline citing poll numbers to support another thing he was doing. But it's not just clips, I also like finding facts that the writers can use, whether for a headline, a 2nd Act, or a guest interview. I get satisfaction from breaking down an eight-hour hearing into the ten best highlights that the writers can use, or finding patterns or good set-up lines on the Sunday morning shows. I also pride myself on finding original pieces of research that will be unique to The Daily Show. From my perspective, that's when the show really shines - when we produce material that is unique and rigorous, it really sets us apart from the rest of the media world out there. Also, part of my job is being able to finds things quickly - the writers work on very tough deadlines, and I want to find whatever facts/clips they're asking for as fast as possible so they have enough time to incorporate it into their headline joke submission. I also like pitching ideas for Lewis Black or John Hodgman - I really enjoyed pitching having Hodgman do a segment on Mixed Martial Arts. I'm also becoming more active in working on the guest segments - if I can prepare Jon for a counter-argument Barney Frank or John Bolton is going to use, I can go home happy.

DI: When The Colbert Report spun off, was there the temptation to move on and try something slightly different?

AC: No, it didn't really affect us.

DI: When you're not working, what are you up to?

AC: Reading, going to the movies, walking around the city, going to the gym. Oh, and there's my Monchichi collection, but I only concern myself with that when I visit my warehouse in New Jersey.

DI: You've probably had the privilege of meeting some pretty cool guests. Any unusual stories about meeting any of them?

AC: Well, understandably you're not supposed to go down and bother the big movie stars - the guests I'm interested in are more of the Elmore Leonard/Bob Costas/Woodward& Bernstein variety. My most star struck moment was when I met Hank Azaria - I'm a huge Simpsons fan, so I printed out a picture of Apu and wanted Hank to sign it with my favorite Apu line - "Must you dump on everything we do?" When I asked Hank to sign it, he agreed, but he couldn't remember the line - I had to go through the whole plot of that episode- "Remember when YOU and Homer had to go to India to the world's first Kwik-E-Mart after YOU got fired? You finally reach the end, you're almost there, and YOU say "There she is! The world's first convenience store! And then Homer says, "This isn't very convenient." Then YOU say, "Must you dump on everything we do?" Then he said "Ahhh"...and did the line in the Apu voice! Unasked! That was fun.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief
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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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