Pay Per Laugh, Not Per Seat

A reaction-tracking app could allow audience members to pay only if comedy actually makes them laugh

Feature by Tariq Ashkanani | 11 Nov 2014
  • The Stand Edinburgh

We've all been there during August in Edinburgh: swathes of comedy shows, of queues and crowds and fire-eaters on stilts. It’s walls and fences plastered with flyers, each of them proclaiming to be five-star masterpieces that will have audiences laughing so hard they’ll be leaving with six-packs. It must be wonderful having so much choice.

Yet in reality, people tend to stick with what they know. Someone they saw last year, perhaps, or a recommendation from a friend. And who can blame them? With the numbers of performers in 2014 having swelled to a record-breaking 3,200 (and ticket prices rising to match), taking a chance on something new can be a dicey proposition. The only thing worse than an unfunny comedian, after all, is paying extortionate amounts of money to see one.

A new app, however, could rinse away that bitter taste of wasted cash. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Pay Per Laugh (PPL).

PPL is a simple iPad app that uses the front-facing camera to detect various facial patterns, assigning each with a specific mood. Laughter, crying and surprise are all recognised by the app, which takes a picture of the person’s face each time it logs an emotion and uploads it to servers, allowing the mood of a comedy club – or theatre, or cinema – to be monitored in real-time. From there, it’s a simple matter of assigning a set price for each logged laugh, and totalling the amount due once the show’s over.

The idea was born in the middle of 2013, when the Spanish government – struggling through the financial crisis – near-tripled the VAT on theatre tickets from 8% to 21%. The response was fairly predictable: the public stopped going to the theatre. Sales plummeted 30% in a single year, the average ticket price dropped 20%, and PPL was born.

But is the idea of charging people only for the jokes they laugh at too ludicrous to ever work? PPL’s first public test says otherwise. Taking place during a comedy production at the Aquitània theatre in Barcelona, entrance was free, and laughs were charged at €0.30 each, with a cap of €8 cap (a very respectable twenty-seven laughs). Such a limit allowed the audience to sit back and enjoy the show without worrying about stifling their smiles or covering their faces to stop costs skyrocketing.

Afterwards, the data was analysed and the average number of laughs on the night was totalled up: a thumbs-up forty-nine, or €14.70 worth of comedy (a bargain at nearly half the price). It was a resounding success, and one which has shown no sign of slowing: since the recent roll-out, the Spanish public has been clamouring to see shows at the Aquitània utilising the technology. Entrance is still free, although the cap has been raised to €24, meaning any laughs after the eightieth are on the house. A PPL mobile app allowing quick payment once the curtain has fallen has now been launched.

Of course, the benefits of such an operation are not limited to paying for jokes. Movie studios, for instance, could run test screenings of upcoming features with vastly improved accuracy, allowing filmmakers to see exactly how scary or sad a particular sequence is as it happens. Stand-up comedians trying new material, theatre companies doing rehearsals – any reaction-based situation could be studied and tracked.

It’s a controversial idea, for sure: many view the idea of cameras tracking an audience’s emotions as creepy or voyeuristic (and they may have a point). But while there might be an air of Big Brother about it, there are merits, too. The use of such an app during the Edinburgh Festival, for instance, would surely see a rise in attendance figures not just for the tried-and-tested, but for the newcomers as well. For the small, unknown stand-ups performing in sweaty backrooms not able to flyer the city with their awkward posters. PPL puts the onus on the comedian to be funny, rather than just famous, because at the end of the day people don’t mind paying for comedy so long as it’s, well, comedic.