Conner O’Malley’s New Special Exposes The Dark Heart Of Techno-Optimism

Silicon Valley goblin Marc Andreessen begins his “Techno-Optimist Manifesto” with an epigraph from Thomas Edison: “There’s a way to do it better. Find it.” The manifesto is broken up into discrete sections labeled things like “Truth,” “Energy,” and “The Meaning of Life.” Many contain single-sentence bullet points. Under “Technology” Andreessen writes, “We had a problem of cold, so we invented indoor heating. We had a problem of heat, so we invented air conditioning. We had a problem of isolation, so we invented the Internet.” These are the thoughts generated by one of the guys supposedly leading us into a technological utopia. 

I thought of Andreessen and his ubiquitous brand of earnest, adversarial, future-forward techno delusion often while watching Conner O’Malley’s new comedy special, Stand Up Solutions, which is currently available for free on YouTube. O’Malley, a New York-based, Chicago-born comedian who’s appeared in I Think You Should Leave and The Chris Gethard Show, and written for Late Night with Seth Meyers and How To With John Wilson, is an artist of uncommon commitment. His short-form work, which first began to garner attention on Vine, focuses on specific personas with first and last names, occupations, and outlandish dreams. A standard O’Malley character is confrontational without fully understanding why. He is paranoid, digressive during conversation, amped to a sometimes uncomfortable, cringe-inducing degree. He’s the guy, any guy, standing on the street corner ranting about a world that only he sees. There’s usually a lot of yelling, which when combined with a kind of impish naïveté, produces a particular brand of enthusiasm funneled through internet-induced mania. O’Malley’s characters display human behavior as shaped by memes, the distanced vulnerability of chat rooms, and maybe just drinking too much Mountain Dew. Physically, it can seem like O’Malley has just been struck by lightning. 

In Stand Up Solutions, O’Malley isn’t performing stand-up, but pitching a live audience on an opportunity to invest in a new creation by the character Richard Eagleton, a mid-30s entrepreneur from Des Plaines, Illinois who is desperate for money and maybe fame, if it’s on the table. The invention in question is an AI-powered comedian named Ken who can execute “100-percent accurate comedy” using the “power of 5G.” Ken, appearing for brief sets on a backdrop that acts as Eagleton’s presentation board, looks a lot like the robots from Steven Spielberg’s 2001 film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence. He speaks with a distinct midwestern lilt, the O’s stretched and warbled, his genial yet plastic face vaguely reminiscent of Jeff Daniels. 

When Eagleton first storms onto the stage, it’s clear that the audience has no real idea what’s about to happen. They came to see Conner O’Malley, and so the rapturous applause starts for the wrong person. But O’Malley, who quickly transmutes his fans’ enthusiasm into hapless validation for Eagleton, never breaks character. In fact, Eagleton frequently interacts with the audience, asking open questions, pointing out individuals in the front row, even borrowing a guy’s phone for a demonstration. 

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Eagleton, dressed in a polo monogrammed with the Stand Up Solutions logo, a branded baseball cap, khaki pants, and a phone holster on his belt, is a man chasing someone else’s dream of the future. A guy still wearing a Livestrong bracelet and referencing Sinbad isn’t on the cutting edge of anything, but if Eagleton is too old to truly grasp culture, he’s also young enough to know the avenues towards manipulating it. As with so many of O’Malley’s characters, I felt both entertained and unsettled by Eagleton’s familiarity. He’s an exaggeration and a reflection of the type of person who understands ingenuity as a means of generating capital rather than bettering the world. He’s fueled by dreams and by resentment. O’Malley, an expert at finding the perfect shorthand through which to define his characters, tells us everything there is to know about Eagleton by having him, at the show’s climax, reveal that his greatest dream is to own an “all-brown house.” A photo of the kind of soulless house you’d expect to find in a modern subdivision on the outskirts of Phoenix pops up on Eagleton’s presentation screen at this moment. 

O’Malley’s been fascinated by digital technology and AI for a minute now. His video “103 fever,” which follows a crazed guy wandering the streets of New York while suffering through a six-month long fever he attributes to Drake, features an AI-created rendering of both Drake’s face and voice rapping about gooning. Endorphin Port, a subscription project O’Malley launched late last year to help fund some of his work, was announced alongside a video of O’Malley pitching the concept as a utopic means of ridding people of the disgusting reality of physical embodiment. Instead, “there will be no more fucking racism, no more sexism because everyone will get rid of their bodies!” In a section of his manifesto titled “Becoming Technological Supermen,” Andreessen writes, “We believe that while the physical frontier, at least here on Earth, is closed, the technological frontier is wide open. We believe in the romance of technology, of industry. The eros of the train, the car, the electric light, the skyscraper. And the microchip, the neural network, the rocket, the split atom.” The line between genuine belief and satire is hardly discernible here, not because O’Malley seems convinced of the kind of post-human, post-Earth fantasia that Elon Musk lusts after but because, in the long line of O’Malley’s career, one never knows if this bit is a set-up for the next. 

With Stand Up Solutions, O’Malley crafts an incredibly intricate and bleak form of comedy, part product launch, part TED Talk, part therapy session, part pyramid scheme. Gobbled up by the loud-mouthed non sequiturs is O’Malley’s considerable physical stamina, his ability to switch between high and low points of behavior, his vocal control, and his ability to stay present with the audience. 

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In one inspired section, Eagleton derails the “about me” part of his presentation with an extended detour, complete with Photoshopped pictures, into a revenge fantasy where he becomes the Punisher after his wife and son are murdered by “a bunch of fat Italian guys.” He screams his descriptions of their deaths and his odd subsequent move to Brooklyn and his desire for revenge until he suddenly loses steam, the playback track in his mind running out, arms waving about like Eagleton is trying to catch his lost train of thought. “D–uh … and yes, in this scenario … I’m single,” he says, squinting against the absurdity of his admission. “I’m not thinking about that. I’m thinking about justice! I’m thinking about the guys that killed my family! Why! I’m not thinking about all the new apps that have been invented.” As he says this, Eagleton clicks his remote and the image behind him changes to a series of dating app logos. 

This is the narrative and comedic speed at which O’Malley moves throughout the special, all while fielding various levels of audience engagement. He’s braiding a narrative, he’s folding in novel details that take him on seemingly random tangents, and he’s stage directing the bespoke images that give each punchline an accompanying visual gag. Nothing is truly out of O’Malley’s control. Not the bit about Eagleton’s love for the Toyota RAV4 and its many USB ports, not his wife interrupting the presentation to rant about how she can’t play online poker because Eagleton hasn’t paid the Visa bill, not even the moment, in the midst of some light crowd work, when an audience member shaking Eagleton’s hand tries to kiss his fingers. 

Perhaps Stand Up Solution’s most impressive element is the veracity of Eagleton’s observations about AI. O’Malley has done his research and there are frequent moments when Eagleton expounds upon the inner workings of AI with utterly convincing delivery. The entrepreneur’s desperate exuberance gives way to that condescending vulnerability and gravelly-toned intimacy you see Tony Robbins use at the midway point of every self-help revival event. Eagleton believes in the future of AI but not because he sees himself as a prophet. He believes because he’s spent too much time and money and social cachet for AI not to make him a buttload of money. Otherwise, what was the point of all this? Who could turn down a future where everything is easier? Who wouldn’t want to live in a world where freedom is actually free?

This fantasy, that labor will be obliterated by progress and that politics will be further democratized if we give up our privacy, is sent up best when Eagleton starts talking about work and voting. After praising the fact that Google shows entirely different maps of the world depending on which country you search from (“A group of 30 people in the Silicon Valley went ahead and made a geopolitical decision that effects over 200 million people with no political oversight, yes!”), Eagleton abruptly switches from his romantic vision of liberation via technology to voicing his excitement for its authoritarian government applications. Later, he says in his best pitchman tone, “AI is free labor. Another way of saying that is, it’s ethical slavery.” 

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Eagleton is Silicon Valley’s worst nightmare and its bravest warrior. Eagleton says exactly what they think but don’t want to admit. Where someone like Sam Altman essentially believes that his products at OpenAI will be useful to the public because they’ll first be useful to corporations and governments, Eagleton believes people actually just want to jack off. It’s a common O’Malley-ism, the dirtbag loser so full of energy and excitement, who, at the end of the day, retreats into the dark den of his shitty apartment, in thrall to the glow of his phone, pulling up stupid videos and online porn. O’Malley has no judgment against these characters; they are products of an environment they can’t even see. 

Which is why, when Andreessen writes, “We believe technology is liberatory. Liberatory of human potential. Liberatory of the human soul, the human spirit. Expanding what it can mean to be free, to be fulfilled, to be alive,” a comedian as sharp and curious as O’Malley gets the last laugh. He’s not predicting the future and therefore occupying the role of prophet. He’s tapped into the undercurrent of our attention and the technology that holds it in a vice-like grip. Which is why it’s tempting to herald Stand Up Solutions as an important work for its clear-eyed understanding of the grand grift of Silicon Valley. But O’Malley is the kind of artist who doesn’t supplement comedic ingenuity with cheap applause gained through easy observations. Nothing O’Malley is saying is new. O’Malley isn’t saying it at all—Richard Eagleton is. That’s where O’Malley’s genius coalesces, in the creation of a character so fully realized, he becomes thrillingly, sometimes depressingly real. 

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