Comic Potential

Certain Ayckbourn plays only seem to become more relevant as the years go by. This is particularly true of his science fiction plays where the questions they ask of what makes us human or what is the nature of creativity are continually pertinent.

On 4 June 1998, the world premiere of Comic Potential took place at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough. An acclaimed production, starring Janie Dee, which would go on to success in the West End and New York.

The play asks what makes us human – is it laughter and love? And could an artificial intelligence develop both or would it identify them as faults given they are both illogical actions. With the extraordinary developments in AI all around us, the play seems more relevant than ever.

Here Alan Ayckbourn talks about why he wrote the play and what inspired it.

Comic Potential by Alan Ayckbourn; edited by Simon Murgatroyd

Comic Potential is a play I’d been building to. There had been the big social plays like A Small Family Business, A Chorus of Disapproval – to a certain extent – and certainly Man of the Moment

Comic Potential (West End premiere poster)

Concurrent to that my recurring theme of science fiction began to develop with plays such as Henceforward…. I’m always interested in the future, but I hope in the way that the best speculative fiction is; only in the way, in so far, it is in the present. What I mean to say, what current trends would present if they were left to run.

So I combined three of my interests: the nature of the future, the nature of what makes humans unique and that continuing fascination with our attempt, for the first time in our lives, to create something which is potentially, if not emotionally, but certainly intellectually and logically superior to us.

Within that I identified two things that always strike me as peculiarly human. One is, of course, our ability to fall in love; which, apart from the courtship rituals, is fairly unique. Our love has got quite sophisticated surviving very often courtship and sex. Many people often enjoy each other’s company long after that hot passion has disappeared.

It is also our ability to laugh and I think the two are often alive in the lonely hearts’ columns of the papers. You often see this phrase GSOH – Good Sense of Humour – and even people with absolutely no sense of humour of their own are always desperate to meet someone with GSOH, which somehow seems to be a special quality we all seem to want.

And it ties in with all those advertising clichés of people, of a couple dining together and suddenly laughing together, then suddenly going very serious, that laughter in love leads to sex and all that. That, combined with everything else, decided I wanted to write a story about an artificial brain that first develops a sense of humour then belatedly a sense of love.

I was also able to incorporate one of my favourite bête noire with the world’s worst sitcom – where sitcoms have now become so minimalised that they just have mechanical actors generating them and acting them.

My other great love which features in the play is how wonderful this technology in science fiction books is, but, in my case, most of it doesn’t work – or at least not as it should! We spend our time hammering our fists against computers because the things have hidden a day’s work within them and refuse to reveal it. I’ve always loved the Ridley Scott option when he creates science fiction films like Blade Runner and Alien with all their bashed-up technology.

So these were the parts coming together. I then just needed a place to set it and the natural place, initially, was a television studio. The robot – the actoid – could be fairly and quickly established. 

Nicholas Haverson as Adam & Janie Dee as Jacie in the world premiere of Comic Potential. (© Tony Bartholomew /

When you’re writing unfamiliar worlds like this, it always makes sense to introduce someone in the cast that is also unfamiliar with it, in this case the writer Adam. Otherwise you face the extraordinary prospect of all sorts of people who have lived there for years explaining everything to each other which never quite rings true: ‘So, explain to me Douglas, just how do you switch on the television set?’

The heart of the play is, I think, the emphasis on comedy, laughter, why we laugh. That is, what is it that makes us laugh? Why do we laugh? Is it that laughter that singles us out as a species? Is humour, having a sense of humour, the ability to make jokes, a ‘fault’ as Jacie, the android, in the play believes?

Jacie identifies it as a fault because laughter is not logical. Humour inevitably brings about the breakdown of logic.

From there, it develops the accompanying theme: does laughter have any relationship with love? But then love too is illogical. Logically there is no reason to prefer one person to another – particularly when, as so often happens, you don’t even have that much in common!

Looking back on the play, it also struck me that – on an entirely different level – Jacie’s journey very much reflects the journey of women through a lot of the 20th century. Emancipation – education – liberation – responsibility…

I chose to end the play deliberately ambiguous. I like to think, personally, that Jacie will manage to balance a career and a relationship.

And if you choose to take the conclusion to its extreme, It could be argued that the ‘Jacies’ will soon inherit the earth. That we have in effect created out own successors. Having given them, or allowed them to develop, the qualities of humour and love, have we given them the final key to independent life? Perhaps, more optimistically, we will see a co-existence between the two – human and android.

Whichever way, the balance is changing. Just as it is in life. Where do we call a halt to artificial intelligence, which already runs so much of our lives?

You can find out more about Comic Potential at Alan Ayckbourn’s Official Website by clicking here.

Article by Alan Ayckbourn and copyright of Haydonning Ltd. Do not reproduce without permission of the copyright holder.

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