Karl Toomey’s new book Funny Business, on first glance, appears like a simple, light-hearted way to cut through the drudgery of the modern customer service experience. The book is a thin, sunshine yellow volume that promises easy reading with a linear narrative discarded in favour of a series of live chat transcripts where Toomey tells bizarre jokes to a variety of unsuspecting customer service agents. What becomes clear though, upon chatting with Karl himself, is that this straightforward-seeming tome serves two purposes. Firstly, it serves as a straight-up book of jokes, dealt out unbidden, and secondly, it works as a social experiment, delving into the world of automated chat-bots and company surveillance programmes, weeding out the big-name brands that practice a jovial social media disposition but punish any rep that goes off script in the live chat. The clear and uncomplicated way in which Toomey approaches his naff, off-brand jokes sits in direct opposition with the rigid and unfriendly corporate language that pings back on screen.
Toomey himself is an advocate of silliness and playfulness, something that explains the genesis of his most well-recognised project: Gary Goals. For the uninitiated, Gary Goals was a viral sensation that Toomey created for posters that he plastered around London in 2014, positing a self-assured journeyman footballer in search of a game: “I HAVE SCORED IN EVERY GAME I HAVE EVER PLAYED IN!!!! I DO NOT LIE!!!”
Having recently left his role as Head of Creative for the It’s Nice That Agency (recently relaunched as Anyways) we caught Toomey as he begins his journey into the unknown world of freelancing and personal projects to chat bad jokes, big brands and internet culture.
What is your plan now that you’re fully freelancing?
Well, to be honest I’m not sure at the moment. I’m going to take a year off from that kind of stuff to pursue my own side projects or to collaborate with what other people are doing, the kind of stuff I’ve always thought about but had never really had the time to do.
What kind of projects have piqued your interest?
If I were to draw a Venn diagram there’s always humour involved, the reason being that I think it’s an amazing tool to make something accessible. I’m a big fan of humour that is inclusive and not nasty or taking the piss out of anybody. You might have seen that Gary Goals thing that I did before?
It seemed like such a simple idea but it was more what people took from it.
Yeah, I think for me there’s the humour and then there’s a level of interactivity so that I’m not dictating things too much. Likewise with the joke book, I’m just putting the jokes out there but I’m not expecting to get anything from anybody. One of the things I loved about Gary Goals was that as it was getting bigger and bigger, people started suspecting that it was an advertising campaign. I loved that there was no reveal, I wasn’t asking anyone for anything it was just this character that I was putting into the world.
What precipitated you coming up with the concept of Gary Goals?
The original idea came about when I came over here eight or nine years ago and wanted to play football. I wanted to get a game somewhere and a Spanish friend of mine told me that he had put his number up on a noticeboard in a leisure centre saying that he was available, which struck me as the funniest, weirdest idea I’d ever heard. So I thought about it for about a year or so, about putting something up there for myself but really exaggerated and it was one of those things I kept telling my friends about but none of them had reacted that excitedly, so I had talked myself out of it. The lesson for me is that no one is going to get really excited about your vision because they can’t really see it how you see it in your head. One day I just said, “Right, I’m just going to do it,” and then it got totally out of control, in a scary but fun way!
How smug did you feel in front of those who had talked you down when they were proven wrong?
I think it was less smug and more scary when something takes off on social media because you’re not in control of it anymore. I was amazed at how quickly all these different people and media agencies took their own spin on it and then it wasn’t my thing or anybody’s thing anymore. I was just amazed the whole time, I don’t know if I felt smug… maybe I do now.
It really took on a life of its own, how was it to see people piggyback on it?
It felt good! Some brands did try and get in on it and did their own versions and replies to it, which I guess is always going to happen when there’s something popular on social media, but I actually loved that it meant different things to different people. Like people really wanted to believe that it was real. On the poster there was a phone number and I actually bought that SIM card and had a separate phone just for Gary and I had to turn it off because it rang constantly. At the moment I have over six hours of voicemails and I haven’t checked it in a year. I would say 95% of them are positive and I had people from all around the world calling saying things like “Hi, we’re from Vancouver and we’d love for you to come and play in our game”. It was all just people with nice offers and they were laughing as they said the stuff so I don’t know if they really believed it.
But they wanted to respond, they couldn’t have thought that some ridiculous man was actually going to come and train with them, but they wanted to complete the real act of responding?
Maybe it was like I’d started this story and they wanted to know where it ended? The fact that maybe it never did was quite fun. I did a few interviews magazines in Germany and France and Australia as Gary Goals, all through email though, I never wanted anyone to see. The thing I like about it though is that #garygoals is still used every day, two years later, if something goes wrong. So someone might be like, “I forgot my boots so I can’t play football later #garygoals” or “I broke my leg and I’m injured for five weeks #garygoals”.
So going to the book, it struck me that it really reminded me of Robin Cooper’s The Timewaster Letters [wherein a man writes a series of absurd letters to customer service departments and receives a litany of placating and frustrated responses] but the format has changed so much since that was published. What led you to trying out jokes on live chats?
It started off as a silly joke that just popped into my head, quite like the Gary Goals thing. I was in an O2 chat to get a real problem solved and in the spur of the moment I just told them the joke to see how they would react. I then thought what if I got loads and loads of jokes and told them to different brands? I wasn’t really sure what I was setting out to do. I thought at the time that it might be more like a study, playing with technology, because I wasn’t sure that they were actually human and I wanted to see if they were bots. I thought that a joke was something that a bot wouldn’t be able to discern. As I got further and further into it, I think it became more of a reflection on the working environment of those brands. I had to cover out the names of the brands but what was interesting about it was, when you see who those brands are, the difference between tone of voice on social media versus me actually talking to someone and telling them a joke. And they’re telling me they “can’t deal with it” because they’ll get in trouble. They’re totally opposite personalities and that was quite interesting for me.
There was a certain chat that started with over-the-top friendliness and then was terminated almost immediately, which suggested that perhaps it wasn’t looked after by a person?
Exactly, it’s just the shine at the start. A lot of them are scripts as well and you can see where people have been told to, you know, greet somebody and then show empathy to their problem. So they’ll say things like, “I understand that must be frustrating for you”. But then once I’ve dropped the joke that turns the conversation on its head.
What did you find to be some of the best conversations?
When the sentiment of what I was doing was received in the way it was intended. So when people said, you know, “Thank you, that really brightened up my day”, or maybe they told me a joke back… to me that is what sharing a joke is. It’s the most human thing you can do. The token in which I was offering the jokes was like where I might tell someone waiting at a bus stop beside me a joke just to pass the time and when they were received in that way it was a logical end to the puzzle. But then some people went haywire and logged my IP address and reported me and for me that’s the interesting kernel for why things are so messed up in the world, how one intention can be so misunderstood and miscommunicated that it can be blown totally out of proportion. It’s fascinating.
There seems to be such rigidity in the rulebook that anything outside of the complaint narrative can be deemed a threat?
Another thing that got me into it was an upcoming exhibition in the Science Gallery about artificial intelligence and machine learning and I was going to submit something to it and I got really, really into the research. It made me realise that all of these chatrooms are going to be automated and this is the last time that these will be run by humans so telling them jokes is kind of the last hurrah of that, it can’t ever work again.
It’s kind of a funny concept that you printed a book of these…
I know. I thought about that, like, these are digital transactions, why are they in a book? I had toyed with just setting up a mini website but maybe it was for more selfish reasons that I made the book, because I hadn’t designed anything in awhile or done anything tangible, something that I could hold. Conceptually, it didn’t need to be in a book.
Is there anything big you’d like to shoot for with your personal projects?
My problem is that I have a million ideas and I start them but getting them finished is another thing. I’m working on a storytelling website at the moment as well as a music project with a friend… the thing I love about creativity and design is that you get to collaborate with other creative people and learn about their areas. I think at the moment I just want to sponge off other people’s expertise and get involved in their projects. One thing I have been thinking about is an exhibition of my own with ideas I have been working on over the last few years.
I’ve noticed on your side projects website things will just go up as little jokes or as unfinished pieces?
I think that I’m offering these things up for everyone. People have mailed me going, “Hey, I saw that thing you started and I’d like to finish it off or help you with it,” and I’m not being precious about them. I guess it works two ways as well, because once I have put something up if I’m still thinking about it a month later it means I should probably develop it and keep going with it.
Karl Toomey’s book Funny Business is available in limited numbers from ktooms.bigcartel.com
Words: Emily Carson