Was Shakespeare Smarter than a Monkey?

The monkeys—a Pan Troglodyte Chimpanzee, a pig-tailed Macaque, a Vervet, a Colobus, and an Orangutan—were brought into the windowless room at 10 a.m. on a Monday. There were five computers, all turned on, on top of five desks. Each desk had a different office chair—three had cushions, two were mesh, and it would be up to each monkey to choose what felt most comfortable. The primates were all familiar with computers, having been trained to sit in front of them and bang out letters and numbers on the keyboards.  There were two PCs: a Dell and a HP; and three Macs: two desktops and one laptop. Each desk had a bowl of fruit and two bottles of water. Four television cameras were strategically placed behind framed pictures on the walls so that the monkeys would not be aware they were there.  The cameras all had operators on the other side of the walls. The first thing the monkeys did when they entered the room was go for the fruit. The bananas went first, then the pears, and then the apples. This was a bit disappointing to the men who had set up the room. They were hoping that the fruit would be eaten over time.  Once the monkeys polished off the food and drank the water they began to smack each other around in a playful manner, though the Chimp and the Orang presented menacing teeth to the smaller Macaque, Vervet and Colobus. None of them went to the computers, but they did jump onto the chairs and toss them against the walls.  However, after an hour or so of attempting to show each other who was boss, they began to settle down.  The computers being the only challenge left, they started to poke at the keyboards, hoping that pictures or maybe a movie might appear on the computer screen.  When only the keys they touched showed up on screen as letters or numbers, they began to scream in frustration, banging on the keyboards to make something else happen.

The cameramen were focused on each keyboard and on the computer screens.  They were hired to work in four hour shifts and told that there would be no breaks in the schedule. As long as a monkey was typing, they were expected to film. When the monkeys slept, they too could sleep—though the cameras had to remain on, in case any of the monkeys got inspired and started typing while the others slept.  It took a few days to get the monkeys comfortable and have them understand their task.  They were there to type. They would be rewarded with fruits and drink as they pushed their fingers onto the keyboard.  It didn’t matter what they typed, just that they typed.


It was the brainchild of two MIT graduate students who were watching So You Want to be a Top Model? one night while smoking some blueberry sensimilla pot they had purchased from a medical marijuana facility. After arguing over whether the blonde African American was more deserving than the hot Latin brunette, they turned their attention to the enormous success of such entrepreneurs as Mark Burnett, who brought Survivor, Celebrity Apprentice and The Contender to American audiences, and Jerry Bruckheimer, whose The Amazing Race kept winning Emmys year after year.  There were so many reality shows that seemed like just one stoned idea after another: Iron Chef, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, Celebrity Rehab, Celebrity Circus, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? Big Brother, Biggest Loser, Dancing with the Stars, Project Runway, The Bachelor, Hell’s Kitchen, Amazing Wedding Cakes, Beauty and the Geek, Extreme Makeover, I Survived a Japanese Game Show, Greatest American Dog, My Dad Is Better Than Your Dad.  The two of them were big fans of MythBusters and they tossed around the idea of creating a reality show around a myth.  MythBusters proved or disproved one or two myths per show, so none of the ones they covered could easily be expanded to a 13 week series with the option to extend for another 13 weeks.  But monkeys typing—that could take time. And everybody loves watching monkeys.

The myth was that if you put a bunch of monkeys in a roomful of computers, eventually one of them would wind up writing a novel the equivalent of Moby Dick or War and Peace or a play as great as Hamlet.  Why not give it a try?  Surely there’d be an audience willing to spend a half hour a week watching monkeys typing, eating fruit, drinking bottled water, and doing whatever monkeys do when they have writer’s block.

The Fox Network turned their idea down because they didn’t want to tarnish their image, but with The Tonight Show losing ratings, and the shows leading up to them in need of a makeover, NBC executives were willing to give the monkeys a shot. They couldn’t guarantee the show would replace a losing proposition like The Event, but they figured they had nothing to lose by ordering up a pilot. If nothing else, monkeys typing might be just the challenge the Tonight Show writers needed to put their writing staff into a higher gear.

The production costs for WAS SHAKESPEARE SMARTER THAN A MONKEY? was on a par with America’s Greatest Dog or I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, the bulk of the expense going to the five chosen primates.  Monkeys never came cheap, and trained monkeys who could hit individual keys on a keyboard came at a premium. But the network was willing to cover the costs to see if they could come up with a winner and make a monkey out of Jay Leno, who had failed at the 10 p.m. slot. Some of the network executives privately joked that audiences might not even be able to tell the difference between the monkeys and some of the Jay-walking regulars who appeared on Leno.

So, the pilot was shot. It took a week to edit it down to 30 minutes. Almost all of what the monkeys had typed was gibberish, although the orangutan did knock off a few intelligible words that convinced the two MIT students that a monkey could actually write.  NBC looked at the pilot and ordered up three episodes. The monkeys continued typing for two more weeks, and after 336 hours of continuous filming it became obvious that they were no threat to Melville, Tolstoy or Shakespeare.  One of the monkeys, however– the pig-tailed macaque–managed to write a comprehensible 1,000 word list of demands that included union membership, fewer working hours, separate dressing rooms with slides, hanging bars and rubber tire swings, a private gym, individual limos, unlimited Carvel smoothies, one week vacation time per month, and a renegotiation clause after three months once the audience ratings could be assessed.  These demands were read by the NBC top brass and were not taken seriously.  They figured it had to be a fluke.  But when the monkeys all stopped typing and walked around the room in single file for an entire afternoon, the executives held an emergency meeting and decided to withdraw the show and stick with dramas. As one executive was overheard saying, “Smarter than Shakespeare? Carvel doesn’t even make smoothies.”

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