John Mulaney Teaches Us Computer-Assisted Analysis

If you’ve never heard of John Mulaney, let me be the first to introduce you to a loveable, gawky stand-up comedian who got his start on SNL. One of his most well-known bits is about grade-school assemblies and the “street smarts” he learned as a child. He describes the colorful, real-life character of J.J. Bittenbinder, who “looked like he should be the conductor on a locomotive powered by confetti” and had a huge handlebar mustache. Bittenbinder’s assembly taught elementary students about stranger danger and tactical ways to escape from criminals.

Look at the man shimmy!

So what can John Mulaney teach us? With an excerpt from his act, I can show you how to make computer-assisted text analysis work for you. And it’ll be more fun, because it’s comedy! I’ll be using Voyant Tools to demonstrate how the site can manipulate digital text to show you themes and statistical relationships in the writing itself:

Voyant Tools is a web-based reading and analysis environment for digital texts.

On the homepage you can insert text directly into the box, upload a file, or simply paste URLs and hit the “Reveal” button. Once you do, the site will create a list of all words used and track their frequency, mark their relationships, and provide context for the use of specific words. This information will be presented in multiple areas, oriented around the central text listed in the center box. In the top left-hand corner, a word cloud will appear that can be manipulated to show the most used words and their relationships to each other. In the right-hand corner, a list of all words used and their frequency will allow you to click on a word and see it highlighted in the central text.

While this may seem overwhelming at first, I would suggest playing around with a small piece of text and looking at the various trends, it gets easier to use with a little bit of practice.

On the bottom left-hand corner, you can view a summary of vocabulary usage and average sentence length, manage multiple documents, and view the most commonly used phrases. On the bottom right-hand corner, you can view word relationships, correlations, and context. Voyant Tools is a free resource that can be extremely helpful in analyzing historical sources and other forms of written text. Similar tools have been used to aid historians in condensing large blocks of text and sources into themed sections (see Cameron Blevins blog post about topic modeling and Martha Ballard’s diary here:

Some other potential uses of this site could include:

  1. Using the tool on oral history transcripts to track themes and narrow down the central parts of the interview. Oral history interviews are often not linear, and using a text analysis tool could aid scholars in organizing the narrator’s information, memories and insight.
  2. Using the tool on scholarly articles to aid in summary, understanding and relationships between argumentative points.
  3. Using the tool on historical documents that have been digitized, such as diaries, letters, unpublished manuscripts, etc. to support and enhance analysis.
  4. If you have any other ideas, drop them in the comments!

Before I go, I’ll just say a big thank you to John Mulaney for showing us how to use Voyant Tools, and if you haven’t watched his Street Smarts bit, it’s in the first twenty minutes of Kid Gorgeous at Radio City Music Hall (stand-up act available on Netflix). He also talks about ghosts and Donald Trump so it’s a real winner. If you have any questions or would like more insight into Voyant Tools, let me know! I am happy to answer any questions. I would highly recommend playing around on the site and learning how it works for yourself. It’s easy and can be fun, especially when you use entertaining chunks of text. If you want to use John Mulaney again, or pull from a movie or TV show you really like, transcripts can be found here:

Happy analyzing!