The Magnet 35: A.I. Bargain Barn

Recreating the host of a 1990s cable access flea market using OpenAI software

Recreating a 1990s cable access show host with A.I.

The above video is a 10-minute segment from a 1980s cable access television show called Bargain Barn. I’ve watched it at least 10 times since it first appeared on YouTube in 2007.

Bargain Barn was a warehouse-sized thrift store in Shawnee, Oklahoma (it was destroyed in a fire in 1984). Its zero-budget live TV show was hosted by Jeff, a fast-talking guy who rarely showed his face. There were no paid actors, no scripts, no staging, no editing. Jeff’s job was to extol the virtues of various items for sale in Bargain Barn. But Jeff faced a massive challenge: everything in the warehouse was either busted, stained, torn up, or missing essential parts.

The delight of the show is watching Jeff use his astonishing powers of salesmanship and extemporaneous gab to talk about damaged goods he knows little about. Jeff’s hyperbolic delivery more than makes up for his lack of knowledge. Above all, he is trustworthy. He never lies or tries to conceal the defects in the items he describes. He just points them out and lets the viewer decide whether or not to call in and bid on an item. The show’s earnestness is one of its most endearing qualities.

Here’s how Jeff presents the first item on the video:

“Here's a bedspread/comforter type deal, right there. That is for a twin size bed. Look at it. Okay, I'm going to call this as-is, folks, and not because it's tore up or anything, but this one does need to be washed. And I believe it’s probably been washed once in its life before. So I don't see any rips, no flaws, no tears, no holes in it, or anything like that. I've looked all over it. And I'm just gonna say that it does need to be washed. And that's about it with it. Okay. And I'm gonna call it as-is for that reason and that reason only, it is not tore-up or beat up or anything. I'll go ahead and show you the other side.

“Right there, so you can see that it is not tore up or beat up or anything, but I would zap that dude through the washer. It is just to me, it's not exactly sparkling clean. I'd like to see it go through the washer one time. Alrighty. And then it'd be good to go. Perfect little deal. I'm gonna call it as-is for that reason and that reason only.”

Can you see why I’m fascinated with this show? I wish that there were more episodes of Bargain Barn archived online, but I can’t find anything. I hope a fan in Shawnee has a box of VHS tapes with recordings of the show and will do the world a great favor by uploading them to the Internet Archive.

In the meantime, I decided to resurrect the spirit of the original Bargain Barn by creating an A.I. version of Jeff. I recently got a beta invite for the latest iteration of OpenAI’s software, which generates text based on prompts you give it. I wanted to see if I could use OpenAI to recreate Jeff’s persona and make a new episode of Bargain Barn based on the existing episode segment. I was amazed at the results. It’s as if the software had a working model of Jeff’s brain!

Here are a few examples:

Real Jeff prompt:

“And speaking of as-is. I want to show you a stroller that's as-is. I don't know if you can use it or not. There it is. Okay. One of the tires is missing off of it right there. All righty. It's not a very high-dollar little rig to begin with. A couple of dollars on that. Take that dude home. Right there. Okay, a nice little stroller. It will work. It will roll.”

Artificial intelligence Jeff:

Let's talk about this little baby here. Let's talk about this little dresser. I mean, this is a nice little dresser. I mean, it's not perfect. It's got some water damage. There's a little bit of a crack here and there on it. But heck, it's in great shape. If you were going to refinish it, if you were going to put a clear coat down on it, you know, you could do some great stuff with it. The color on it is really neat. It's a very subtle, gentle, kind of a dusky blue color. It's got some nice lines to it. You know, it's got some very unique lines to it. It's got a very nice finish on it. It looks like it's probably a satin finish on it. It's not glossy. It's not shiny. It has a nice kind of a gentle sheen to it. I think it's going to be a big hit. 

Real Jeff:

“Okay. The kids are wantin' these in a bad way. There's your duck to water. Lots of parents call and say “you're gonna have to put another duck to water up.” My kid's about to have fit for one. So there you go. Your duck to water. Cool little sponge right there. That's got the little deals that you put your bath Okay, they'll dissolve and give you a nice good little green water bath of some sort. I'm not sure I haven't seen 'em go yet but I already get my daughter one. Miss Heather-Anne, She'd been wantin' one too. So little Heather if you're watching Daddy will try to give you one of them. All right.”

A.I. Jeff:

So let's go ahead and show you the chicken KFC. So this has got the big box. This is what the chicken came in. It's KFC's signature and has the chicken, the mashed potatoes, the gravy, and the biscuit. Now the biscuit is not a biscuit. It's a little cube kind of thing. It's got a biscuit shape but it's not a biscuit. It's like a cake. Not cake flavor. It's kind of an interesting taste. It's like you're eating a cake with a chicken taste to it. And it's not bad.  

More A.I. Jeff items I generated from OpenAI to round out the episode:

I think this is a pretty good idea. It's a little slot for your phone right there so you can carry your phone around with you. I don't know if that phone is gonna be real happy. I mean, it's gonna be hot in there, but I don't know if it's gonna be that happy. Maybe it'll be okay. I don't know. So I guess you could use this to your advantage. You could just carry your phone around with you. And then you can call people and talk to them while you're walking around. I don't know if that's a good idea or not. It doesn't really matter, but it's just there. 
"Foldable Printable Mandala" it says. You can use this for your mind mapping, your brainstorming. You can use it for art, whatever you want to do with it. All you have to do is just print it out, fold it in half, and you got yourself a mandala. That's pretty cool. This is nice. I really like this. You have two patterns to choose from. I like the black and white with the colored one. I can really get my thoughts organized around this thing.
This one I'd say is a steal. This is what they call Breast Cancer Awareness Earrings. And what you're getting for $9.99 is you're getting five pairs of earrings that's made for one dollar each. So what you're getting is you're getting 20 dollars worth of earrings for $9.99. Now they're not the best earrings in the world but they're not bad and for $9.99, I'd say you're getting a steal. And the little box is making it look like it's worth a lot more than what they're asking for. So for $9.99, I'm going to say it's a steal.
Okay. This one is called the Bamboo-Clip-On-Belt-Bib-Casserole-Kit. Okay. This is a good one.  It's a clip-on casserole kit for your belt. Let's see. There's a — I can't read what his name is — but I know it says, "Made in Japan." I'm sure that's what it says. And here's a picture of a little guy there with a little — I don't know what the heck he's got there, but he's little, and he's got his little, whatever he's got on there. I guess he's got his little clip-on casserole kit. I wonder what he's got in it. All right. Well, let's have a look inside this.
So that's it for today's show. I hope you like the deals that we've got. 

And finally, I asked A.I. Jeff to describe Magnet T-shirts:

This is a T-shirt that is a magnet for a head, a magnet head. And what it looks like is that little guy is attached to a magnet. And he's got some eyes that look like they're made of plastic. That's what it looks like. I don't know what he's doing. I don't even really know what he's supposed to be doing. But he sure looks funny. And I like him. I like this little guy. And I think it's probably from the early 70s and it's got a little bit of wear on it. And there's some discoloration and there's some stains on it. But I don't think that it's too bad. It's really cool. I don't know if I'll be able to get rid of it. I don't know how much this guy's worth. I know that he's not worth a lot. But I'm going to try to sell him anyway.

Bonus! I ran the beginning of this newsletter into OpenAI and it created this bit of false trivia:

Jeff’s biggest fan was the late, great filmmaker David Lynch, who included an exact replica of Bargain Barn in his 1990 film Wild At Heart. In the movie, Lynch’s Cable Access Hour is a parody of Bargain Barn. The show runs on a local cable channel at 3:00 AM. The host is a guy named “Crazy” (played by Crispin Glover), who sits in an empty studio, reading descriptions of damaged items off a teleprompter. He is a phony, a liar, a fraud. He tries to get the audience to call in and bid on a “Purple Haze” guitar, describing it as “a beautiful, purple-hued, semi-hollow, semi-electric guitar…with built-in overdrive.” But we don’t believe him. We know it’s not a semi-hollow guitar with built-in overdrive. It’s a cheap knockoff. Crazy tries to sell us a “white 1990 Chevy Nova” that he describes as “the best automobile ever made.” But we know it’s not. It’s a piece of junk.

Thanks for reading! The Magnet is written by Mark Frauenfelder and edited by Carla Sinclair.