Tuesday, 28 July 2009

First Offence.

This will probably be a long one. It will probably be one of many on the same subject recently, so feel free to ignore it if you’re a serial blog reader.

Have a read of this article, written by Brian Logan. It’s long, but stick with it, or this blog won’t make sense. Or just don’t read this blog, that’s probably easier actually. But if you want to read it, best read this article first.

It’s about how stand-up comedy is offensive once again, like in the olden days. This has caused a bit of a furore in the comedy world, as some of you will have probably heard about if you are involved in any way. But this article offends me (ironically), there are so many things wrong with it. And for once, both my comedic and scientific side are vying to get their say in first. There are plenty of other comics who have or will rebuke this article, much more eloquently than I could, like this one, this one and this one. However, this article uses the familiar trick of including research from a scientist, to give the argument much more weight. I’m not a social psychologist like Sue Becker, but as a Neuroscientist who actually does stand-up comedy, I feel I’m more than qualified to offer a rebuttal from a science perspective. Many would argue that, as a Neuroscientist, I could pull rank, but I would never say such a thing. So consider this a scientific counterargument if you will.

Firstly, this article does make a few good points. I’ve noticed from my own experiences that there is an alarming degree of comedy that is offensive for offences sake these days. I recently saw a young comedian stating that he likes to kick epileptics in the face, because the noise they make as they fit and choke to death is ‘really funny’. Nothing about that statement constitutes a joke, as far as I can make out. Please correct me if I’m wrong. It’s offensive for the sake of it. A lot of new comics seem to follow the formula; offensive = funny. This isn’t true. Offensive can be funny, if done correctly. The equation is probably more like α[offensive] = funny, where α is the variable that is the talent of the comedian; a low or zero α means the ‘joke’ isn’t funny. I was serious when I said I was a scienceist.

But in the spirit of the article, I’m going to ignore the points that disprove my argument and concentrate on what’s wrong with it. I’ll break it into sections for ease of reading.

IS comedy…, or comedy IS…?

Although seemingly well researched, the article does not ask the question is comedy offensive? It states in the opening paragraph;

“…Comedy, 2009-style. It's a world where all the bigotries and the misogyny you thought had been banished forever from mainstream entertainment have made a startling comeback”.

Not asking, telling. Science is guilty of this too, researchers start out to prove a theory, not just start poking something and watching what happens (with the very notable exception of the Large Hadron Collider, among others). But when you apply this approach to your information too, ignoring anything that doesn’t tie in with your argument, then you lose all credability. This article is not good scientifically. It spends a lot of time asking why comedy is supposedly offensive again, but does not consider for a second that this might not be the case.

I also take issue with the quote above for it’s implication that the prejudices of old days are back in force. This is a very, very dubious conclusion. Admittedly, a lot of comics use “bigotry under a veil of irony”, but I would argue that in itself is a good indicator of social change. The bigotries and misogyny of old days needed no veil; they were acceptable, nay accepted, at face value. The fact that a ‘veil of irony’ is required these days suggests that, even if an act does agree with offensive views, they know most people don’t. This is not the standard seen in the days of Bernard Manning, when jokes at the expense of black people, Irish people, women etc. were actually symptomatic of what the supposed majority believed. Offensive, prejudice comics are still out there no doubt, but they clearly don’t have the luxury of the support of the majority these days. The assertions that racism and sexism are ‘on the wane’ in today’s society are, as the article says, incorrect. But then the exact same can be said of the assertion that they are as bad as ever

The social-comedy sine-wave

An interesting aspect of the article is that it seems to support the following framework.

OLD COMEDY (pre-80’s) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

ALTERNATIVE COMEDY (80’s) = P.C., Correct, Good.

MODERN COMEDY (post-alternative – now) = Offensive, Wrong, Bad.

This is toss, clearly. Holding up the alternative comedy movement as the bastion of all that is good is a wild conclusion. It must be lauded for the way it wrestled comedy from the old-school prejudice sorts, but I’ve heard numerous references to how it also limited comedy exclusively to the Oxbridge brigade and the middle classes. That, to me, seems quite prejudiced. The article doesn’t mention it, so I don’t know if that’s true. Would it be unfair of me to say that Brian Logan, a Guardian Arts and Entertainment critic/journalist, might be loath to bring up the unfairness of class bias? I wouldn’t of course, can’t imagine how that could be the case. But this black and white view (hah!) is, and always will be, misleading.

It’s also ridiculous to assume that all old-school comics were racist and offensive. I have a DVD of North East comedians from the 1970s (a joke Christmas gift from my dad) and I’ve watched it a few times (in an 'ironic' manner). It’s agonizingly dated of course, but I’ll admit to not hearing a single racist statement, or anything that was more sexist than a few harmless mother-in-law jokes. Mostly, just very self-depreciating local references, nothing much more than that. We remember the racist ones, but they were by no means the only ones.

Maybe it was heavily edited, but it doesn't seem that way. Maybe working class club acts from Newcastle circa 1970-1973 provide an insufficient opportunity sample of the comedian population (some more science there for you) for an absolute conclusion, but in the time it would take to obtain enough data to provide a valid sample of the entire UK comedy scene, the data you collected would be too old to be of use. We have the biggest, most varied scene in the world, it’s impossible to sum it up in a single article. People shouldn’t try.

Weird Science?

Sue Becker describes the modern offensiveness as ‘aversive racism’, “the negative stereotypes that persist under a veneer of liberal values”. I am confused by this term. ‘Aversive’ literally means ‘causing the avoidance of a thing or situation'. Usually, it is where a stimulus or item is paired with something unpleasant. I guess she means ‘aversive racism’ is where the comedian avoids appearing to be racist using irony or something, but the term doesn’t really mean that. To me, it suggests that the racism is being discouraged by coupling it with something unpleasant, which assumes that the racism isn’t already unpleasant. ‘Aversive racism’ would put people off racism. ‘Racism revaluation’ would be a better term, or simple ‘hidden racism’.

It might seem churlish to bring this up, but you when you consider the use the term is being put to, I think it necessary to question it.

Active Comic, Passive Audience

The article makes out that these evil comics go out with the specific intention of being offensive, crude and abusive, and the poor audience has no choice but to endure it. As someone who is a comic (well, I try), I can resolutely say that the audience will have a big effect on what a comic says and does. What this and many articles forget is that being a comedian is a job, an occupation. This article subtly suggests that comics have the freedom to say what they like and therefore choose to pursue offensive or unpleasant agendas. In a static or even one-way system, where audiences are mere cattle who have no choice but to sit and watch, this may be the case.

But comedians need to get paid in order to survive. The better a comic is at comedy, the more gigs he/she gets, and the more he/she gets paid, simple feedback. An offended audience is not going to come back, and will not spread good reviews, damaging the chance of further work. An audience that is not enjoying a set will not keep laughing in the right places out of some misplaced sense of obligation. Comic and audience are somewhat symbiotic. If comedians are genuinely getting more racist and offensive, the audiences they get must shoulder some of the blame by supporting this behaviour.

A comedian cannot risk offending the majority unless there is a sizable enough minority to support them. Given the multitude of types of people in this country, that probably can happen to a degree. Personally, I can’t abide the offensive drivel of Manning, Davidson and Brown, but then they’re all more successful than I am or probably ever will be (apart from Manning, who’s dead, so technically I’ve got one up on him at present). There is, therefore, a sizable number of people who enjoy this racist, sexist comedy. But notice that the major proponents of this sort of humour (in this country) are getting on a bit. Doesn’t that suggest something about the changing attitudes of society? i.e. Modern comics aren't appealing to this fan base? Maybe the newer comics aren't as racist as the older ones, a possibility which completely contradicts the article in question. Then again, the old conservative types who like this comedy, by definition, don't like change.

Minority rules

One of the articles main points is that these offensive comics justify their actions by saying that societies are more intermingled these days, and no minorities ever tell them they’re upset. It then rebukes this, by describing how the Edinburgh festival has very few minorities, and in a staggering example of hypocrisy, smugly states that Brendon Burns' statement that an ethnic minority individual has never expressed offence at his shows is “overlooking the fact that non-white people make up a small minority of his audience”.

So overlooking important details is bad, is it? Where to start.

As someone who married into a large Indian family, I can offer some views as to why you don’t get many minorities in comedy gigs in the UK. Minority groups tend to stick together. You travel from your homeland to a strange new country, you will of course seek out people who share your language, culture and beliefs. This doesn’t really end at any point, which is why you get districts and towns with specific ethnic areas. Human social grouping, an instinct that has endured for millions of years.

(Although interestingly, several dozen of my in-laws have expressed interest in coming to a gig of mine if I ever do one in London. When I have time, I will arrange one and let them know. I just want to see what happens when I turn up at a small gig in a pub back room, and suddenly about 70 Indians turn up to see me, an unknown Welsh valley bloke. I think I’ll claim to be massive on the sub-continent, and am attempting to break the UK secretly, just to see what happens)

I genuinely don’t think it’s a question of being excluded, but more the fact that ethnic minorities choose not to go to comedy nights. Please, prove me wrong if this is not the case.

It’s also worth mentioning that British comedy does often require a threshold level of social and cultural understanding, and ethnic minorities don’t always have this. I once did a gig with some Rwandan refugees in the audience. They seemed to enjoy the night, but it was clear they didn’t really get most of it. Or maybe it was the accent (mine, not theirs).

Regarding the Edinburgh festival, I’ll admit I didn’t see many different ethnicities when I went. But maybe other factors are in play? Scottish weather tends to be off putting for people more suited to a hotter climate, and that includes people from Yorkshire (Scottish weather can be really bad). Also, the most noticeable venue there is the Udderbelly. This explains the absence of Hindu people at least; why would they attend a festival where the main venue is a giant, hollowed-out dead cow?

None of these really help the lack of ethnic minorities at comedy gigs. But I wouldn’t want any point to be ‘overlooked’ now, would I?

The accused

Cutting aside all the questionable logic and dubious sensationalist tripe from the article, the biggest sin is the horrific character assassination of modern comics who are attempting to prove the exact opposite of what they are accused of.

Jo Brand, I have worked with her. You couldn’t meet a lovelier woman, genuine, down to earth, friendly, she’s brilliant. And very good live. Her opinions are taken as gospel, even though a lot of people believe her to be something of an old school sexist. She does a lot of man-hating stuff. Would a man be right to express offence? If not, why not? But the more challenging, modern comics are basically character assassinated.

Brendon Burns. He rubs people up the wrong way quite often, granted. He is not racist. He did have that offensive poster a while ago, but didn’t the title of the show suggest he was trying to make a point about offensiveness? I saw it, he was. He was anti-racist. If Brian Logan has seen the show, he clearly missed the point by accusing Brendon of racism (not that he 'officially' did so, but let's not split hairs). If he hasn’t seen the show, then he has no right whatsoever to judge him. I’ve not read the latest Jodi Picoult book, but I’ve seen the cover. I don’t think that gives me ground to review it, or criticise it.

But worst of all is the treatment of Richard Herring. I’m a fan of Herring, of his Blog, his Stand-up, his DVDs, his podcast, I’m basically a fan of his existence., so maybe I'm biased. But he has been utterly character assassinated by this Brian Logan git, who has portrayed him as something whichis the polar opposite of his real self (unless I've been fooled by a stage persona, but a racist trying to stamp out racism is still doing good work, if for some potentially baffling reason). I’ve only ever heard him be serious once on the podcast, expressing his anger at people not voting and allowing the BNP to make gains at the recent election. To say he’s a racist, and the article does everything except out and out state that he is one by quoting him out of context with no explanation, is horrifically ludicrous and a just plain evil hing to do to a man who relies heavilyon goodwill and the support of his fans.

On his blog, Herring hopes the fact that so many of his statements are taken out of context is due to incompetence. Sorry, Richard, it clearly isn’t. It’s a long, ‘well researched’ article. This isn’t incompetence. This is malicious. Which brings me to the last section, which isn’t as analytical as these previous sections.

What a prick!

Look at Brian Logan! Look at his incredibly smug face! Read his hideously smug, patronising prose. Look at how he addresses these successful comics, people who have made their livings spending years doing this ‘comedy’ thing in a business that he clearly doesn’t get but has no problem with dissecting and discussing as if he is the last word in the craft. So often, he quotes a successful comic then follows it with smug point which undercuts their claims. of innocence. Why are people so able to supply cutting retorts in hindsight? But he carries on, safe and secure in the knowledge that his mind has been made up long ago.

And the ultimate irony, his shocking use of quotes out of context speaks volumes about his morals, after spending so much time criticising successful stand ups for a supposed lack in their own. This sort of behaviour caused the MMR-Autism debacle, which given the rise of measles has no doubt cost many children their health, probably their lives. This sort of behaviour, just picking facts you like, justified the recent wars, killing many thousands. Just picking the bits that support what you think has provided the excuse for religious wars and terrorism. Hitler just picking the bits of Nietzsche he liked caused the Holocaust. So logically, Brian Logan is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths, and is a war-mongering, civillian murdering nazi with a taste for attempted genocide.

Actually he isn’t, probably, but isn’t it terrible when someone takes something you said out of context and runs with it? Yeah, it’s awful all right, people could easily get the wrong impression.


Monday, 27 July 2009

It's like there's a party in my mouth, and everyone's on fire

Here's something that I have 'learned' recently, which I feel I should share with you.
There's a theory, and I've yet to confirm it, about why we like eating spicy foods. Logically, we shouldn't. Spicy food works, generally, via capsaicins, chemicals which are part of the pain perception system (they cause the feeling of irritation and burning, unsurprisingly). So why when we eat it, do we (mostly) enjoy it? In spite of the fact that it often causes sensations akin to sucking on a magmasicle.
By magmasicle, I of course meant a lollipop (or the American 'popsicle', which is obviously what my term is derived from) made of magma, liquid rock. Putting magma in your mouth would obviously cause serious, horrific burns, far worse than any curry, and would probably kill you fairly quickly. But then I realised the term magmasicle is crap for various reasons. Firstly, I'm confused as to whether it should be magmasicle, as in popsicle, or magmacicle, as in icicle, from which the word popsicle is obviously derived. I've emailed an American about this, will post the official verdict when she gets back to me.
There are many other problems with this term, not just spelling. Magma is liquid rock, yes, but it is, as far as I'm aware, the term for liquid rock when it is underground. As soon as it's escaped from it's rocky confines, it becomes lava. So a lavasicle would have been more logical. Logically, you would have to extract it from the ground in order to make it into some form of
-sicle (or -cicle?). You could try making a lollipop from liquid rock while it's still underground, but how would you get to it? Still, magma sounds cooler than lava. Ironic, really, as magma is, logically, a lot hotter, as it hasn't been exposed to the air.
'Magmasicle' also implies that you could make liquid rock into some form of suckable ice treat. In order to truly deserve the description of -sicle, then, the liquid rock would have to be frozen and solidified, which, although safer for the soft flesh of the mouth, defeats the whole point of using as a simile given the context of the original paragraph where I used the term was regarding sensation of putting something extremely hot in your mouth, and as I just said, a magmasicle, even if it was possible to make such a thing (and logically, it isn't) would actually be cool and very hard. It wouldn't be 'just like sucking on a rock', it would actually BE sucking on a rock. This would no doubt pose serious potential hazards to the teeth, but that wasn't what I was going for.
I could have said 'gargling with magma', and avoided this whole rant. But that still wouldn't avoid the magma/lava quandary. Or I could have just deleted the whole thing, or at least kept this pointless train of thought in my head where it could fester quietly like everything else. I could just delete this whole section and start again.
I might still do that.
Anyway, super hot curries and spicy foods hurt. I've heard a theory that they're still enjoyable because they burn off the taste buds, and this releases endorphins, which we enjoy. There's a certain amount of logic to this, pain can cause the release of endorphins, which are, essentially, natural heroin. This seems fine, but if it was that straight forward, I'd be very surprised. Burning off sensory cells such as taste buds should be much more painful than that offered by simple sensation of heat. And why doesn't stepping on glass, or burning your hand, or getting your leg blown off prove similarly enjoyable? All result in the destruction of sensory cells, why don't we enjoy those?
It's ridiculous in a way, but I'm as guilty as anyone. I love spicy food. Not the sort that's so hot it causes all the fluids in your body to evacuate (a phenomenon I've not heard described medically but one which my father swears he witnessed after a guy in the pub ate a triple strength phall for a bet and all the water in his body started pouring out of every orifice, and he only survived because Dai the WWII veteran took it upon himself to empty to contents of twelve ice buckets on him, which sounds far fetched but he assures me he has many witnesses), but the sort that causes a noticeable eye/nose leakage at worst. But then I've had the best Indian cuisine in London (and therefore the World? In the 19th century that would have been a valid claim, but I'm glad it's not anymore). My Father-in-law is a member of an exclusive Indian club which happens to do the best Indian food in London, and has sneaked me in. We've never got past the starters, we just tend to order those until physics takes over and we can't eat any more.
The increasing pleasure people get from incredibly hot foods is clearly a real thing. The Scoville scale's very existence says so. And I advise you to look at that link, it's amazing. The Scoville scale measures food 'hotness'. And it's incredible how high it goes. I like spicy food, but I get the impression that's like me saying 'Yeah, I've taken a life' because I've swatted a fly, to a bunch of guys who regularly strangle bears with their bare (bare? Bear? HA HA!) hands.
The scale is amazing, the link also lists products/produce which correspond to the scale, from 0 (bell peppers) to pure Capsaicin (16,000,000). Any scale which goes from 0-16,000,000 must be approached with caution. The fact that the pepper spray used by he police, a WEAPON, scores just over 5,000,000, shows how strong things get. I looked it up, the top stuff, pure Capsaicin, a teaspoon of that stuff will only be diluted if added to an Olympic swimming pool full of water. Which begs the question, who makes Chili in those volumes? Even if it's curry, same logic applies. What is this stuff for?
Nothing, of course, it's purely a curiosity. I don't know why people enjoy spicy food, but it really is good.
Hurrah for pain inflicting foodstuffs, long may they continue!

P.S. It is 'popsicle', that's a brand name, so that sorts that out. It must be true, an American told me.


Wednesday, 22 July 2009

A week in my life...

I was recently asked to submit an article about a typical week in my life for the Journal of Physiology quarterly magazine. Apprently, it's regula feature about people of interest to the world of Physiology. As a Neuroscientist and comedian, that sort of makes me interesting. Or so they think.
Anyway, I did what I thought best. The following is the article I put together. Obviously, before anyone points it out, the week detailed never happened for real, it's a composite of interesting things that happened on different days which, had they occurred in succession, would have made a very interesting week. As George from Seinfeld says, "If you take everything I've achieved in my entire life and condense it down to one day, it looks decent".
Any pointers, quips, instructions for better written work are greatly appreciated. I don't think I'm doing too badly for someone who's professional training consisted largely of staring at rats for long periods. But see what you think, on the off chance it does get published I imagine it'll be edited a fair bit.

1 Week in the Life of… A Neuroscientist Comedian

In my experience, if you tell a stranger you’re a Neuroscientist, they react with a mixture of surprise, admiration and suspicion. Tell someone you’re a comedian, they respond in the same way but in a more exaggerated manner. Tell someone you’re a Neuroscientist comedian, they simply dismiss the ludicrous statement and start discussing the weather.

My desire to entertain is something of a family trait, but my skewed world view and overly analytical mind has always resulted in me being drawn to science, which is why I’m completing my PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience. Many comedians started off as scientists (Dara O’Briain, Harry Hill etc.), but very few have tried to combine science and comedy, with (as I’ve discovered) good reason. But I persevere, and slowly, it seems to be working. It’s impossible to describe my experiences and career structure with any accuracy in a short article, so here’s a basic rundown of a typical week in my life.

Monday: Monday usually begins with checking my subjects, if I have any. Weighing, checking health, food levels etc. My family still thinks being a Neuroscientist is some glamorous occupation. If this is the case, a morning being scratched, bitten and defecated on by three dozen rats should keep me grounded. After this, I do more work on my next experimental set-up, performing cutting edge research armed with a large box, some old Christmas decorations and a packet of coco-pops. The glamour is almost intoxicating at this point.

In the evening, I attend a friend’s local gig to try out new material. I mention that I work with animals and another act gets very aggressive and says, I quote, “You’d better not do any of that near me, I’m a vegetarian”. The inanity of this statement leaves me dumbstruck. He then proceeds to do a set about paedophilia, which strikes me as somewhat hypocritical.

Tuesday: Have to go over more data from my previous experiment, trying to find a significant pattern in disappointing data. Before starting my PhD in Behavioural Neuroscience, I had never come across SPSS, and I sometimes long for those days of carefree optimism. For those unfamiliar with the statistics package SPSS, it reminds me of the NHS; we’d be lost without it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t hate it.

That evening I host the regular Student Union comedy night. I mention my comparisons between SPSS and the NHS. Unfortunately, the 30 or so Art and History students in the front don’t know what I’m talking about and assume that SPSS is something to do with the police. Comparing one government institution with another really doesn’t have the same impact, but my wife later points out that the original joke wasn’t funny either, so no real loss there.

Wednesday: Surgery day. It’s an unfortunate aspect of modern science that animal experimentation is still necessary, and that a study of the function of specific brain regions requires lesioning or physical disruption. I’ve had to point out to many anti-vivisectionist ‘friends’ that just because scientists do it, it doesn’t mean we enjoy it in any way, despite their angry implications. This is true, as performing a neuroanatomical lesion with any degree of accuracy takes several hours of concentration at a time. If nothing else, it’s boring. This revelation makes me chuckle, but I decide I really shouldn’t mention it if I’m ever asked to write a magazine article.

No comedy tonight, but I run some new material past my wife. The look she gives me is similar to the one I give a rat that urinates on my sleeve.

Thursday: Receive several replies to job applications for a post-PhD position, all rejections. One rejection is from a job I never applied for, which is does damage the motivation somewhat. After much deliberation, I decide to remove the ‘comedian’ section of my CV. Just doesn’t look right on an academic application. Spend another 8 hours performing brain lesions. My careers advisor told me I’d ‘never be a brain surgeon’. She was half right, I guess.

In the evening, I fill in for a last minute drop out at a lovely gig I know. A French woman in the front row looks confused, so I convert all my jokes to metric and she starts laughing. I mention how nonsensical the excuse ‘Big bones’ is for being overweight. A woman laughs and explains she used to be big boned. Reflexively, I ask how long she spent on the International Space Station, then have to spend 5 minutes explaining how prolonged periods of low gravity can lead to bone loss due to calcium depletion. Make a note; it’s important to know your audience, and the people of Abergavenny aren’t really up to speed on the effects of prolonged microgravity on human skeletal structure.

Friday: Today is important, it’s my first ever attempt at a science-themed comedy night. “Humourology”, as I’ve dubbed it (an off the cuff suggestion I don’t like but which seems to have stuck), is a night of as many comics as I can find performing material based on and with reference to complex science, hosted by myself. I manage to focus on my work, but am also illicitly using the photocopier for flyers, which I hope nobody discovers. By the time the show starts, there are over a hundred people in attendance. Science comedy is clearly an untapped niche. The whole thing goes incredibly well, particularly my analysis on the scientific inaccuracies of classical jokes. The night wraps up around 11. After promising to do more Humourology in the near future, I go home and pass out, dreaming of the stardom that is surely to come my way after the success of tonight.

Saturday: Have to go into the lab to start a test session. Luckily, spending several hours staring at rats in a box undermines my delusions of grandeur.

Sunday: Same as Saturday, but with a later start as I forget my lab access card.


Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Mystic Ted, the latest edition again

If anyone still reads this, Mystic Ted is the spoof horoscope I write for The Cheek (www.thecheek.co.uk)

In case of editing, here's the latest one. I had fun with it.


“Your membership has been suspended pending the outcome of the investigation” (Mr. P. R. Normal, head of the UK Guild of Astrologers)

NOTE FROM TED: That cow Pat took my winning competition entry and got to go to New York! I knew she’d do that, but I was too hammered to stop her. Although I predict she’ll have trouble getting back out of the USA (due to some well meaning astrologer telling customs she talks in that funny way because she’s the head of a terrorist cell), it means I’ve had to take a less glamorous holiday. So here’s my horoscope combined with my holiday diary, detailing my lovely weeks break at the Gorlleinon Housing Estate.

  • VIRGO: Got to Gorlleinon on Sunday evening. The B&B I’d booked wasn’t where they said it would be, there was just a skip full of used nappys with “Bobs Bedd + Brecfust” scrawled on the side with what I really hoped was brown paint. I went to the nearby off-license and asked the guy through the security shutter if I had the right place, and he said Bob used to have a caravan there that he rented out but which he blew up last week trying to install central heating with a length of hose and a bucket of stolen diesel. In return for his kindness, I told the guy, who was a Virgo, that he shouldn’t open the shop tomorrow as he was going to get robbed again around 10.36 am. He thought I was threatening him and said he’d call the police. I told him he could if he liked as they would turn up 3 weeks later. I left then as he started taking pot shots at me through the shutter with an air rifle.

  • TAURUS: Woke up Monday morning after a surprisingly comfy yet horrifically unpleasant night in the skip. Tried to find a bathroom to clean up but saw no sign of one. Luckily, after the nights heavy rain, a blocked gutter burst over me at this point, which, although full of dead leaves and rats, actually made me cleaner overall. I went to find breakfast, and saw a greasy spoon down the road. Went in, told the guy on the counter, the owner and also a Taurus, that the bacon he was going to buy next week from a guy in a truck was actually the remains of retired racing pigeons, sprayed pink. He gave me a free sausage sandwich to thank me, then charged me £5.67 for a cup of tea. I had 83 sugars just to get my moneys worth, and spent the next 3 hours not blinking

  • PISCES: Passed a crazy woman who was a Pisces while going for a walk. She screamed something I couldn’t understand and threw a rag at me. I tried to give it back, and told her if she went to the alley behind the corner shop on Thursday at 5pm she’d get a large sum of money dropped on her from the second floor window. She mumbled something and wandered off. Actually, not sure now if it was money or and old couch that would land on her. To be honest, I just wanted her to leave. Still; free rag!

  • CANCER: Rather than sleep in the skip again, curled up for an early night in the doorway of an abandoned shop. Woke up around 2am with another guy sleeping on top of me. He was a Cancer, so I told him that he wasn’t homeless, just drunk on White Lightning and he’d forgotten where he lived. Was tempted just to take his keys and stay in his house instead of him, but when he got home his wife would be waiting with a handful of old betting slips and a frying pan, so thought better of it and directed him home.

  • LEO: Sat on a bench in the local park for a bit. Threw some bread for the ducks, but then the squirrels came and tried to eat it and there was carnage. Some idiot accidentally dropped a bag of steroids last week, apparently, and the wildlife has been going nuts. Almost got covered in blood, fur and feathers so I left. Passed two kids, both Leos, bunking off school. Told them that if they went to school now they’d see their form teacher being arrested and they raced off. Neglected to mention he’d be arrested for finally snapping and chasing those two little swines across the school with a specially sharpened ruler for an hour.

  • ARIES: Bought lunch from a guy selling seafood from a cart, then spent some time in an alley behind a community centre losing it again. A lovely woman, an Aries, came and found me, put a blanket round me and ushered me inside. I tried to tell her I wasn’t a junkie, I was on holiday, but she thought I was delirious. I tried to tell her future, but the sickness was giving me double vision so I told her she and her twin sister would meet two identical handsome strangers on a pair of busses. She sat me down in a circle of people, all shaking and sweating. They kept going on about their problems, but I stayed because the coffee was decent.

  • LIBRA: Wandered down the main street, looking for somewhere to buy some new clothes, or at least a pack of wet wipes. A guy leapt out from behind a phone box and threatened me, told me to give him my wallet. Instead of a knife, he had a pair of nail clippers. I wasn’t particularly scared, so instead of giving him my money I told him about all the diseases he would catch in his life, exactly when and how he’d get them, and the symptoms. He left in the end, completely depressed.

  • SCORPIO: Booked a ‘seaside jaunt’ with ‘Bobs Lovely Day Trips Company’. Got on a minibus that smelled of smoke and incontinence and we were off. Trip lasted 3 hours, most of which was spent going round the same roundabout to build up enough speed to change to 3rd gear, I think. Got there at midday. Not so much a seaside, more an abandoned building site next to a polluted pond. My only other traveller, Sidney (a Scorpio), was a pensioner who thought he was getting on the bus back to his home. I told him that tomorrow they’d be having Rice Pudding for tea, and that would sort his bowels out. Bought a stick of rock that turned out to be an old tent peg wrapped in cling film.

  • SAGGITARIUS: Party night! Decided to hit the disco. Got dressed up in my least stinking clothes and hit the clubs. No clubs, but a few bars let me in. The Dog and Crowbar, a delightful little place I sincerely hope I never see again, was quite memorable. Every customer in unison asked me what I was looking at as soon as I entered. Struck up a conversation with Boris the Sagittarius, and told him at the end of the night he’d be beating some poor sods face in.

  • CAPRICORN: Woke up in A and E, apparently Boris beat my face in because I laughed when he sang ‘Endless Love’ on the Karaoke. The nurse, a lovely young Capricorn, took pity on me and showed me where the shower room was. I finally got clean for the first time in days, only to come out to find they’d taken my clothes away and burned them for Hygiene reasons. Nurse Capricorn apologised but told me they were setting off alarms. I asked if she’d go to dinner with me as an apology. She was flattered but already had a boyfriend. I told her he was going to break up wither tomorrow as she’s too emotionally fragile. She agreed to go out with me whilst weeping copiously.

  • AQUARIUS: Date with Nurse Capricorn. Spent a while finding suitable clothes to wear as I had to leave the hospital in a backless surgical gown. Got some odd looks and several threats while walking down the High Street. Finally bought an old 50’s style suit from a charity shop. Only 6 fag burns, a bargain at £3. Then checked crystal ball. Nurse Capricorn’s boyfriend, an Aquarius, was going to meet me outside the restaurant we’d agreed to meet at with rusty pipe to teach me a lesson for ruining his break up. Turns out Nurse Capricorn would be so touched by this she’d agree to marry him while he stoved my skull in. Decided to go home instead.

  • GEMINI: Bus home. Would like to say I had a lovely time, but that would be a lie. A large lady next to me, a Gemini, fell asleep and started dribbling on my shoulder. I foresaw that she’d catch nits from my ratty old suit, so I felt like I won overall. I keep wondering why I don’t check my own horoscope, because maybe then I’d not have bad things happen to me? But where’s the fun in that? Bye bye, Gorlleinon.


Friday, 10 July 2009


Recently, I was asked to answer some questions for a students dissertation, which I assume is related to science communication or some such. Just in case anyone is interested, here's what was said.

1. How did you get in to science comedy?

I had been doing comedy for 3 years really, not actually thought specifically about doing science comedy. Originally, I noticed that a large number of comics discussed the jobs they have/had to relate to the audience. Being a Neuroscientist, I didn’t think this would really give the typical audience anything to relate to, so if anything I down-played my scientific leanings. But eventually I realised this meant I came across as somewhat ‘false’, and this really made me struggle at a lot of gigs. So eventually, I did start introducing more scientific aspects to my sets. I felt a lot more comfortable and people enjoyed it more as a result. Despite my initial assumptions, a lot of my more science based jokes were getting the best responses, and I realised this made me stand out from a lot of other acts. I wouldn’t say there’s a specific ‘science comedy’ style practiced by acts, but I realised there is a demand that isn’t being satisfied for comedy that relates to the scientific community. So I decided to try and occupy that niche. So far, so good.

2. How complex scientifically do your jokes get?

It varies. Paradoxically, I’ve found the more complex a joke is, the bigger the response it gets, assuming it’s delivered well. People often appreciate being given the credibility to understand concepts beyond the basic sex-drink-reality TV references that are safe bets. I also sense an element that’s the same as when people see someone do a particularly impressive sporting performance, a collective feeling of “I couldn’t do that, well done”. But with comedy, of course. I do try and address high-science concepts some times like Quantum mechanics or statistical analysis. There’s a difference between a complex joke and jokes about a complex subject. The latter isn’t quite so reliable. I once had a bit where I discussed the ‘silly’ names scientists give important discoveries sometimes (e.g. the embryological signalling molecule named after Sonic the Hedgehog, or the fatal side effect of some old antidepressants called ‘Cheese syndrome’). This isn’t the same as doing complex material, it comes across as trying to look clever by making obvious observations about less common subjects, and most people can see through that. It’s like poking fun at someone who runs a marathon; it’s a lot easier to take if you yourself have done the same, otherwise you just look quite pathetic.

3. How do you go about preparing a science joke for the public?

Basically, it’s the same as any other joke, preparation-wise. You find something you want to discuss, think of an angle that makes it amusing, try and articulate it in a way that makes it as efficient and concise as possible, and then try it out. The difference with science based jokes is that the angle you come from can vary beyond the normal variety. For example, many acts have anecdotes about trains being late. Most acts may approach this from the angle of incompetent organisation or mean spirited staff and discussing what happens to make rail staff so useless or petty, whereas I might argue that the trains are too efficient, and that the high speeds they achieve due to their smooth organisation actually approaches relativistic levels, so the time on board the train goes slower and they think they’re arriving on time, whereas to the outside world they’re late. Or something like that. If I’m doing a standard night, I’ll find a way of explaining that as most people may not have a comprehensive appreciation of the time dilation effect caused by the Universal constant of the speed of light, whereas if it’s a science comedy night, I might assume they can keep up. But otherwise, that’s the process for any joke writing.

4. Have you ever told a science joke that the public failed to understand?

I have been battling a dual problem of talking too fast and mumbling a lot for most of my adult life, so there’s been many jokes my audience hasn’t understood purely because I haven’t been articulate enough. But a failure to understand caused by complexity? I did a science comedy night in Bath Central Library once. I included a joke/theory about how the inefficient layout of the human retina (it’s back to front, logically), coupled with the potential for rising sea levels caused by global warming, would inevitably result in the conquering of humans by the cephalopods (‘correct’ eye structure, water based creatures, quite smart). It didn’t go well, a lot of blank stares. This joke worked in the previous gig, but then I remembered this was a gig for a gathering of optometrists, who loved any eyeball references. Although after that gig someone did threaten to sue me, so maybe it wasn’t so good.

5. What would you consider your most successful science joke.

I have quite a few I can rely on. At present, one of my bankers (comedy term for joke you use that is almost guaranteed to work) is about how I passed my driving test thanks to my knowledge of the uncertainty theory of quantum mechanics and the related observer effect. During a specific science comedy night, where I may have a projector, one of the more reliable sections is where I answer the question “why did the chicken cross the road” with a full analysis of the motivational factors governing the behaviour of a simple bird and the illogical nature of assuming a chicken has any concept of roads. This lasts about 5 minutes, gets a good response. One of my more reliable routines is also about a statistical analysis disproving a well known theory about sharks. It really depends on the audience which is more successful. They could all crash and burn some times.

6. How long do you think the public would watch a strictly science joke only show?

The question there is a bit misleading. A ‘science joke only’ show would be impractical. Comedy isn’t something that can be so rigidly structured. Themes are fine, but imposing rules like that is impractical. A lot of comedy nights have themes, but they don’t stick rigidly too them. A comedy show about politics wouldn’t work if it was only about politics and nothing else. Although science journals have to exclude it by necessity, a comedy night without general opinions, perspective and illogical interpretations wouldn’t work. Science themed, yes, science only, no. However, with that in mind, I’ve run and performed in several science-themed comedy nights, with an emphasis on as much science as possible, and they’ve gone on for over 3 hours with little or no complaints. In fact people voluntarily said they really enjoyed, so will assume they did.

7. Have you ever "watered down" a science joke for the public?

I’ve sometimes not taken a joke to what is, for me, its logical conclusion scientifically for fear of alienating the audience as a result. This is more a judgement call than anything. I try to explain things in a easily understood terms as possible. It’s important to keep in mind that, if lecturing, your purpose is to educate. If gigging, the purpose is to entertain. You can push an audience into listening to concepts and ideas they don’t usually experience, but you’re there to amuse them, they aren’t there to be educated by you. A lot of acts I’ve seen have the habit, which I personally don’t agree with, of demonstrating to the audience how much more intelligent they are than everyone else. If pulled off it can work, but can often be seen as arrogant and patronising, and I always try to give my audience the credibility I think they deserve. It tends to be appreciated. I have discussed some things that have been over the heads of some people so have subsequently kept it simple (largely brain related jokes, as I can go on for hours about my chosen subject). One thing I won’t do is be scientifically inaccurate. So you can guess that pseudoscience doesn’t get much mercy from me if it comes up.

8. Do you think there is a limit to what science comedy can talk about/explain and why?

There is a limit, but it’s not a rigid one. It depends on the act, audience and situation. A typical comedy audience only has a finite amount of patience, and this alters if alcohol is involved. There are many ways to explain a subject which is outside the ‘normal’ arena of general understanding, but this can be said for any subject. A 15 minute set about the metaphorical underpinnings of a classic poem such as Beowulf can easily be as complex as a science based set, but if addressed with patience and a consistent level of humour there’s no reason why it won’t work. If a complex science subject is explained by an act that can maintain attention and make it entertaining then it shouldn’t be a problem. People are willing to listen to anything they enjoy, so making science enjoyable is one of the main reasons I do Science comedy. One thing I would advise anyone attempting to do the same is that, in science comedy, the comedy comes first. It needs to be funny, and then it can accommodate as much science as it can take before it stops being funny. Being educational is fine, but that isn’t the point of a comedy gigs, and the audience knows that very well.


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