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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