A taxonomy of science comedy

I have now been doing science comedy for three – count them – three years, and I thought I’d celebrate in the manner of my people by imposing some kind of artificial order on the chaos of nature, and putting things in boxes.

People tell me science comedy is already niche. Yes, yes it is.

But as we see from deep-sea vent ecology, anchorite living and extreme BDSM, there can be many ways to eke out a living even within tight constraints. Here, said constraints would be the finite number of people in a region prepared to go and see a comedy show with slides and footnotes by amateurs, and the even more finite number of people prepared to run such shows (I know, I am one, and becoming more finite by the minute).

In my time running Science Showoff, attending Science Showoff, as a mote in the first wave of the bootcamp for the UK’s scicomm avant garde, going to geeky standup, and generally being around extroverted talkers about technical subjects, I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. But, some patterns are starting to emerge – so below, I’ve attempted to document the most beautiful forms I’ve seen emerging from so simple a beginning. Just think of me as a less breast-obsessed Linnaeus.

The Cracked Curator

Drawing on the fine Anglophone tradition of ‘show and tell’, the curator presents a collection of interesting facts that they have found. Typical content would be ‘3 funny experiments’, ‘6 weird gene names’, ‘9 scientists with issues’, or ‘12 sperm-a-swimming’. The humour in this usually comes from the content itself rather than from the presenter. A well-trodden format on the internet, championed by Cracked and Buzzfeed, this is a popular entry point for people in the genre.

Pros: Can bring to light bits of science otherwise not seen. Genuinely interesting.. the first time.

Cons: Other people could have found them and frequently do, if they know of the IG Nobels, QI, or if the curator has been inspired by something they have seen on Twitter. Without an individual twist from the presenter, this offers very little for an audience who’ve already run into it. Needs very obscure content, or salt.

The Scientist Next Door

The polar opposite of the curator, these people are all about their experience. Like any other comedian, these people tell stories about their life, loves, woes, and because they work in science the stories involve ‘this one time I was in Antarctica’ or ‘when I dropped the most acid acid that ever acided’, making the stories EVEN BETTER. The good ones will make sure you understand enough backstory to get the jokes, slipping a bit of learning in as well.

Pros: It’s all the highlights of comedy, with science as well. What’s not to like? Makes scientists seem human, to a first approximation. Plus you get to hear about Antarctica.

Cons:  Needs to be a skilled comedian as well as working in science to make this work, which requires them to be upsettingly talented. Sometimes there’s more explanation needed to lead up to a pun about megafauna than justified by the inherent hilarity. You have to hear about their life, loves, woes before you get to hear about Antarctica, which is frustrating for dull factual sods like myself.

The Regurgitating Proxy

Who among us hasn’t googled ‘how to <x>’ in desperation when trying to do something you recklessly signed up to and are worried you can’t handle, in the hope that Alexsiritana will sort it for us? Well, science comedians do it too. Resulting in a set with all the jokes about STEMfolk not being sociable, there being a hierarchy of sciences, and Heisenberg only being able to do one of two things. Which were amusing when you first heard them, but aren’t going to win any prizes for novelty or insight.

Pros: Usually such jokes have survived and been reproduced because they’re mildly, if not wildly, amusing.  Even if groanworthy, tend to evoke a general atmosphere of benevolence while they’re being told arising from familiarity, like the genial, post-prandial indulgence that accompanies christmas cracker jokes.

Cons: If you’ve been around the topic a while, you’ll have heard the jokes. At some point, the stabilizers have to come off.

The Dabbling Common or Garden Comedian

I still remember my joy when Bill Bailey made a reference to CERN in his set. I think it was about the unit of femtobarns. I got so overexcited I heckled. (In the ensuing conversation I revealed I had written comedy columns for Physics World and the audience laughed. At me, not with me, I think.)

But even for those who aren’t thrilled just to get a namecheck for their specialism, a well-timed splash of science adds texture to a pro comedy show and gives an aspiring one a reason to stand out (I can confirm, having taken a comedy show about science to the Edinburgh Fringe, that science is a definite Unique Selling Point in a way that a poster with an ‘amusing’ photo of a 20-40yo white man mugging a ‘funny’ expression is not).

Pros: Distinctive, and makes a change from material about how women are different from men (spoiler: there’s really no definite answer!) and family are strange (spoiler: humans are strange). Shows science comedians how real comedians would do it.

Cons: Generalists won’t go deep into the subject so can just present a factoid and a reflection – as before, if you know the factoid, it loses some impact. Over-excited physicists may heckle.

The Fairy Killer

Homeopathy, conspiracy theories, magic(k), Creationists, holes in the poles, auras, flat earth, lizard people, alien abductions, fairies, chiropracty, angels, psychokinesis: Will desperate people failed by supercilious scientists, and those determined to exploit them, ever start being funny? Tune in after the heat death of the universe to find out.

Pros: Makes people with a background in rationalism feel good about themselves. It’s about time people with incurable chronic diseases or a general sense of malaise got taken down a peg. It is kind of funny that people think the world is run by lizards.

Cons: Standing on stage and leading a congregation in laughter at these folks doesn’t really do anything to convince them that scientists are *not* out to get them.

The Exploding Multitasker

Let’s see what we can explode! Things change colour. More sparks than you can shake a sparkler at. This presenter has most of their own fingers and is a staple of any science festival or other gathering where blowing things up is socially acceptable. Since the audience is primed to be in a good mood due to exciting lights and colour changes, their goodwill can usually be cashed in for some laughs at any mildly amusing comment.

It’s rarely exciting comedy, but since the presenter is already doing at least three jobs – standing on stage making things work, designing things that can work on stage, and writing risk assessments – any jokes they can slip in should be considered a bonus, and good luck to ‘em.

Pros: Who needs bangers when you’ve got bangs? Unlikely ever to be unemployed.

Cons: Those easily startled may want to seek another show.

The Miked Avenger

Science is an intense profession which never knowingly exceeds the ambient morality, and most of us who’ve practiced it have physical or mental scars. In the fine tradition of comedy as therapy (not only is it cheaper than therapy, it’s also less effective!), many people take to talking about the hateful aspects of science as it is done; whether that be excluding people from the profession, treating subjects unethically, enabling corporate environmental destruction or whatever else we’re doing this week.

Pros: People need to hear about this stuff. Righteousness deserves airtime.

Cons: Not gonna lie, it’s a downer. Most people come to comedy nights to enjoy themselves. Remember to include jokes.

What is the best kind of science comedian to be?

If we stick with our ecological metaphor, the organisms most likely to survive and reproduce are the most adaptable. Science facts alone will not see you through; anyone who’s heard them before will just smile slightly while waiting for the next thing. Nor will regurgitated jokes – but familiarity is something the audience will respond to, and most people who come to this sort of thing want a new interesting titbit to relate. Plus, if you end up on a bill made exclusively of your own sub-species, the audience will be bored by the time they get to the end.

Blend, blend, blend. Try a technique from the others’ box – raid some obscure journals (I like the Journal of Meat Science), attempt a demo, talk about your life, rework a classic of the past, develop a career as a successful non-specialist comedian and then swerve back, demand a better world…

Remember the only thing you can guarantee that noone has seen before is your individual and unique take on the facts; your reflections, editorial comments, experiences and synthesis. I can guarantee this since each potential arrangement of a deck of cards is unique in the history of the universe – since there’s 54! potential combinations (2.308437 x 10^71 if you want it explicitly evaluated: or in human terms if you produced a million million shuffles a second every second since the Big Bang, you’d have gone through 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000002% of the possibilities by now), the odds of repetition are.. low. And humans are much more complicated than a deck of cards. We could say the odds of someone having exactly the same experiences as you were pretty long. This is what you’re looking to find.

 

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