Out Takes: The Science of Comedy

When I was asked by the Daily Telegraph to write an article about how science was breaking out of the lab and the seminar room (see post below) in the run up to the Uncaged Monkeys tour by Robin Ince, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre and Brian Cox, I asked some people why they thought live events such as the Uncaged Monkeys, Bright Club gigs and talks at Café Scientifique were becoming increasing popular and being seen as a ‘good night out’. Unfortunately, I was unable to use most of the responses in the published article due to a lack of space. Here are the replies from those asked – thanks to all concerned.

Neil Denny – presenter, Little Atoms

I think the appetite was always there, It just wasn’t being catered for.  We’ve been doing our radio show Little Atoms for six years, and for a long time we’d hear that both the reason people liked listening and guests wanted to appear on the show was because this sort of prolonged cerebral discussion was simply unavailable elsewhere in the mainstream media. We recently started doing live events and these inevitably sell out regardless of the subject matter. There has always been an appetite for intelligent programming for a discerning audience. The question is why has this gone mainstream?

It’s because science coverage on TV has changed considerably in the last couple of years. Not only has the coverage improved, but in presenters like Brian Cox, Alice Roberts, Marcus du Sautoy, Jim Al-Khalili and Adam Rutherford we’ve unearthed a new generation of charismatic science popularisers the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Carl Sagan, Johnny Ball and James Burke were on our screens. Add to this hugely popular family friendly science shows like Bang Goes The Theory and a rejuvenated Horizon, and it looks as if we’re currently living through a golden age of popular science TV programming. We can only hope it continues.

Imran Khan – director, Campaign for Science and Engineering in the UK  

I think that there’s been a hunger for these kinds of event for a while, but it’s relatively recently that the science or ‘geek’ community has really started to cater for that audience in a more high-profile way. A big part of it is probably that geeks are pretty good with social media, particularly twitter – which lets you connect with other geeks, and also reassures you that there’s an audience for your work. People have probably sat around thinking “Hey! How about a night of discussing health policy or particle physics?” for ages, except now there’s a really easy way for people to say back, “You know what? That sounds pretty cool. I’ll help you do it.”

In fact, me and some friends are planning a night of in-your-face science demonstrations, for later in 2011. We may have to keep the explosions to a minimum, but it’ll be a way of taking science out of the lab and onto the streets – and it was kicked off via a conversation on twitter. Beyond that, there’s an appreciation amongst scientists that it’s important to talk about science – not just because it adds to society and culture, but because ultimately the public does pay for it and has a right to know.

Timandra Harkness – stand up and science communicator 

There are two elements of what characterizes the science/comedy scene today: on the one hand, it’s simply that some people aren’t satisfied with the standard fare of stand up comedy today. It’s not challenging, there’s almost no satire, so mostly it’s reduced to personal experiences, everyday observations, or flights of surrealism. So I think part of the appeal is that it is a rich source of comedy that’s also interesting, treats you like an intelligent adult. And you don’t need to be a scientist to get the jokes, either. The show I took to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer with Matt Parker – “Your Days Are Numbered – The Maths of Death” had completely mixed audiences, families with kids to retired people, public health researchers to stag parties. We got over 100 people per show, which is amazing for Edinburgh (I’d love to say we knew it’d do that well, but we were as surprised as anyone!) and when we surveyed them later, lots of people just said they wanted to see some comedy, and they thought it sounded a bit different.

But the other part of the appeal I think is a social one. People like feeling “in” with the right crowd – in this case, it’s the crowd of smart, rational, sceptical people. So audiences that would never dream of laughing at jokes about foreigners or mothers-in-law, for example, will laugh at jokes about Christians or homeopaths. They like feeling they’re in on the joke, that they’re part of the crowd that’s too smart to be fooled by superstitious nonsense, as well as enjoying the feeling of flexing their intellectual muscles a bit while they laugh.

They’re probably the same sorts of people – or, in some cases, the same people – as would have been part of the Alternative Comedy scene in the 80s and 90s, who would have enjoyed laughing at jokes about Thatcher and the police. But now there’s so little politics in comedy – or anywhere else, for that matter – science offers a place to look for answers, for things you can feel sure about. We may not know where we stand on humanitarian bombing raids any more, or what the government should do about a budget deficit, but we can feel pretty secure that evolution is true, and that homeopathy is nonsense, that kind of thing.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that it’s now normal to spend an evening out listening, thinking and talking about ideas. I think it does reflect a hunger for ideas, for meaning, for reasons to do one thing instead of another. But I do think we shouldn’t mistake information for wisdom, or facts for meaning.  I mean, you’d learn a lot from our show about how to make sense of statistics and public health campaigns, and we aim to shake up your assumptions a bit as well as just making you laugh. But is it going to tell you how to live your life? No. It’s just a comedy show, only with more Bayesian analysis.

Peter Bentley – a computer scientist at University College London, organizer of the Café Scientifique at the RI  and author of ‘The Undercover Scientist’ 

I think it’s partly a reaction (at last!) against the never-ending stream of somewhat brainless entertainment we have been subjected to in the last decade. Shows and movies have been scraping the bottom of the barrel, sometimes by relying on board games or computer games for inspiration, and TV seems to delight in pseudo-science and the shock-reality factor. I think sometimes the entertainment industry in the UK assumes the audience is stupid. But as science communicators we know that people are perfectly able to understand complicated things and they positively enjoy learning fascinating new facts.

I think people who attended our RI cafe scientifique came because they were genuinely interested. It was free – they could walk out whenever they chose without feeling as though they lost something. But they chose to stay because they found the events fun. We had people from ages 7 to 70 and they were all able to interact and discuss their ideas with a world expert. Whether you agree or disagree with them, who wouldn’t want to take that opportunity? I do think that these kinds of events meet a real need of people. There’s only so far you can go with a chat in the pub (unless you have some really clever friends!) Of course not everyone likes this kind of thing. But these events do for the mind what a fun game of tennis or football does for the body. You come out feeling tired, but great.

Miriam Miller, co-founder of The Bright Club

People like to have something to talk about; everyone wants to be able to demonstrate their interests or to show why they are interesting. Events like this provide richer conversational fodder because they are based on ideas which engage people rather than a simple description of an event witnessed.Physically going out to these events involves a different level of engagement (than, say, watching Horizon at home) because you form part of the evening as an audience member, you can go with friends and discuss the issues raised in the break or on the bus home, and at some of these events you can even interact with the people presenting information to you. We have all the information in the world at our fingertips these days, but we don’t necessarily spend time discussing it with other people and I think that social aspect is an important one, especially for people who are no longer in formal education (which is certainly most of our audience!)

Rod Stanley – editor, Dazed & Confused 

I can’t help but feel some of this can be traced back to the financial crisis of 07 – 08, the ramifications of which are only really being felt now and are the reasons why we at dazed just did a special issue all about money. Which looks at the underlying causes for the fees, cuts, riots, unemployment, tax protests and so on, (and is not our typical area of coverage of fashion, arts etc, although we have also always covered politics and social issues). And I think these sort of things going on domestically, as well as the more recent upheaval in global politics, can’t help but make people more questioning in nature? Of course there’s the school of thought that says in time of trouble, you escape, dress up, party etc but we’ve been all doing that for quite a long time now, so I do think now that the world has changed, people are ready and hungry to sit up and pay attention to the world around them and ask the bigger questions, and that includes science, and be inspired in turn by whatever it is they do, whether creative, design, art etc like many of our young readers.

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Robin Ince: The Science of Comedy

You don’t have to leave your brain at the door when going to a gig. I met up with the comedian who is taking Brian Cox and other scientists on tour.

The “free visitor destination for the incurably curious”, otherwise known as the Wellcome Collection, opposite London’s Euston station, seemed an apt place to meet Robin Ince, comedian and co-presenter of Radio 4’s science-meets-humour chat show The Infinite Monkey Cage.

“There are a lot of intelligent, well-read comedians out there who are interested in science and who want to share their passions,” says Ince, who has done more than anyone to help them do just that. He is the brains behind Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, a variety show that celebrates science while giving the audience a healthy dose of humour and music.

Each Christmas since 2008 the shows have played to packed houses of non-religious people grabbing the opportunity to laugh out loud at the likes of comedian and trained physicist Dara O’Brien and being entertained by bite-sized lectures from scientists like the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. “If the Royal Variety Show was put in a matter transportation machine with the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures,” says Ince, “this is what you’d get.” It’s what he calls “reading-list comedy”, because it’s all about ideas that leave the audience wanting more – and a bibliography.

Ince is about to give them more with his new tour, Uncaged Monkeys: A Night of Science and Wonder, opening in Oxford tomorrow and ending with two nights at London’s Hammersmith Apollo on May 16 and 17.

Ince’s fellow “monkeys” will be Brian Cox, recently on our screens presenting Wonders of the Universe; Ben Goldacre, psychiatrist and slayer of bad science; and Simon Singh, the best-selling science writer and celebrated debunker of the claims of alternative medicine. With their guests the quartet will be tackling everything from the Big Bang to bonobo apes and anything else they can cram into two hours.

Once again the driving force, Ince describes himself as “the idiot who will guide the audience”. Though he loved science as a child, he explains that he lost interest in it around the age of 13, “when science seemed to become facts and dull experiments with apparently no link to the world”.There was, he regrets, “no sense that the periodic table is really the ingredients list of the universe so far”.

It was only in his mid twenties that the popular books of Nobel Prize-winning, bongo-drum-playing physicist Richard Feynman rekindled his curiosity for all things scientific.

“Taking a tour about science to theatres that seat up to 3,000 people is a project I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” admits Ince. The fact that he can do so may in part be down to an English-born, Canadian journalist and writer living in New York, one Malcolm Gladwell.

In November 2008, Gladwell’s two performances at the Lyceum, one of the largest theatres in London’s West End, were quickly sold out. A staffer at the New Yorker magazine, Gladwell is often described as one of the most brilliant and influential writers of his generation. His bestselling books, such The Tipping Point and Blink, identify and explore social trends and behaviour in novel ways. After his gigs in London he returned to Britain the following year to play four dates at venues that you’d normally associate with hip indie bands. Gladwell, with his afro and charisma, made ideas sexy, very much as Brian Cox is doing today.

Ince and Cox’s fellow uncaged monkey Simon Singh identifies three distinct types of event that are taking place: listening to scientists (lectures), discussing with scientists and celebrating science. “People have always gone to science lectures,” he says, “but the discussion and celebration of science in pubs and theatres is new.” He recently introduced a lecture by American physicist Brian Green to an audience of 900 at the Southbank.He admits that big events at big venues, like the Uncaged Monkeys or a lecture by a world-famous scientist, might not be “everybody’s cup of tea”.

For those who prefer things on a smaller scale, there is an ever-growing number of events like The Bright Club, a monthly variety night founded in 2009 by comedy promoter Miriam Miller and Steve Cross, University College London’s head of public engagement, as an arena for the staff and students from UCL to break free from the desks and labs and perform routines based on their research.

“Physically going out to these events involves a different level of engagement, than, say, watching Horizon at home, because you form part of the evening as an audience member,” says Miller. “You can go with friends and discuss the issues raised in the break or on the bus home, and at some of these events you can even interact with the people presenting information to you.”

She believes that we have all the information in the world at our fingertips but that we don’t necessarily spend time discussing it with other people. She also believes that this social aspect is an important one: people who are interested in intelligent things usually don’t get to enjoy them together.

“Traditionally they’d watch TV or read books, both of which are pretty solitary,” argues Cross. “Other than that there are public lectures, which can be great, but most people just aren’t used to being lectured at for an hour.”

It seems more of us are prepared to let loose our inner geek, even if it’s just for the odd night. And it’s something that excites Ince because, “when you go to a well-run science gig, you don’t just come out saying ‘That was fun’, you leave with your mind reeling with ideas that haunt and intrigue you”. We are not yet a nation of science-loving geeks, but as Ince says: “People now aren’t afraid to admit they like science. How can someone wilting under a stack of celebrity swimsuit mags belittle someone looking up at the stars?”