The comedy of science

Apparently there’s a movement afoot, a science comedy movement according to Alice Bell in her posting, A physicist, a chemist and a zoologist walk into a bar …,

Somewhere along the line, science got funny. PhD comics are pinned to noticeboards and Facebook has groups dedicated to those who spend too long in the lab. Or, at least, it found some funny friends. Robin Ince co-presents a humorous Radio 4 show with Brian Cox, Josie Long’s set includes gags about A-level maths and, as the Wellcome Trust blog points out, science had a noticeable presence at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

Bell has offered a thought-provoking essay looking at both the pros and the cons,

… Comedy can be a powerful rhetorical weapon, and that means it can hurt too.

A few weeks ago Channel 4 news journalist Samira Ahmed tweeted a request for some maths help.

Ben Goldacre, smelt bullshit and suggested his twitter followers “pre-mock” the story. They did. Then they realised it wasn’t quite as smelly as it seemed (nb: Goldacre speedily apologised). Reading Ahmed’s write up, it was worrying to hear that people “daren’t risk” speaking publicly. There’s been a lot of talk recently about the problem of “libel chill” on British science writing, that people self-censor for fear they’d be sued (as Simon Singh was by British Chiropractic Association). What about “mockery chill”?

I have to admit to having been quite thoughtless, on occasion, in my use of humour so I think Bell raises an important point.

Humour, as I noted  a few years ago in an entirely different context, can be dangerous. In addition to being hurtful, you can also disrupt the natural order of things. Think of political satirists and court jesters for that matter.

Bell’s essay inspired one by Dean Burnett guest post for The Lay Scientist (one of the Guardian Science Blogs),

But how does one go about introducing science into comedy, rather than the other way round? And what do non-London-based scientists do if they want some live comedy aimed at them? If they’re desperate enough to trawl the internet for hours, they can contact me. As a recently qualified doctor of neuroscience who’s also been a stand-up comedian for over five years, I’ve become something of a go-to guy for science conferences wanting a scientific comedy routine to round things off.

As someone experienced in both science and comedy but currently not employed by either, I’m always glad of the work. However, so rare is my background that I am often asked to make jokes about and poke fun at areas of science that I know little about, in front of people who are experts in it.

Preparing a routine about a field of study that isn’t your own is fraught with unique challenges. Case in point: I was recently asked to perform at a conference of geneticists, meaning I had to do a 15 minute set about genetics. Although my studies crossed into genetics quite frequently, I’ve always found it very confusing. So confusing, in fact, that the original request for me to do the conference confused me.

I had appeared at another conference several months before, and afterwards I was approached by a female professor who asked: “Do you have any genetics material?” This isn’t a typical post-gig question, so I wasn’t expecting it. I genuinely thought she asked, “Do you have any genetic material?” This alarmed me somewhat; I’m not at the level where I’ve been asked for my autograph yet, so for an unknown person to ask for a sample of my DNA for whatever reason was unprecedented. And terrifying.

This post has in turn inspired Pasco Phronesis (David Bruggemen) to find out if there are any science comedians in the US in his Sept. 26, 2010 posting,

As the Guardian notes, neuroscientist and stand-up comedian Dean Burnett gets work doing comedy sets for scientific conferences.

Now, if there is someone able to do the same thing in the U.S. or in other countries, I’d love to hear about it.

If anyone does know of a US science comedian, please do contact Pasco Phronesis (pasco dot phronesis at yahoo dot com).

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