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Interview

He's here all week, folks

Science comedian Brian Malow

Ian Brooks 2 November 2008

www.lablit.com/article/433

Brian Malow [photo credit, above and main page: John Gilbey]

I’m open-minded about performing in front of just about anyone. If they’re narrow-minded, maybe I can slide a little wedge in between their lobes and let in some sunlight

Editor’s note: Brian Malow is billed as ‘Earth’s premier science comedian’. Ian Brooks recently caught up with Malow to find out what makes him tick.

You claim to have turned to comedy after getting stuck with the day shift as an astronomer. Can you tell us the real story? Kind of a “who is...?” for Brian Malow?

When we were in 8th grade, my friend Chuck and I were writing a science fiction story and we needed to know how small the Earth would have to be to become a black hole. So we each went home, armed with the mass of the Earth and the equation for the Schwarzschild Radius, and tried to work it out by hand, having only very simple calculators (and no internet). I think we both came pretty close. It’s 9mm, according to Wikipedia. About the size of a peanut. This was not for a school assignment, this was for fun. That oughta tell you volumes about who I am.

I fell in love with both science and science fiction at an early age. I’m not sure which came first but I know that Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke were largely responsible for me reading science books for fun. They wrote with style and humor and a clarity that is rarely, if ever, matched by science writers. Larry Niven, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein – totally captivated me. I remember stargazing, burning with envy, knowing that much of what I read would someday come to pass…but not within my lifetime. On the other hand, I never imagined MapQuest or 120GB iPods or the ability to find any song lyric or who invented Silly Putty via mobile phone.

So, did you end up training as a scientist?

I dreamed of being a scientist but I also dreamed of being a rock star. And I also dreamed of being a scientist by day, rock star at night – some kind of cross between Albert Einstein and Freddie Mercury…without the sexual connotations (of Einstein). I ended up on an arts path. And, whereas the bit about me previously being an astronomer who got stuck on the day shift is just a joke (and one that may even be considered offensive to solar and radio astronomers!), another line of mine – “I’m not a doctor but I play one in the broken dreams of my parents” – certainly contains a jagged nugget of truth. I’m a nice Jewish boy who was an A student but I chased the punch line instead of the bottom line. You can hear my grieving parents wail, Where did we go wrong? I was even pre-med throughout college (at the University of Texas, Austin) which is a bit of a career prick-tease to my parents, I suppose. I stuck around for grad school in television production before trying my hand at stand up. So I never pursued science as a profession but, from the beginning, you could hear my love of science in my writing – in my choice of topics, in the language, the metaphors, the sensibilities. Science came first, comedy much later.

Do you adapt your routine to cater to different audiences? For example, does Letterman get the same treatment as JPL or NASA?

Well, I haven’t caught Letterman’s ear yet (although I did appear on “The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson,” which is owned by Letterman’s company)…but I absolutely cater my routine to my audience. There’s definitely a difference between performing for a general audience and for specialized groups. And I enjoy both. With scientists, you can make the most obscure references with no explanation. For general audiences, the fun is in explaining things in a colorful way with humorous analogies and metaphors.

What gigs have you been working recently?

I just came off the craziest, most varied week I can remember…On Monday morning I did a presentation at a high school with the chief scientist of SETI@home, the distributed computing project. Later that night, I performed at a conference for the biotech giant Applied Biosystems, and the audience was a couple hundred scientists. Obviously, you can’t speak the same way to high school kids as you can to scientists. For Applied Biosystems I used all my genetic material (yes, that was a pun, I admit it). In the weeks before the conference, I spoke to a couple scientists to learn a bit about the company, its science and its culture. I ended up getting some of my best laughs by poking fun at the tension between the scientists and the product development people, at the arduous approval process, the myriad three-letter acronyms. A little research enabled me to really personalize that show.

On Wednesday, I was performing at the Beckman Center of the National Academy of Sciences, in Irvine, CA, as part of their Distinctive Voices lecture series for the public. My presentation, “The Final Frontier?” was a humorous survey of science frontiers, and the crowd was mostly science enthusiasts with a few scientists, as well. I finished the week off with a visit to JPL (NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab), where I interviewed a scientist I met at SciFoo – Kevin Grazier. He works on the Cassini spacecraft, which is currently orbiting Saturn. He gave me a tour of JPL, then I performed for the Cassini Science Team. And then I wrote a short essay for Symmetry Magazine, a particle physics magazine put out by Fermilab and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. It was an insane week and I’m still decompressing.

Where do you get your material? Science, obviously, but do you trawl the literature looking for something that might be joke-worthy?

I read science books and magazines. I trawl the internet constantly. I hit the science sections of online newspapers, and sites like Nature, New Scientist, Scientific American, and Symmetry. NASA sends out excellent emails several times a week. Lablit is a relatively new discovery for me and it gives a good glimpse into the way science is really done. I’m reading more and more science blogs. Google and Wikipedia are indispensable tools. But, frankly, that isn’t all work; it’s just how I choose to spend a significant portion of my time: stuffing my brain with cool stuff. And of course I hope to find inspiration – ideas or just topics for jokes. But often that comes later. Immersion in the world of science gives me a foundation. It’s like cosmic background radiation, permeating my consciousness. And then it comes bubbling up later, informing my writing, my conversation, my thinking.

Do you have an area of expertise? For example, I noticed a lot of your jokes are based around physics and astronomy.

I like most disciplines of science. But it’s true I’ve always been particularly drawn to physics and astronomy. I wouldn’t call it an area of expertise but perhaps an area of special interest. I had a great physics teacher in high school – his name was Dr. Beam! How cool is that? But my interest goes back much further than high school. There was the science fiction of Larry Niven – the “hard stuff” that I loved, full of black holes, neutron stars, Ringworld and other astrophysical delights. But even without resorting to fiction you’ve got relativity and time dilation, quantum weirdness like the double-slit experiment, Galileo, Einstein, Feynman, Hawking. You’ve got Jupiter and Saturn and a galaxy of 100 billion stars. Clusters of galaxies and clusters of clusters… Infinity, for crying out loud! What more do you want?

And one of the most fundamental physical laws, Newton’s Third Law of Motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction – well, that’s the basic structure of comedy right there: set-up and punch line. So maybe they’re not that different, physics and comedy. Speaking of Newton…when I was in second grade, I wrote what is still one of the best, most surreal things I’ve ever written. And it demonstrates that I was already pondering the laws of nature and posing hypothetical questions: “If the Earth lost its gravity and you went to school, the school would not be there. And on the way home, you would not be there.” That may be my oldest surviving science joke…except I don’t think I was joking. I think I was being quite serious and scientific!

Do you only do science or are there other things that draw your attention?

Well, pretty much anything might draw my attention. I’ve spent the better part of two decades (the worst part, too) performing at comedy clubs and colleges, and I’ve covered all the standard comedy topics: relationships, religion and other drugs, music, movies, television, corporate America. But no other subject is as endlessly interesting or exciting to me as science. And, no matter what the subject, my natural inclination is to bring the sensibilities and the vocabulary of science and science fiction to it. So a bit about my parents’ weight gains and losses invokes the conservation of mass, for example.

I heard that at SciFoo this year, the Vatican’s Astronomer, and I quote, “nearly pissed his cassock he was laughing so hard”.

SciFoo was amazing and my session/performance there stands out because it was the most extraordinary audience of scientists and writers, representing all disciplines. The Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmagno, contributed to one of my all-time favorite moments on stage. I mentioned Pluto being demoted, and, knowing he was an astronomer, I asked him, “Brother Guy, what did you think of that?”

He said, “I was on the committee that decided.”

We laughed – and then the whole room hissed! It was beautiful. And that’s why I love performing for science crowds. That never would have happened at a regular comedy club.

What other “famous” folks have you performed for, or what specific events stand out?

Once, at the Koshland Museum of the National Academies, in Washington, D.C., I was explaining Bose-Einstein condensates, to set up a joke. A man in the front row turned out to be a physicist for the National Institute of Standards and Technology who has created Bose-Einstein condensates and used them to slow down light. Years ago, a tape of one of my routines was carried aboard a space shuttle mission and listened to in orbit. Gregory Benford, physicist and science fiction author extraordinaire, was at one of my performances. And Michael Dell and Paul Mockapetris, the inventor of the Domain Name System (DNS) for the internet. But, mostly, I feel really lucky to be entertaining regular non-famous scientists and enthusiasts.

Are there any events you still want to play?

Are you kidding? There are too many! I want to play every intriguing conference I stumble upon online…for the APS, the NAS, the AAAS, the NSTA…if you have an acronym, I want to perform for you. There are conferences for every discipline of science and they all sound like my kind of audiences. I’d like to perform at Fermilab, Lawrence Livermore, MIT and science-oriented universities. I’d like to perform at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and other science fairs. I am performing at some science festivals and would like to do more – like the World Science Festival in New York City. And I’m hoping to do at least one festival in the UK next year. Maybe The Dana Centre in London? Could LabLit speak to someone for me? (We’ll see what we can do. –Ed.)

Have your routines ever got you in trouble?

Well, I was once hired to perform at a surprise party after an agent showed the client a video of me which included me suggesting that mothers telling their children to “stand up straight” has been going on longer than we realize and, in fact, was the driving force behind the evolutionary trend to walk erect. The clients said they wanted to hire me but they didn’t want me to do that bit…because they were Christian! Can you believe that? The routine is obviously very silly but they didn’t want to be exposed to the word “evolution” – even in the context of a ridiculous joke.

So what did you do?

Well, I took the gig. And I didn’t do that bit, but I did a different one in which, as a ten-year-old, I ask my mom, “Why is the sky blue?” and she answers, “Because I said so.” They loved it. And I felt some sort of satisfaction because, in my mind, that joke should have been equally offensive to them because it’s just as contrary to their cosmological beliefs.

Same question, different angle: Are there any specific people you'd love to perform to, or people you'd refuse to entertain?

Years ago, Stephen Hawking showed up at a comedy club in San Francisco. I found out later and I was so heartbroken that I wasn’t there that night. The funny thing is if I had been on the bill I would’ve totally catered my act to just him, ignoring the rest of the crowd. I would’ve done all my favorite science jokes and used every obscure reference in my artillery. I would have played to the one person in the crowd who couldn’t laugh out loud!

Thanks to NASA, I did get to meet Stephen Hawking and his daughter Lucy earlier this year, and tell him a joke or two. But I would love to actually perform for him – and for Edward O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, Buzz Aldrin, Ann Druyan, Neil de Grasse Tyson. Brian May might very well be at the top! And Brian Cox…tell me, are all rock star physicists from England and named Brian? I suppose – instead of all these scientists – my wish list should consist of some executives from television networks and film studios! I’m open-minded about performing in front of just about anyone. If they’re narrow-minded, maybe I can slide a little wedge in between their lobes and let in some sunlight. Get them accidentally exposed to a different point of view.

You are not only a stand up comedian, but you're a great advocate for science too. Can you tell us about some of the projects you're involved with and why you got involved?

I’m involved with a couple of science festivals and I hope to do more. I think they’re a wonderful idea. The inaugural San Diego Science Festival, slated for March/April 2009, is going to be a huge month-long celebration of science, involving hundreds of participants including many Nobel Laureates. They contacted me and invited me to perform – then, as a result of making some recommendations for exhibitors and offering some other ideas, I ended up on their advisory board. The festival’s founder, Larry Bock, is amazing and thinks really BIG. He’s partnering with other folks to do the same thing in several other US cities. I hope to be involved in those, too.

Anything sooner than that?

I’m also participating in Wonderfest, the San Francisco Bay Area Festival of Science, co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Physics Department, the Stanford Chemistry Department, and the Branson School. Now in its tenth year, Wonderfest is a free two-day event with a great format. It’s a series of debates between scientists on various topics. In addition to performing, I will be moderating a panel between two astronomers – Geoff Marcy, the world’s premier discoverer of extrasolar planets and Dan Werthimer, the chief scientist of SETI@home. The topic is “Why Do We Seem So Alone in the Cosmos?”

The other thing I’m very excited about is COPUS – the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science. It’s a grassroots network of organizations concerned about national scientific literacy. There are about 400 participants now and they’re making next year the Year of Science 2009, with the goal of engaging the public and improving public understanding about the way science works and why it matters. Each month there is a different theme and there will be events and projects throughout the year. I’m going to participate in several ways. For one thing, both science festivals I mentioned are members of the coalition. I also hope to get involved in events with other members. And I’m going to produce a series of video and audio pieces for their website, at least one for each month’s theme.

You're also a keen micro-wildlife photographer. How did you get into insect photography?

I got into insect photography (and, by that, I mean, of course, pictures taken by insects – an obscure but growing genre) when I got my first digital camera. It had a really good macro lens on it. I started using it, shooting extreme close-ups of flowers and focusing on details and textures. Sometimes there were bugs on the flowers and I became particularly fascinated with them. It’s another intersection of science and art. Spending so much time looking at these tiny autonomous machines go about their business is awe-inspiring. It’s a reminder of the mystery of the world. The more I watch them, the more I wonder what the hell is going on this planet?

I started having a lot of fun with it and also learning a lot. I found a great website, BugGuide.net, which is a community of naturalists who are building a huge database of insect photos and information. I uploaded a few dozen pics and I’ve been extremely fortunate in having three of them get some attention. I sold one picture to Natural History Magazine, for use in their special edition on evolution. Another was used in The Canadian Journal of Arthropod Identification. And it turns out I sort of made a minor discovery. An entomologist identified a fly that I photographed as being of a species common in Europe but totally unknown in the Nearctic. I had to look that up – it’s one of the Earth’s eight terrestrial ecozones, covering most of North America. A few months later he confirmed with a colleague that it’s the first finding of this species in this part of the world. But I took the picture in Golden Gate Park so maybe it was just a tourist. You can see the pic and read the thread here.

I actually do, by now, have quite a collection of bug porn. It’s not my fault! It happens every spring. Don’t blame me, blame Mother Nature. She wants to be a grandmother. And grandmothers need pics of the kids. I’m simply serving Nature.

If you were an insect who would you want to be photographed by, and would you sign a model-waiver or fight for royalties?

The team that made the movie Microcosmos. They captured the beauty and drama of the insect kingdom and brought it to the big screen. But, yeah, I’d want a piece of the action, too. Or maybe a three-picture deal.

And finally, the Lablit standard question: Who is your favorite scientist in fiction, and why?

I think I’ll have to go with Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan’s Contact. She is very human and driven by insatiable curiosity, filled with awe at the universe. Her aspirations are human. Her failings are human. She’s inspired by a real-life scientist (Jill Tarter), and the story was written by a scientist. I like the way she sticks to her guns, stands up to ignorance and close-mindedness and fear. A strong woman in a male-dominated world. There are beautiful passages in the book that are passionate and poetic pleas for the scientific method, for the perspective, for the sensibilities, for the worldview of science. For many of us Carl Sagan helped shape our scientific spiritualism and that book captures so much of that spirit.

Also, as ridiculous as this may sound…this question spurred a conversation between me and my girlfriend in which we decided that the Professor on Gilligan’s Island was the only character on the show who was not a ridiculous stereotype. He was dignified and dashing, according to Tara. Not filled with the hubris commonly associated with scientists in literature. They could have made him ludicrous – hell, it was a comedy – but they chose not to. I wonder why? He was actually quite heroic…or would’ve been. He would have had the castaways rescued many times over if it weren’t for Gilligan mucking up the plan.

Related information

Learn more about Malow, see video clips or book him for a gig on his website.