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A comedy of science

Not your average post-doctoral occupation

Dean Burnett 22 February 2010

www.lablit.com/article/580

Dean Burnett, standing up for science

An audience of doctors or professors is often more daunting than a group of inebriated strangers wanting to be amused

I have recently obtained my PhD in Neuroscience. I am also a stand-up comedian with nearly five years' experience. These two statements can be applied to many people in isolation. In unison, I think it’s just me they apply to. I’ve been looking; nobody else seems to have my bizarre credentials.

I hope this won’t be the case forever. There seems to be an ever-increasing demand for science-based comedy, and not enough scientist comedians to meet it. I can’t do it alone, nobody wants that (clearly, I’ve not been booked for weeks). People in the science field are stereotyped as being dry, boring and socially awkward. Even if it’s true, it doesn’t mean they can’t be funny. So if any other science folks out there are keen to take the plunge and embarrass themselves for the amusement of strangers, here’s a list of things that I learned the hard way. Hopefully, you won’t have to, because using my powers as a scientist, I have recorded and analysed the results of my ‘investigation':

1: Analysis before information

A bizarre discovery, but one that appears to endure. You can talk about the scientific aspects of anything familiar, but you generally can’t joke about highly scientific subjects. The application can be scientific, but the information doesn’t need to be. For example, I have a bit that always goes down well (in this universe at least, no doubt it bombs in many parallel ones) about using Quantum uncertainty in order to avoid failing my driving test. I also have a bit about the fact that one of the subgroups of signalling molecules that determine the configuration of the developing nervous system is named after Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t use that one so much. It takes five minutes of preamble to explain what I’m on about, and ends in a weak observation. I got bored writing the explanatory sentence – Lord knows why I expected people to endure it at length.

Your average audience doesn’t really have much of an in-depth scientific background, so odds are they won’t follow you. I had a joke, which went as follows: Don’t you hate it when you ask for 10cl of Adrenaline, but they give you 100ml of Epinephrine?

Technically, the joke works (look it up if you don’t know why). Did it ever get a laugh? Did it, hell. But that seems to be the rule; applying science to familiar things is new and amusing; applying standard jokes to science is just confusing.

2. Remember the context

Most people don’t realise that scientists actually do a lot of speaking in front of people. Lectures, reporting your findings, seminars – there are numerous reasons to get up in front of an audience. And take it from me, an audience of doctors or professors is often more daunting than a group of inebriated strangers wanting to be amused. You also have more freedom at a comedy gig. If a professor interrupts with a question, you have to answer it to their specifications, but if someone interrupts or heckles at a gig, you can deal with it with some far more creative, well-placed put-downs.

Lectures and gigs can be quite similar. But you must remember, do not get the two confused. If a professor asks ‘did you make sure the control groups received the same variation in stimuli?’ it is never a good idea to say that you didn’t because you were too busy ‘doing their mother’. That’ll never end well.

3. All publicity is rarely good publicity

If you’re a scientist, this truism is just wrong. Unless we become so numerous as to render us normal, scientist comedians will always be something of a curiosity to the media. If you’re an aspiring comedian willing to do anything to succeed, fair enough. If you still want to retain a career as a credible scientist, avoid the media. Nothing you say will be recognisable when they finish with it.

This opinion is based one hundred percent on my experiences with the media. Check my blog for full details if you really want the lowdown.

4. Cut the cussing

Most people don’t like to hear a self-confessed scientist swear. It’s not something they’re mentally prepared to cope with, much in the same way they'd react badly to having their mail delivered by an orang-utan with a French accent.

5. Don't deny it

I’ve presented what seems to be a rather bleak picture of the scientist as comedian, but it isn’t really. I tried hiding it, I tried to be ‘just another comedian’, but it wasn’t me. And people can tell when you’re faking it. You may as well do a character act and be done with it.

People, by and large, don’t hate scientists. They’re just unsure about them. If you can change their minds, or reassure them in any way, then it’s worth speaking to the public in whatever capacity you can.

6. Nobody likes a smartass

It’s weird, but claiming to have superior intelligence, intentionally or otherwise, is a social no-no. You can point out that you’re bigger, stronger, sexier, more fashionable, better looking, more confident, more skilful or richer; Simon Cowell has made billions on the back of his own assumed superiority, dispensing damning criticisms of delusional members of the public who burst into tears in response because they believe his opinion is crucial in some way. But if you go on stage and act as if you’re smarter than the audience, that’s not acceptable – even if you have extensive proof to back you up.

I’m sure there are several papers in this phenomenon, but suffice to say that acting smart can only be acceptable if you’re angry about it. I once attended a gig where the three acts on before me did nothing but play to Welsh stereotypes, claiming they were stupid inbreds who habitually formed bestial relations with sheep. As a Welshman myself, this irked me: I took to the stage and angrily rebuked the claims that all Welsh people are thick. It went down a storm. Rather than dispute my original point, I think this proves it. The original acts had assumed the audience would be amused by this lazy, moronic use of clichés. They weren’t. Don’t patronize them.

Aside from this little exception, the rule that people don't like a smartass stands. I had a lot of experience with that in school. As the swot, I was often challenged with the accusation ‘you think you know everything’. To which I would respond that it was an illogical statement, as the capacity of the brain is believed to be 2,500 gigabytes. Compared to the amount of information in the universe (i.e. everything) that’s negligible, even taking into account the universal laws of entropy. And the original statement itself is logically wrong. How can I think I know everything? If I knew everything, one of the things I’d know would be that I know everything. If anything, thinking would be redundant, so I wouldn’t think at all. So the original statement is wrong in a practical, grammatical and logical sense.

I got beaten up a lot in school.

Other articles by Dean Burnett