Standing up for science – does making science comedy help scientists?

Comedy has become a huge part of our lives in the past years. Almost every worth-watching TV show that talks on serious topics delivers the content with a lot or a lot more comedy than the topic would normally envoke. This made me wonder if we have become incapable to talk about our problems seriously. Or if the world has become so dreadful that we can’t face any more the stupidity and horror of our daily life without it being suicidal and comedy comes to the rescue so we can still discuss what matters. 
In the past few years I see a surge of science comedy as well. And I had to ask myself, while becoming more involved in it myself, what’s the point?

Science stand up comedy

Most of us are used to thinking of science as this dry, factual, very serious thing done by dry, factual, very serious people. So it might come as a surprise, if you don’t know any scientists, that we can and indeed often are people with a decent sense of humour. And our lives are often ridden with ridiculousness of failed experiments or communication misunderstandings. SO much so, that the comedy routine pretty much writes itself. 

We also know that laughter and humor play a vital role in forming our society and bonding between humans. I’ve guest written shortly about it on the BrightOwl blog, and The Guardian wrote about it too.
So it is quite natural that people can find science funny if delivered correctly. It can help them feel more connected with it and discover the human side of scientists.

A rather lengthy but brilliant routine by Robin Ince (watch if you have time).

4 ways science comedy helps science (and scientists):

1. The human connection

While the science community is desperately trying to change itself and its image of being entirely composed of old, boring, white men, many take different approaches.
At a Flemish Institute for Biotechnology Postdoc day recently, a lot was being told about the changing of the work-life balance of scientists to help scientist remain human. And comedy helps venting things out that one might not necessarily feel comfortable enough talking about otherwise.

And being a comic is one of the most personal things one can do. For successful science comedy routine, one better draw on true personal experiences and just employ the ticks “the usual” comedians do to deliver the story in a funny way. Laughing with a scientist will definitely allow just about anyone feel more connected with them and their story respectively.
Additionally, this helps scientists find the time and energy to engage with the publics, if that’s something they are interested in. And naturally, the more connections (in any context) scientists establish with their peers from other communities, the more interest from those communities will return to their science too. 

2. The trendy geek

As much as I’m the least fashionable person in my surroundings, I have to admit – being a nerd/geek is kind of trendy. So if we are looking to popularise science one way or another, we have to accept the fact that now is the time to geek-out in public. 
With a soaring number of sitcoms, podcasts, science (funny)news websites and memes, being a science stand up comedian is another way to go and ride that wave!

People are looking for the new-geek-thing to adopt and your science project might just be it, if you deliver it right. 

3. Exposure

Meeting people in person will never (in my humble opinion) replace the influence one can have on other human beings. All the non-verbal communication involved in talking to people, and respectively in stand up comedy (be it science-themed one), gives scientists power they could not have even at a high-level conference talk. 

And sometimes I myself have doubts about pointing out some ridiculous things done by scientists, even if I talk about my own mistakes/blunders in the lab. I worry if I’m not doing a disservice to the community by pointing out mistakes. But on the other hand – no field of life is perfect, so why should science be held to impossible standards? So if we want to make science and scientists relatable, we ought to admit our mistakes and point out our learning experiences.

The Irish Times published an article on how can comedy contribute to delivering complex issues in an accessible manner. So that is definitely a point “pro” doing science stand up comedy (or using humor in your outreach) for the benefit of science communication and general understanding. 

4. Targeted marketing

Let’s be realistic – many of the people who would attend a science stand up comedy event  will be scientist themselves or already considerably interested in science and technology.

While this can be seen as “preaching to the quire” unnecessary effort, I would dare argue it definitely is not. I personally got more visits to this website after doing a gig, and got more collaboration opportunities and contacts established at or after someone has seen me making a fool of myself on a scientific topic. 

If you want to meet some people interested in scicomm (doing or consuming it) – a science comedy night is definitely one of the places to be.

Why I do stand up science comedy?

The complete answer – all of the above. It wasn’t my goal to become a professional comedian, nor was it to have as my main scicomm activity a stand up gig. But I am nothing if not an opportunist, so I went with the flow and I use every chance to talk about science, funny way or not. You can find some of my videos here, if interested (shameless self promotion!).
And during my gigs I’ve met many interesting people (both scientists and not) many of which I stayed in touch with various projects.

But most of all, I do science stand up to develop my communication skills.
♦ Stand up science is a lot of things, but it is in essence – public speaking. So it also helps me develop my skills in public speaking in general, not just jokes.
♦ Taking the temperature of my audience. Trying to see what makes people laugh, helps me find out also what makes people interested in science altogether.
♦ Expanding my science education and understanding. Reading other people’s science in order to prepare my stand up helps me expand and deepen my science understanding on topics I normally would not get in direct interaction with. 

So what I am trying to say is that I am convinced that making jokes about science and the life of a scientist helps the image of the field in front of non-scientists, it helps scientists develops theirs soft skills and gives them a filed for outreach and communication that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. And just as not everyone has to be a science communicator, I believe that not every science communicator can or should be doing science comedy. But if you are already aware of having good sense of humor and you want to expand of that – give it a try, it is a great boost. If you are new to the concept, go find your local branch of Science in the Pub or BrightClub to get trained in the basics.

After you are done reading

The cover photo is from MediaBricks.bg – a media website keeping busy with covering the good news (as compared the all doom and gloom usual new casts), related to science, tech and not only. Go check them out – they covered the first of its kind Science Stand Up Experiment in Sofia, Bulgaria in September, 2018.

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