A joint Fermilab/SLAC publication

Can science be funny?

08/18/08

The owners of the Punch Line Comedy Club in San Francisco weren't too sure when they hosted Brian Malow, self-styled "science comedian" on August 11, 2008. Pre-bookings were slow and the club had only two servers working a room that can seat over 200. But as the start time drew closer the room filled to capacity.

Malow started performing general stand-up comedy but found that his audiences would respond well to bits he did based on topical science. Over time he began to specialize and now does full stand-up shows with a science theme, and is often booked by scientific organizations as entertainment.

I'll admit that I was quite skeptical about whether the show would be genuinely funny, or just appeal to my inner geek. I've seen quite a few people try to make comedy from science, but rarely have they reached a level of actual comedy that might be of general interest. Instead they have merely been a set of statements designed to appeal to a shared sense of geekiness between performer and audience.

The warm-up act was a science teacher who writes jokes for Jay Leno on the side. Although he drew a few chuckles, the audience would have preferred he stick to writing jokes rather than performing them.

When Malow appeared on stage, the whole vibe in the room changed. This was a performer who was at home on stage, and was prepared to entertain. From the start, Malow had the audience laughing loudly and only a few times was he met with a withering silence. However, he handled those little deaths quite well and got on with the show, bringing the audience back around.

Malow's material ranged from particle physics to evolution, with a good dash of psychology thrown in. At times he strayed to areas outside science, but that felt out of place. An exception was a bit on feline existential philosophy, which went down very well with the audience. It might not have been science, but the references to Sartre appealed to an audience ready to think their way to laughs.

I won't try to retell any of Malow's jokes as stand-up almost never survives a retelling, especially not in print, but you can see a set of excerpts on the Web. One series of jokes was along the lines you might be guessing: "(Something scientific) walks into a bar and the bartender says…" Malow told these jokes in the middle of his set in a knowing way that allowed the audience to groan along happily, and his material was fresh. He read the audience perfectly in that series and pulled off a daring stunt very well.

The audience definitely knew it was there for science comedy and was clearly knowledgeable about science--I spotted a handful of editors from publications like New Scientist and Nature, staff from the Exploratorium, and a smattering of scientists I knew. For many jokes, the audience laughed at the surface-level joke but than responded to the deeper geekier joke that followed up as the bit progressed. Perhaps because it was such a science friendly audience, there was no substantial heckling. If there had been, Malow probably could have handled it.

One of the members of the group I went with has performed stand-up comedy, including at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and although not a scientist, she laughed a lot and really enjoyed the show overall.

Malow finished off with a Q&A session in which audience members would ask about whatever science topics they had on their minds and Malow would try to entertain with improvised quips and stories. This part of the show was less successful, and it probably would have been better to finish the show strongly with the prepared stand-up. But that was a minor quibble after a strong main performance.

It would be interesting to see Malow in an audience with fewer scientists to see how we fared. I suspect he'd face a few more challenges, but no more than many stand-ups working the circuit. I started skeptical but now have some good evidence that science can actually be funny, and not just to scientists.

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