Laughing at (with?) science

Laughing at (with?) science

This post was originally published on CBMR Voices.

The lockdown has brought many challenges but one of its unexpected benefits has been the growth of digital conferences, lectures and events that allow us to tune in no matter where we are in the world. My favorite science comedy night in London, Science Showoff, even moved itself to the virtual world, and last week I took the opportunity to present my own comedy ‘set’ about my work with circadian scientists at CBMR.

Postdoc Kristin Hussey working from home during lockdown

Science Showoff, Copenhagen’s Science and Cocktails and many other science-comedy events, podcasts and youtube channels are thriving in our virtual ‘new normal’, so I thought I would reflect a bit further on humor and what it brings to science communication.

Learning and laughing
Studies have shown that humor can be an effective tool in science communication (Riesch 2015Pinto and Riesch 2017). In a study published just this month in Public Understanding of Science, researchers examined this trend for science comedy by studying whether test subjects perceived science comedy as ‘an appropriate source of information about science’, and indeed whether they felt the scientists themselves were credible sources of information (Yeo et al. 2020). They found that people did think that comedy was a valid source of scientific information, but how much they trusted the information was mediated by how ‘expert’ they perceived the ‘comedian’ to be.

This episode of the Science Comedy Paradox investigates the mechanics and science of what makes a good virtual comedy show.

With that in mind, I feel I have to start by saying I’m not an expert in making science funny. But I have watched a good amount of science comedy and I’ve tried my hand at it a few times. So, I thought I would tell you what I’ve learned so far about laughing at (with?) science.

Know your audience
I anticipate it’s mostly CBMR scientists who are reading this blog so I’ve started it off with some peer-reviewed studies. You are welcome.[1] But seriously, if you are doing science comedy or any kind of science communication, it should look different if you are talking to a group of school children, or a bar full of slightly inebriated 20-somethings, or indeed, your colleagues at a conference. I would not even know where to begin with comedy for an audience full of scientists – but this is probably something you already know how to do. It’s all about in-jokes and making fun of the technical absurdity of your field. Acronym based jokes for example – everyone loves them.

I’ve only really done science comedy for a ‘general public’ audience, even though – let’s be honest –that is a uselessly vague term.[2] If you are doing a set at a night like Science Showoff or Science and Cocktails then the audience is pretty self-selecting – it is mostly composed of people in there 20s and 30s who have a pre-existing interest in science. This is a great starting point because they are already primed to laugh at (with) you – and the fact that they probably think of themselves as ‘science nerds’ is a good foundation for some identification with your audience. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they have any prior knowledge about your particular subject area. So the next step is – what are you going to talk about?

A photo of someone doing standup.
An act performs at Science Showoff in London.

Offer a fresh perspective
In my experience, this question is often what keeps people from wanting to try science comedy. How do I pick an appropriate subject or topic? It is true that it is pretty difficult to make jokes about the specific, technical nature of your experiments given the immense amount of prior knowledge people would need to understand it. But, at the same time, there’s no point in talking about a subject so general that anyone could be doing your set (because that’s just a waste of your expertise).

The best comedy sets are often those where someone has been able to identify a smaller aspect of their work and then look at it from an unusual angle – hopefully one that is at least a little bit relatable to non-science people. A particularly crude (but still hilarious) example was a set I saw recently with a gastroenterologist who did eight minutes on the weird anuses of nature. People loved it.

I tend to do comedy sets about what I call ‘weird science’, which you could think of as just observational comedy about science. Or maybe just unusual stories told well. Science is full of strange or unexpected stories – of experiments gone wrong, of new discoveries, of bizarre coincidences, crossed-wires, misunderstandings, and inter-personal problems. Unravelling these stories isn’t exactly joke-telling but it can still be funny and informative.[3]

For example, at my recent Science Showoff set I decided to talk about the early cave experiments by circadian rhythm researchers. I don’t have to work very hard to explain why a scientist and his erstwhile grad student trapped in a cave for 30 days is funny. The audience seemed to respond particularly well to this photo, below, of physiologist Rütger Wever and one of his (grad student) participants in the Andechs Bunker experiments. It is often this human side of science, the stories of everyday people behind the science, that people respond well to.

A photo of physiologist Rütger Wever and one of his (grad student) participants in the Andechs Bunker experiments.
Physiologist Rütger Wever and one of his (grad student) participants in the Andechs Bunker experiments

Be yourself!
As a final thought, I would say that when doing science comedy lean in to your own sense of humor. Do you find the set you’ve written funny? Some people like telling jokes with punch lines, some people like puns, and some people like making silly PowerPoint slides. Everyone’s idea of comedy is different and attendees at a science comedy night are first and foremost interested in you – who you are, what your science is, why you do it and why you enjoy it. It would be so boring if there was just one way to make science funny – so all you can do is find what works for you and most importantly, just give it a try!

Follow Kristin Hussey on Twitter: @kristin_hussey

[1] Did this joke work? My husband has declared it ‘too dry’ – wrong audience I guess.

[2] As a rule of thumb, I always try to ask myself – is this something an 8 year old would understand? If yes, its probably the right level for a public science communication talk.

[3] Whether science communication should actually be ‘educational’ is a whole other topic.