Hana Ayoob – Talks science comedy, podcasts, and art
Hana Ayoob is a freelance creative producer of science events, a trainer, a science communicator, an artist, a comedian, and part of the highly successful podcast, Why Aren’t You A Doctor Yet? She is passionate about science and getting more diverse voices heard in science and science communication.
Hello Hana. You have many strings to your bow. You are a freelance creative producer, trainer, science communicator and artist, but the big question is how did you get into comedy?
I had been working at a Science Festival for about two years and I was starting to feel a bit restless. I was getting a bit too comfortable and wanted to try something new. At around the same time, quite a lot of people I knew who were just finishing up the Science Showoff Talent Factory scheme run by Steve Cross.
The first year it ran, I knew quite a lot of the people who were doing it. And also over the course of the year, I started to book them for events as well. When the recruitment started for the second year, quite a few of them asked: “Why don’t you apply?” and I thought: “I stay backstage. I book people to perform and speak. I don’t go on stage” But they said “We really think you should think about it.” So I decided to go ahead and put an application in.
And I got it! It surprised me! But I still think part of the reason I got it is that the scheme is about mutual support. Even though I had less performance experience than other people in the group, I brought a lot of experience of the science festival world. So I found myself in the scheme and that meant that I was committed to performing at least 10 times over the following year, which was absolutely terrifying!
But in a way, I’m was really glad that I got into comedy that way because it meant that I couldn’t chicken out. In the scheme, I had a group of people to learn with, to make mistakes with.
And…..so I’ve never looked back, really.
It’s sad, the scheme didn’t get any more funding after the first two years.
That’s a problem with a lot of really good ideas, the funding dries up and we, as a society, have lost a great initiative. So is it just those 10 comedy shows that you’ve done?
I’ve lost count at this point. Before the lockdown, I used to try and do at least one a month. And I think at some point, the lines between what was comedy and what was other forms of speaking, just got very blurred. So when I do an interview, when I do a panel, I try and bring out the levity in everything I do. Rather than count the number of comedy of gigs I have done, I will just count the number of years – 3.
Wow 3 years! In that time, have you got a favourite gig that you have done?
I actually have more than one favourite and for quite different reasons.
One of my favourites will always be my first proper stand-up gig. Partly because I was absolutely terrified and then I got onstage and the first big laugh that I got, I just loved it! By the time I got offstage eight minutes later, I was just on such a high! I just wanted to go through that experience again! I really enjoyed connecting with an audience. There’s something quite intimate about comedy, that you don’t get from other forms of speaking.
The first gig I did, I talked about all the different ways that octopuses have wreaked havoc when they’ve been in captivity. There are all these stories of them escaping out of their tanks and eating other animals in the aquarium or shorting out the electricity or flooding the aquarium and things like that. It’s just absolutely brilliant! It’s really, really ripe for comedy. And so that’s really one of my favourites.
My other favourite is not science comedy, but it sort of started from a science comedy. I run a series of comedy events called Say My Name with Shalaka Kurup. We started the gig because we bonded online about people constantly getting our names wrong and how funny or how infuriating it could be. We’ve now done four of those gigs. Each time, we have about seven or eight people telling stories about their names. It’s been a really nice series of events because they have been quite personal. They can be really funny but really touching as well. I think it shows that there is more than one tone to how comedy can be. Even within the same show, you can go from heart breaking to hilarious and everything in between.
Those two examples really do show the different aspects of science comedy.
You touched on it a little bit in your first answer – about there being a fine line between comedy and other sorts of communication, but do you think it’s easy making science funny? It can be seen to be quite a dry subject.
I think it really depends on the area of science. With animal behaviour, which is what I specialized in at university, I think that it’s really easy. Sometimes a bit too easy to make it funny! I talked about the octopuses. I feel like you don’t even need to put a lot of effort in to make jokes there. You could just talk about their behaviour and everyone starts laughing! I think that can be true of a lot of different animal behaviour and something you see a lot of in science comedy is animal sex stories. It’s just funny in itself! But I also think the bits of science which are the hardest to make funny are also the ones, where it is the most important for us to try. I think areas of science where it can be contentious, where there’s ethics issues or, you know, historically say minorities haven’t been represented or have been mistreated as part of any science. I think finding the dark humour in those areas, sometimes, can suddenly create a space where people feel more comfortable talking about it. I think there’s all these topics that we feel like we shouldn’t go near. In the podcast (Why Aren’t You a Doctor Yet?), we touch upon quite dark topics, like how the history of photography can be racist or talking about people who are anti-vax but without punching down, and I think humour can really help with these things.
I think the episode on Akon and his anti-vaxxer stance is absolutely brilliant! How you all treated his laughable claims by looking at the science and history really showed how people can come to have these ideas.
As we have touched upon, you are one quarter of the hugely successful Why aren’t you a doctor yet? podcast. A highly informative and very funny podcast. Do you think the success of the show, in part, comes from the humour?
I think the humour is part of it. I think it means that we can tackle subjects that others might not be able to or we can tackle it in a way that makes people more comfortable.
I feel humour is an important way to connect with the audience. It shows we are not taking ourselves seriously. I think this also applies to comedy more generally, as well as science. Comedy itself can break down the power dynamics.
With the podcast, we are just four friends sat together having a bit of a laugh, finding the dark humour and talking about the things that interest us about these tough subjects. We punch up, we don’t punch down. We challenge the status quo and we challenge people in power. Like you mentioned with the vaccine episode, we’re not going to say people who mistrust vaccines are stupid because they’re not. It’s about specific power structures they have not benefited from.
No topic is quite off limits if it’s done in a respectful but also not too serious way.
You are a also an incredible artist and are responsible for the Curious Octopus range of items. Do you think that some sort of creativity sort of leaches into comedy or do you think two very separate identities?
I just like to play around with things. I like to explore things and I’ve always been quite creative. I think that sort of exploration and creativity leads into both the art and the comedy, rather than either of those leading to each other.
I think with both my art and my comedy as well, there’s this view that science is sacred and we shouldn’t play around with it, that we have to be 100% accurate or we’re not communicating anything. I think I often push against that with my art.
One piece I have done that I really love is where I drew the human sinuses on top of a moth, on top of a mandala. It’s not going to be a picture illustrating something in a textbook, but I think you can still have science inspiring art that isn’t about being factually correct. I think the same is true of comedy. As long as you’re not misleading someone, you can play around a bit and you can tell fictitious stories or things in a way that you might not be able to in a straight talk.
Do you think science is a good way to communicate science?
I think it can, but I think comedy has the potential to do more than just communicate. It can communicate facts and concepts, but, more importantly, I think it can change the relationship between a scientist or a science communicator onstage with an audience. I think I’ve already mentioned a bit about power dynamics and being silly, but I think it’s taking the scientist off a platform. The scientist is not the expert in the room. They are just telling a story or having a laugh with the audience. That’s the power that comedy has that’s more important than communicating facts or figures or anything like that.
Your audience is more likely to remember how they feel leaving a room or the day after they’ve been in that room or the day after they’ve watched something online or listened to a podcast, than they are to remember a specific fact. You’ve mentioned the vaccine episode that we did. I would rather someone the next day or the next week feels a bit kinder towards people with different views. That may be more important than them actually remembering the specific facts that we mentioned.
Do you think that scientists can gain by learning to do stand up comedy or trying to be more in touch with the audience?
I think there’s a few different things they can gain.
Like I said, learn to give up power. Be a bit silly and lose control of it because when you get on a stage, you do feel vulnerable. I actually think that’s good for everyone to feel once in a while.
I think that doing comedy can improve your confidence in all forms of public speaking. Since I started doing comedy, nothing else feels as hard because you know that you don’t have to be funny in a talk or conference presentation. The audience doesn’t expect you to constantly make them laugh. I think that’s, a really important part of comedy.
I think it can help people think about their research in different ways. To find the funniness, to find the jokes that maybe give them a different perspective that’s useful when they go back to work.
I think the other thing is it can be a great stress reliever. We all know scientists need that.
My last question is, if you could give one piece of advice (or more) piece(s) of advice to any scientists looking to get into comedy, what would it(they) be?
I think it can be helpful to seek out some sort of training or a scheme that will allow you to learn from more experienced people so Bright Club springs to mind (there are others out there). I think there are some interesting tools and useful tools that people can learn that make the whole journey a lot easier. I’d suggest people (e.g. who work/study at a university) reach out to see whether it’s possible to bring in a trainer to run a session for a group of people.
I think it can be really useful to think about the comedy that you enjoy and what it is you enjoy about it. There are lots of good things out there in all sorts of different fields and in mainstream comedy. I think it’s about looking at what you enjoy and how you can tease things out of that without copying from other people.
Finally, just give it a go and ask for honest feedback. Find people who you trust to tell you what was good, but also what was bad. Give a friend in the audience a notebook and say “can you give me feedback at the end of this?” The notebook can be really useful because it means that they won’t forget what happened after the show.
Thank you, Hana. That is very useful.
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