Why and how did you start to do science comedy?
I did my first science comedy jokes when giving a talk in grad school. I wanted to spice up the talk a little bit by throwing in some humor. Humor tends to keep people interested and I noticed at most lectures the audience is bored. I threw in some gag slides that were absurd illustrations of a rather serious scientific topic. Those were my first science jokes. When I started doing the comedy circuit I used the same principle to develop my act.
Do you enjoy most the scientific part or the comic one ? Why?
The two are blended in all aspects of my act. I use science as a topic for comedy but I also analyze my act. I’ve recorded every show since my first show at a San Francisco laundromat. After each show I listen to my set, rate each joke by audience response (duration and intensity of laugher), and look for ways to improve underperforming bits. How can I turn this bit from a short mild laugh to long hardy laugh? Why did this bit not work on this audience when it worked so well before? I view science as an edge for analyzing my comedy. Which do I enjoy more? That’s like asking what language do I prefer speaking English or Indonesian? I enjoy them differently.
If you had to choose only one “definition “ would you consider yourself a scientist, or rather a comedian?
I’d choose scientist.
Do you have any particular hobby? Is scientific comedy itself a hobby for you?
The hobby I enjoy most is surfing. I have been doing that just slightly longer than comedy at this point. It makes me feel alive. I’ve had several encounters with great white sharks while surfing that I’ve written comedy bits around. At first I thought they would work well only near the coast where others had the same experience but surprisingly I found they worked even better in the midwest where no-one had similar experiences. Just like science your results will surprise you!
Do you think humor is an effective way to teach something, even when it comes to complex subjects, such as science?
Analogy is an effective way to teach things. Since I was a child I learned best through analogy. I remember asking my Dad about the difference between AC and DC current and asking him if I could think of DC as a river of electrons. You make a simple model of a seemingly complex topic and it helps you to learn. Funny bits can also be written in the same fashion. That is the basis of most of my act. Taking something complicated and showing through analogy how you can understand it. I get the most compliments on bits where I’ve taken something people don’t feel they understand and later, after seeing my bit, feel they do.
Would you suggest other effective ways to communicate science to people?
Show what’s at stake. People are interested in things with high stakes. No one pays attention to someone walking on a wire one foot above the ground. Put that same person on the same wire five hundred feet up and suddenly everyone can’t take their eyes off of it. So much is at stake!
Which field of science would you consider comedy most suitable for?
Proctology and political science. Really those two sciences study the same thing.