Trading Microscopes for Microphones: Science Comedy is no Laughing Matter

Comedy can be used to build trust with an audience, making it a powerful tool for science communication. At AAAS' Stand-Up Comedy for Science, performers showed that jokes can mesh seamlessly with science. | Neil Orman/AAAS

“A scientist walks into a comedy club,” could easily be the set up for a joke. Yet, several researchers have recently started stepping out from behind their laboratory benches and into the spotlights at open mic nights. These new comedic species are not only making their audiences laugh with smart humor, but they are also experimenting with new ways for scientists to interact with the broader public.

“Scientists are now focusing on science communication within the context of public engagement,” said Emily Cloyd, Project Director of Public Engagement at AAAS.

Engagement can take many forms, according to Cloyd, but beyond simply providing information, scientists need to build trust with their intended audiences. While comedy might seem like a funny strategy for trust building, some scientists are discovering that jokes offer an effective way to convey serious messages. 

Ensuring public appreciation for science is no laughing matter, especially at a time scientists are expressing concern about research funding. Serious public engagement can prove even more beneficial for everyone involved, said Cloyd, if researchers are willing to learn from their audiences.   

Comedian Robert Mac, performing at AAAS during the "Stand-Up Comedy for Science" event on April 21. | Neil Orman/AAAS

“I’ve learned that good communication depends on how you present information,” said Kasha Patel, a science writer working at NASA who combines her background in chemistry with cutting wit as a scientific stand up comedienne.

Patel hosts quarterly comedy nights in the Washington D.C. area, in which performers must tell science jokes. Recently, she performed and emceed at AAAS headquarters on April 21 as part of the events AAAS hosted before and around the March for Science. During the evening’s show, called Stand-Up Comedy for Science, Patel shared the stage with Adam Ruben and Robert Mac. While the performers peppered their routines with strange and wonderful bits of scientific trivia about wide-ranging topics from outer space to cephalopods, the evening was more than simply a classroom lecture combined with jokes. Instead the comics conveyed genuine amazement for the power of science, each in their own signature style.

Such a palpable sense of wonder is important for making the public see why science matters. Yet, Cloyd said that many researchers tend to focus their communication on conveying data instead of telling stories that demonstrate the meaning of data in ways that can powerfully connect with audiences.   

“Scientists have often approached communicating about their work’s relevance to societal issues as an issue of supply – essentially, if science provides more information and facts to the public, understanding of science will increase and society will be able to use science to make better decisions,” she said.

Yet, simply providing people with facts has not proven effective, according to Bret Shaw, a professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Kasha Patel, comedian and science writer at NASA, performing at AAAS during the "Stand-Up Comedy for Science" event on April 21.| Neil Orman/AAAS

“The notion that public support for science is due to a lack of information, often called the knowledge-deficit model, has long been understood as a flawed assumption,” Shaw said.

Even though research has shown that reciting facts to passive audiences does not work well to win people over, some public figures still deliver their presentations in the same manner as classroom lectures.

“Many science communicators still perform their work as if more information will result in better outcomes,” Shaw said. “Of course, it’s not just the volume of information about science that is important, but also how we frame the message and make it meaningful to people’s lives.”

Patel has learned to refine both her message and delivery through performing weekly at multiple open mics around the Washington area and by hosting 17 Science Comedy Nights.

“I know I’m not going to be able to communicate what the necessities are for life on another planet in only a few minutes when everyone is liquored up. My intention is to whet their appetite and show them that science isn’t too scary or intimidating to understand,” she said.

Adam Ruben, comedian and molecular biologist, performing at AAAS during the "Stand-Up Comedy for Science" event on April 21. | Neil Orman/AAAS

Patel, Mac and Ruben aren’t the only communicators using comedy to spread the word about science. Tim Lee, a PhD biologist, has performed across the country as “The PowerPoint Comedian,” and Brian Malow, self-proclaimed as “Earth’s Premier Science Comedian,” worked as a curator at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for his day-job. In the United Kingdom, Steve Cross has established an incubator for science performers called The Science Showoff Talent Factory, where geneticists, engineers and primatologists hone their communication skills as humorists, rappers, and even choreographers.

While performance might seem like a frivolous pursuit for scientists or a distraction from their research, Patel says that comedy has helped her professionally to become a more polished presenter of scientific material.

“Performing practically every night and sometimes up to three times in one night, has helped me feel more at ease and engaging in public speaking situations,” she said.

What motivates Patel most of all, however, is the prospect of sharing science with people who might feel that they could never understand what goes on in the stereotypical depictions of complicated labs filled with white-coated researchers. 

“My goal is to make people laugh and make science more accessible. For non-scientists, I want to show them that science doesn’t have to be intimidating and it can be part of their lives even if they don’t have a PhD or work in the science field,” she said.