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What Scientists Can Learn from Stand-Up Comedians

By Kyle Sanders, Executive Director of Science Riot

Can scientists be trained to do comedy? We really didn’t know if it would work. 

In January of 2016, a small group of academics paced anxiously while a Colorado blizzard raged outside our rented community theater. This first cohort consisted of local professors and co-workers who we roped into a science communication workshop that drew mainly from Chapter 3 of a book titled Getting Started in Stand-up Comedy. Now the date for our public showcase had come, with the idea that we would each deliver a talk modeled after stand-up comedy. And hopefully, an audience braved the weather to show up, too. 

The idea of training scientists through comedy was new in the U.S. We received both inspiration and advice from the University College London, which previously founded an outreach program called Bright Club. The series was billed as a “thinking person’s comedy night” where researchers deliver their findings in the manner of a funny TED Talk, but without the crutch of a projector screen. These popular events take place at more than a dozen universities internationally, and with mixed emotions of relief and horror, a sold-out audience soon wrapped around the block of our first event. We had not anticipated this kind of response to our local event listings and ended up with attendees sitting in the aisles and stairs of our hundred-seat venue. 

As a result of this success, we formed a nonprofit called Science Riot and focused on improving and formalizing a humor-based approach to science communication with help from both professional comedians and researchers. After training hundreds of participants across eight cities, we’re happy to report that nobody has bombed during a performance*! (*p≤0.05) 

Audiences are incredibly supportive of local scientists during their first attempt at being funny on purpose and are always surprised at how engaging the talks turn out to be. It turns out that even the introverts among us have a winning sense of humor who lack only for encouragement, and nothing validates this fact more than a packed theater filled with laughter. 

Our month-long intensive communications training begins with recruiting scientists brave enough to commit to the process (science-adjacent professionals can apply for free workshops at scienceriot.org). There are always a few who are eager to try comedy, but an equal share of participants admit to joining specifically because public speaking terrifies them. Being both informative and entertaining is certainly a balancing act, but scientists can learn a lot from comedians who do this for a living. 

It turns out that there are many scientists who do comedy research. Never ones to avoid over-explaining a joke, they have come up with findings such as ‘the benign violation theory’ of humor. Science Riot takes a more practical approach and first walks through how to make scientific content relatable through accessible metaphors that celebrate your own perspective, identity, and well-informed opinions. After the scientific content takes shape, group exercises in comedy writing and stagecraft build towards a complete talk followed by a rehearsal with feedback from local comedians. Perhaps the most valuable lesson for scientists is the change in perspective required to humanize facts and clearly connect issues with the impact they have on everyday lives.

Public showcase events are a key part of our training, in no small part from the fear-driven motivation they provide, but most importantly because live audiences provide instant validation that scientists have succeeded in making a connection. The confidence and written content gained through the program has led many participants to perform for outside organizations, publish articles about their talk, host other outreach programs, and even establish new science-themed shows in partnership with comedy troupes.

After a few years, our surveys of showcase audiences revealed another interesting trend, especially when compared to the Science Cafe model of programming that has proliferated across institutions. Where other public talks draw audiences who already possess a high affinity for science (for example: they often average a Master’s-level education), our comedy-based program gathers a more diverse audience from outside of academia (averaging an Associate’s degree). The success of entertainment as a way to popularize scientific concepts for broad consumption shouldn’t be surprising, and a new survey from the National Academy of Sciences’ LabX also indicates that comedy, entertainment, and pop-culture relevance are effective ways to attract audiences who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in science[1]. 

Making information relevant and accessible is more important now than ever. Like all of our partner museums and comedians who depend on ticket sales for funding, the current pandemic is an existential threat for our team at Science Riot. Live comedy works so well as a tool in public communication because it fosters a dialogue with the audience. Unfortunately, this social dynamic is particularly hard to replicate with the limitations of conference calls. After lots of testing, we took the leap into a new digital format that tries to capture some of the community and experience from our in-person showcase events. Once again, we weren’t sure if anyone would show up for the experiment. 

Taking cues from late-night television and reworking talks for this new recording-from-home reality, Science Riot hosted its first online showcase in May of 2020 with a cohort from Denver. We were shocked when 500 attendees joined the livestream, and in two weeks we will find out if our second online showcase can find similar support. If so, it means we will be able to continue humanizing experts and helping them become a powerful voice for science. 

You can join the livestreaming event on Saturday, June 13th (9ET/8CT/6PT), as a new cohort of Atlanta science-professionals perform their late-night comedy talks for a special guest and adult audiences at home. 

[1] “Science Outside the Box: Rethinking Relevance for Millennial Engagement”

Survey Results Presented at the AAAS 2020 annual meeting. LabX.org

Kyle Sanders (Ed.M.) is a co-founder of Science Riot, where he currently serves as Executive Director and consults on public programming for cultural institutions. With a background in aerospace engineering and aviation as a former Air Force instructor pilot, he has a decade of experience leading educational initiatives on behalf of university, government, and nonprofit organizations. You can follow Science Riot on Twitter: @ScienceRiotInc

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