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Bright Club

By day, Rebecca Shepherd is a very serious PhD candidate at Lancaster University, UK, where she researches the role of fat cells in bone health. By night, however, she is a (one-time) stand-up comedian.

The first rule of Bright Club is that you must tell all your friends about Bright Club. Described as the thinking man’s variety club, Bright Club converts academics into comedians. It was the brain child of Steve Cross and Miriam Millar, and started in London in 2009, quickly expanding across the UK, Ireland and Australia.

Not all academics like public speaking. There is a hormonal mechanism within your body that releases adrenalin when individuals are put in a stressful situation, causing a ‘fight or flight’ response. Do you know what researchers use to deliberately elicit a fight or flight response in a human test subject? Yep, you’ve guessed it – public speaking! With that in mind, what motivated me to willingly participate in stand-up comedy?

I am an anatomist, and despite most people having an interest in human anatomy (everyone owns a body!), research has shown that the general public have surprising gaps in their knowledge of where their organs are located. I’ve participated in a few previous public engagement events and enjoyed the response when educating the public on their own anatomy.  With this in mind, I was intrigued when I saw the opportunity for Bright Club. Ever the researcher, I read numerous articles on Bright Club and watched every video available on YouTube of other Bright Club performers.

Initially, I worried that my research on bone anatomy and disease would not lend itself well to comedy. This was coupled with concerns on balancing comedic aspects of my research with respect towards the patients that had donated samples to my study. Regardless, I was interested enough to start the application process. The standard must have been low as my application consisted of me telling the organizers that they should select me ‘because anatomists are naturally humerus’. Apparently, my bad anatomy puns didn’t deter the organizers, and I was accepted.

We attended a training day led by Bright Club founder, Steve Cross. We participated in a variety of exercises, including doing a two-minute skit trying to be funny about our names. Everyone else was so good at this that I started to worry I was the only one that hadn’t been told to prepare this in advance. The second half of the training was working in groups to develop the stories that would form the basis of our sets and trying to find the humor in every day events. Steve also taught us a few rules about comedy, such as when making jokes about people or places, you have to punch up, not down, or you risk the audience disliking you.

Admittedly, after the training day, writing my six-minute set fell to the bottom of my to-do list. Three days before the event, I realized I ought to write something quick, or risk embarrassing myself. I started by considering aspects of my research that I’d found amusing and then elaborating on that, before emailing my script to Steve. There were places Steve pointed out I had missed ‘easy’ jokes. Other comments included that I should flip the structure of a joke. Originally, I reserved the punchline for the end, but Steve suggested starting with the joke then, ‘fulfill the audience’s need to understand’ (also described by one of my favorite comedy writers Reece Shearsmith in this article here). This improved a whole section of my set, and I have a new appreciation for the psychology and structure of good comedy.

On the day of the show, I was nervous. There was a short rehearsal on campus, where Steve made a few further comments on my set, gave ideas for improvements in delivery and I got to see the other performers for the first time. It was fascinating to hear the different aspects of research that the other performers focussed on; fieldwork, dealings with senior management and how academia affects the love live. We then headed to the venue at a local pub, which had capacity for 80 people and tickets had sold out weeks ago.

Zoomed in photo of a microphone on a stage
Image credit

Before I knew it, my watch showed 8pm and it was time to be funny. Steve compered the evening expertly, and got the audience warmed up. He then called out my name as the first person from Lancaster University to ever perform at Bright Club. My previous nerves were unnecessary as the audience were great. After positive responses to my first jokes, I was able to relax and really enjoy myself. Far too quickly, I reached the end of my six minutes and handed over to the next performer.

All of the seven academics did a stellar job. The topics covered included an entomologist who talks to bees, a professor of English literature who is a happy goth, and a psychologist studying human mating preferences. In the audience feedback, one person wrote that they were not looking forward to hearing academics talk, but it was a wet day so they came anyway, and it was (expletive) brilliant – a quote that should definitely be printed on all future advertising material. Analyzing the audience demographics, the largest audience group was academics, with the second largest group comprised of general public aged over 50. The organizers hope that with an improved promotion strategy, we can shift the demographic in future to reach our target audience of non-academics.

After the show I was approached by several people. Some had osteoarthritis and were delighted to hear about my research – including one person was very keen to give me their bones after their upcoming hip replacement. Other people were interested in the science of my set and asked me about maintaining bone health.

I would highly recommend organizing a Bright Club night. From our event, all the performers have kept in touch and met up and there was another Lancaster Bright Club planned for April (sadly cancelled due to COVID-19). Interestingly, all the original performers were willing to have a second go. And (for the sake of my research) I hope that when it does go ahead they all break a leg.

Follow Rebecca, and her future comedic endeavors, on twitter @special_stains.

Edited by Jessica Rech, Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, and Jason Organ, PhD, Indiana University School of Medicine.

About the Author
  • Rebecca Shepherd 0000-0002-8888-305X

    Rebecca Shepherd is a PhD candidate and Associate Lecturer in Anatomy at Lancaster Medical School, Lancaster University, UK. Her award-winning research focusses on the relationship between bone marrow fat and joint disease, and she is hoping to submit her thesis in the very near future! Prior to her PhD, she worked as a hospital scientist in cellular pathology laboratory. Follow her on twitter @special_stains

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