When Scientists Experiment With Comedy, Results Are Riotous

Oct 29, 2018

There's a common stereotype that scientists aren't funny -- they're smart, anti-social, maybe a little odd, but definitely not funny.

"I'm a professor, I've seen the glaze many times and people falling asleep," said Fleur Ferro, who teaches biology at the Community College of Denver.

But it doesn't have to be that way, Ferro said.

Ferro briefly majored in theater, and amongst friends and colleagues, she is hilarious. She wanted to bring that side of her personality to the classroom.

Enter Science Riot.

The national nonprofit takes STEM-field professionals -- anyone involved in science, technology, engineering or mathematics -- and teaches them how to use stand-up comedy as an outreach tool.

Why combine science and comedy?

Only 1 in 5 scientists do any adult outreach, said Jessie Hanson, who teaches science comedy for the program's Denver classes. And that's bad for scientists and nonscientists.

"We tend to get stuck in what's referred to as the 'science bubble,'" said Hanson, whose dayjob is as a medical laboratory scientist. "Everybody we talk to and interact with is already on the same page. And if we can make science much more approachable, accessible and egalitarian, and get people who wouldn't normally interact with science or realize the impact that science and technology has on their lives, then we're improving the world."

Another problem, Hanson said, when scientists do offer workshops and lectures, they aren't always great at relaying that information in ways the general public can understand.

"There's a big gap in science education -- that we aren't taught to tell stories and that's how people relate to each other and understand each other," she said. "That's what comedy is so great at though, because the soul of comedy is brevity and distilling out what the really important thing in the statement is."

Science Riot aims to help scientists improve their outreach to the general community through comedy.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Which leaves the question: How do you teach someone to be funny?

At Science Riot -- which also offers workshops in Colorado Springs, Chicago and Little Rock, Ark. -- it's about breaking down the basic parts of a joke and examining what makes something funny.

Students learn the mechanics behind a good joke, including setting up tension and breaking it in an unexpected way and using the art of the "callback."

It's a scientific approach to humor -- but one that works, according to Peter McCraw.

He co-authored the book "The Humor Code" and is the director of the University of Colorado's Humor Research Lab, also known as HuRL.

McGraw actually studies humor; specifically the social science behind what makes things funny and how people use comedy as a tool. One way to do that, he said, is to use humor to create a positive association with something people might otherwise see negatively -- like science.

"The other one is sort of a 'signaling process,'" he said. "Oftentimes being good at comedy signals intelligence, signals wit and charm and ability. So it can be a way to try to facilitate some interest. In some ways, comedy can help make science a little bit more cool, and thus approachable."

"Edutainment" is a growing field. There's the hit TV show "The Big Bang Theory," and venues are hosting TED Talks and Nerd Nights where information -- along with beer and wine -- is flowing.

"So (they were) dressed up in full drag and talking about scanning people's basements for corpses. (...) It was a great set."

- Instructor Jessie Hanson

"This is not something that suddenly the public is thirsting for," McGraw said. "I think it's that suddenly people are recognizing that the public has always been thirsting for it."

But like all science, there's been some experimenting, and experimentation comes with risks.

"The most obvious is to try to be funny and to fail," McGraw said.

That's something he got first-hand experience at while working on his book. As McGraw traveled the world researching what makes things funny, he tried doing stand-up comedy, similar to what the Science Riot students are doing.

"And unlike them -- I totally bombed," he said.

But there's other risks, especially when you're using comedy to teach or persuade, McGraw said. One example: PSAs.

"Public service announcements generally follow the same process," he said. "You show something upsetting to people, and then they're upset by it and they change the way they behave in order to ameliorate their negative emotions."

With a funny ad, the goal is to grab people's attention and go viral. But that might actually backfire, McGraw said.

"Because comedy often suggests that this thing that is bad is actually not bad, the things that are funny tend to be wrong, yet OK," he said. "And so the risk of a humorous public service announcement is that you're suggesting that this thing that is bad -- that you're laughing about -- may not be as bad as it is in real life. So the worry is that you get the attention, but not the behavior change."

With science, there are so many fascinating things to explore, Science Riot instructor Jessie Hanson said. People love to learn more, especially when you make the lesson relative to their lives. There's also something about being brutally honest with people about what you do all day that can be comedy gold, she said.

She learned that during her first performance with Science Riot, doing a talk entitled "'Do not go into science. It sucks!"

"There's a lot of really dirty, gross, unappreciated, underpaid jobs in science," Hanson said. "The truth of that statement made people laugh because they could tell that was something that I had actually experienced in my own life, and people love truth."

But simply being funny isn't enough. As Hanson said, you can't have Science Riot without the "science."

That's why the shows Science Riot puts on -- like the Denver Museum of Nature and Science's event Peer Revue -- have each scientist focus in on a topic based on their expertise, something that they can use to educate (and entertain) the audience with.

Over the years, that's included physicists, archaeologists, computer programmers, geneticists, biologists, astro-biologists and a forensic scientist, who also happened to be a drag queen.

"So (they were) dressed up in full drag and talking about scanning people's basements for corpses," Hanson said. "The cognitive dissonance was wonderful. It was a great set."

Geologist John Knetemann takes the stage as part of Science Riot's summer showcase "Peer Revue".
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

While his degree is in geology, Aurora resident John Knetemann has always had a secret dream of being a stand-up comedian.

"I've always thought I was funny," said Knetemann, who took the Science Riot workshop last summer. "Maybe others have not thought I was funny, but I definitely do. So I just wanted to go on stage and give it a shot."

But being funny about geology was a little more difficult than he had anticipated.

"I ended up, at first, going more into it with using just science terminology and making it funny," said Knetemann, whose act focused on comparing geologists to young children. "But actually making it informative and instructive and funny at the same time is an interesting balancing act."

Knetemann said he probably wouldn't take these jokes to the office -- he works as an analyst for a financial holdings firm focused on science companies -- but there's a place for the skills he's picked up.

"I feel like the level of jokes maybe aren't HR-approved at my work," he said. "But being in science marketing, you know, it's all about messaging science to be more attractive."

And while it might not be very scientific, if you're looking for evidence that there's a place for science comedy, the sold-out crowd at the most recent Science Riot show and the line of wanna-be comedians waiting to sign up for the program's next workshop was pretty telling.

Science Riot instructor Jessie Hanson (right) cracks up during a workshop session.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

"I'm a midwife and so my friends think a lot of my stories about work are pretty crazy and thought it would be a good fit for this," said Ashleigh Shiffler, after she added her name to the sheet.

Shiffler said she's not totally sure about that, but watching the show gave her a confidence boost that maybe she could offer some of her own "edutainment." She couldn't remember a single, specific joke that was told that night, but said she really enjoyed the evening.

"These people have really impressive jobs and do incredible, highly scientific work," Shiffler said. "But (they) made the work that they're doing really understandable and relatable to me tonight."

Score one for the nerds.

Science Riot's next show will be Nov. 29, 2018 at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.