Make ’em laugh (about science)

Short people have long faces and
Long people have short faces.
Big people have little humor
And little people have no humor at all!
And in the words of that immortal buddy
Samuel J. Snodgrass, as he was about to be lead
To the guillotine:

Make ’em laugh
Make ’em laugh
Don’t you know everyone wants to laugh?
(From “Singing in the Rain”)

It’s really hard to pick a fav song from “Singing in the Rain”, so I won’t even try. But for the purposes of this post, I quoted the first bit of “Make ’em laugh”, you know, that song where Donald O’Connor hyperactively sings and tap dances and slapsticks and runs back and forth on (and through) the set. If you ever feel down, and don’t have the time to watch the full movie, watch that scene. It might not make you “lol” but it will bring a smile to your face. Or at least it always brings one to mine.

That wasn’t going to be my point actually. I wanted to talk about how suddenly science is becoming the subject of comedy.

I guess for me it probably started by watching reruns of QI with Stephen Fry. British panel shows are a strange thing, usually disguised as a quiz but no one really cares about winning, it’s just about getting famous people, mostly comedians, together to talk and joke about certain topics, and in this case that includes anything that Stephen finds quite interesting. Quite. I like Stephen Fry. I like random interesting facts, and this was a show where I felt like I was learning things – quite useless bits of knowledge – and being entertained at the same time. Years later in Belgium a similar show originated, Scheire en de Schepping, random science facts and cool little experiments (walking on water was one wonderful example) and to top it all, the “totally arbitrary winner designation round”. Just to point out that it was not about the quiz aspect at all.

In any case, science and nerdism is the new cool, and a new source of endless jokes. Just think about The Big Bang Theory, or at least the first few seasons if it pains you to think about it now; laughing at and with physicists and engineers has become very popular.

Another example, this year at the Edinburg Fringe Festival (a ridiculously elaborate comedy festival that is held in Edinburgh every August, for almost a whole month), I was astonished about how many shows were describable as “nerdy”. Mathematics, physics, biology, computing, geekery, … They have all become the subject for the next generation of comedians.

I have played my own little part, by participating in a Bright Club event. Bright Club is an initiative run by Steve Cross, that has spread out over multiple cities in the UK – and one in Brussels as well, actually – that allows academics to climb up on a stage to deliver an eight-minute set of stand-up comedy inspired by their own studies or work. It’s incredibly scary and fun to do, and it’s amazing to hear how “boring” academics, the ones you image spending their whole day behind a computer or in a laboratory, can be extremely funny.

That’s the thing; scientists are people too. They come in all flavours and colours and some of them are quite humorous. Moreover, they have an infinite range of subjects they can talk about, and they will never run out.

“Research is never going to stop, so you’ve always got new material. The universe is an interesting place – and it’s always going to be.”
(Simon Watt)

So don’t be afraid to approach a scientist once in a while. Have a chat. They might be shy at first, but who knows, they might turn out to be extremely funny once you give them the chance. Don’t we all just love to laugh?

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