This fourth episode of our new podcast You’re Up Next features comedian, trainer, and event producer Kyle Marian Viterbo, with our host Jessamyn Fairfield. Listen here or read through the transcript below.
Jessamyn Fairfield: I am always looking for the connections between things. I like learning a lot about one thing, sure – I mean, I have a PhD in physics so obviously I like that. I found it exciting to learn more and more about nanomaterials, understanding what other people had done and then eventually making my own contributions to the field, making new knowledge. There is something exciting about that for sure, but I also think it’s exciting to see how things that might appear very different actually fit together. What can math tell me about music? What can Proust tell me about neuroscience? What can painting tell me about microscopy?
I think when we assume that the way to advance human knowledge is by zooming in so closely on one thing, we lose perspective. It’s valuable to be, like, a hyper expert in one particular topic. But what about the perspective of an outsider who can ask a question that seems obvious but is really profound? If you’ve ever tried to explain something to a child, or to teach, you’ve had that experience – the most obvious questions, and the most profound, might not even occur to an expert. This is part of why I became interested in nanoscience – it’s a field that draws on physics, chemistry, engineering, materials science, and all sorts of things. You need all those perspectives to do good nanoscience, which is why lots of the best scientists in that field collaborate with people from other backgrounds. It’s a field where you need to work with others, and you need to stay willing to learn new things and go outside the framework you were taught in school, if you hope to get anywhere.
So why do we put science in a silo when we try to engage the public with it? Science festivals, science talks, science outreach – I don’t want to criticize these things because they have value. But an event with ‘science’ in the name is going to attract a certain type of person – someone who is probably already really interested in science, who likely knows a good deal about it even if they aren’t a scientist, who might be reading science books and watching sciencey shows and it’s like, good for them but they don’t really need any more help accessing science, you know? I know a lot about this because I grew up in Los Alamos, a national lab town where the atomic bomb was invented and most people living there are scientists or married to scientists or the children of scientists. I mean, I’m the child of scientists, I grew up in this super sciencey place and we had lots of science fairs and science competitions and a very sciencey culture. And it’s great to know the value of science, but it felt like preaching to the choir, you know? What was done to connect the broader community to science, to connect all the different pieces of human culture together with science as a thread in the tapestry rather than a shiny, artificial thing up on a pedestal somewhere?
So that’s why Bright Club is interdisciplinary. It brings science to a broader audience than a science festival, sure. But it’s not about that. It’s about seeing science as part of everything and not apart from everything, and displaying it that way too in an event that seeks to connect ideas, and people, rather than separating them out into tiers or classes.
I think too, if you are seeking to connect people, you have to bring every voice to the table. Academia is often criticized for being ‘pale, male, and stale’ and ironically comedy is kind of the same. We so privilege the expertise, the experiences of straight white men, and while there’s historical reasons (the patriarchy) for that, can’t we do better now? I think anything like Bright Club where you’re giving people a platform, it’s so important to try to make sure that you don’t just platform the same people who have had their voices listened to for centuries.
It does get tricky, though. I tried to make Bright Club very good on gender balance from the beginning, and my own experiences as a woman in science, a woman in comedy, really informed that. But we’ve tried to go beyond that – Ireland is a diverse place and we want a diverse lineup in every way – race, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, economic or class background – comedy is great in a way for this sort of thing because it’s subversive, you’re supposed to be criticizing the status quo and that means actively making sure you don’t just reproduce it.
Kyle Marian Viterbo: Hi, my name is Kyle Marian Viterbo, and I’m a former practicing scientist and current science communications consultant slash comedian based in New York City. I’m currently the producer of two shows in New York: The Symposium Academic Stand Up, a fiscally sponsored project of Scientists Inc, dedicated to using comedy to educate the public while challenging, also decolonizing, what academics and experts should look and sound like. And my second show is Woke AF, a mind opening variety show at the Upright Citizens Brigade.
Creating socially mindful events is just something that I’m really passionate about because I am a part of a minority community. I’m an Asian American first generation immigrant in New York City, and it’s something that I’m really passionate about lifting up the voices of people like me and my peers, who particularly don’t get a spotlight typically. I think I always start from a place of, I’m not perfect, or that I might not have the skills or the knowledge to do it, but who can I partner with so that I can give them my resources and my skill set so that we can learn together and create spaces together?
One of the biggest things for me is community input from pre-production and the idea creation stages. Every step of production, there should be a proxy for the community that you’re trying to engage, especially when they’re minoritized communities. Someone ideally who has deep ties, who knows the linguistic, socio cultural sub cultural context really well. And they should be involved in the space and experience design from the get go, and part of editorializing it all along the way. And the other thing for me too that is very important -seeking collaborators. That you as a producer, you as the opportunity holder, you put in the time, your time, your effort, your resources, to overcome the obstacles and barriers for participation for the community you’re trying to engage and include. Really thinking about and considering what the barriers are to participation, what the barriers are for even interest or prioritizing what you’re trying to give a community, makes such a huge difference. It builds a lot of trust and they understand you’re coming from a place that isn’t just lip service.
I think for me, the first persons with disabilities show I wanted to work on I didn’t have that much experience with it, and I wanted to learn but I knew that the only way I could really learn is to just go ahead and do it. And so I looked for a community partner who is a member of the disabilities community, and I told that production partner, you know, I think I’m gonna actually need four to six months to plan and learn. Whereas typically within a one month turnaround, I can usually put up a completely new show. For this to do it justice, I think I need four to six months. On top of that, I also asked the partner venue in New York City’s caveat, I would need their infrastructural support, and how can we together as a community that cares about social issues, social justice, especially when it’s tied to science communication – how can we together ensure an inclusive and accessible space?
When I asked my partner, my partner producer, you know, what else can we do to maybe help out? He actually suggested that I submit for a small grant from the Awesome Foundation’s disabilities chapter because the cost of access work from live captioning to audio description and even sign language, that costs money. And so how do we move the cost that would have typically been on the audiences who needed that access to me? Like, how can I take that on so that they can just come and enjoy an evening and have a laugh and also learn a little bit?
And I think one other thing too that needs to be very explicit in the pre-production process is, you know, prioritizing voices that are missing and typically missing from mainstream platforms, prioritizing perspectives that are just as important. And, you know, be upfront about that with people you’re asking to, to work with inviting to perform. I think for me, sometimes the inclusive part feels like a tokenized thing, in the sense that it’s reactive, to say like a national holiday or topical news, or bad press. issues around inclusion and access aren’t everyday issues for people who don’t get affected by them. So you know, it suddenly becomes something that they might care about, because someone pointed it out. And that sucks. That sucks, to feel like your only value is when somebody else calls it out.
On a different note, one of the key things that I find in common between inclusive comedy and inclusive science communication is something I think most folks take for granted – the assumption that mainstream culture is the only culture worth coding and contextualizing knowledge and ideas in. Indigenous ways of knowing and Eastern medicine, for example are typically under appreciated ways of knowing. But ignoring their value, not even considering it, in my view is a major signifier of colonizer, imperialist science communication approaches.
I mean with any communication mode with any art form, and especially in comedy, cultural context is crucial. The punch line in comedy can be the same, but I might have to work harder for the right kind of setup or context for different audiences. The same joke and conservative space wouldn’t sound or land the same as in liberal spaces, right? I believe there’s a value in having also what I call spaces of practice and safe spaces to fail for say, an all queer or all BIPOC – which is our term for black, indigenous and persons of color – especially because we often end up practicing our communication styles and comedic Arts in mainstream audiences before we hone our own voices and perspectives.
A friend of mine, a fellow comedian said the other day we’re not asking for safe space, we’re asking for space. If you’re a member of a historically marginalized community, or historically forgotten community, you end up only being used to coding your ideas and experiences for the majority, also known as white middle class, upper class folks. It’s empowering and reaffirming to have space just to be our minority selves without having to appease those who already have power and platform especially when we have to constantly play by the majority’s rule on the daily anyway.
The biggest thing, I think as a producer is to also take care of your performers needs. I’ve had folks who had emergencies or have chronic pain issues, being understanding, crafty and problem solving, and just being able to support them. It really impacts how your show feels, going on stage to a new audience a new space and putting out so much of yourself, your art form and your ideas. It takes a lot out of a performer. And as producers and hosts, let’s not add to the isolating culture of the arts, right, like have each other’s back.
Jessamyn Fairfield: I love that question, of how the audience and performers connect to each other. The science fiction write Lois McMaster Bujold once said something about the interaction between an author and a reader in a book, that I think also applies to live shows – that the worldviews of the writer, or here the comedian, and the audience are colliding, and when that happens it can go a few ways. If their worldviews totally agree, then it’s a comfortable experience, and the audience might walk away thinking, boy they told it like it is because their views have just been confirmed. If their worldviews clash, then it might be an uncomfortable experience, and the audience might be railing about how the performer or writer just doesn’t get things at all, that their lens on the world isn’t valid – that’s not how things are. Or if you take this even further, maybe the audience and performer just totally miss each other, their worldviews aren’t compatible at all and the whole experience seems pointless. But where the magic happens, in science fiction and in comedy, is when the audience’s worldview is expanded – that partially uncomfortable and partially enlightening process of going, “wow, I never thought about it that way before”. That’s what I want out of comedy, to see things from a new angle, and that’s where we need a whole rainbow of voices to be included and platformed instead of just sticking to the comfortable ones that we’ve heard before. You can make a social justice argument for inclusion which I completely support, but you can also make an artistic argument for it which is just as valid. We have so much to learn from each other.