This first episode of our new podcast You’re Up Next features Steve Cross, who founded Bright Club in the UK, with our host Jessamyn Fairfield. Listen here or read through the transcript below.
Jessamyn Fairfield: Sometimes, science can feel like a joke.
Experiments don’t work, simulations produce physically impossible outcomes, and a question that you thought would take two weeks to answer instead can take two years. All too often we hide the messiness of science, presenting progress as linear rather than admitting the missteps and follies along the way.
But surprises and setbacks shape the story of science as a human endeavor, and if we are unwilling to share this side of science, to laugh at ourselves, we risk alienating society from science altogether.
You might be thinking, but science isn’t funny, it’s an important and serious business! I think that’s exactly why we should find the humour in it. Scientific progress saves lives, and technological advances improve quality of life across the globe. This means that public understanding of and participation in science has never been more important, especially as scientific issues such as climate change and energy usage have a greater and greater impact on our lives.
Research in education tells us that playful approaches to learning information can actually aid in retention and understanding, so educators now encourage learners to generate their own content on a topic – to be able to tell a story. Or write a joke.
What is a joke, after all, but a surprising reversal, a change in viewpoint that completely reframes the information that came before? These sorts of reversals happen in science all the time, and scientists are used to having their viewpoints upended by new data. In fact, many of the skills that are important in science are also important in writing comedy: creativity, a willingness to upend the status quo, and indeed a subversive approach to authority in pursuit of a deeper truth. But more importantly, consider the audience. When a person listens to a joke, they are waiting for the other shoe to drop and the punchline to be revealed: they are waiting to change their mind. In this era of polarized news and information bubbles, what other approach to communication of complex ideas could possibly be more powerful than comedy?
It is this ethos that underlies Bright Club, a series of variety nights combining academic research and stand-up comedy. I have run Bright Club events in Ireland since 2015, training researchers from science, social science, and humanities and bringing them together with comedians and musicians for thought-provoking shows. The Bright Club format itself was pioneered in the UK by Steve Cross in 2009, and Bright Club events now take place in many European countries. Before each event, academics are trained in stand-up comedy techniques, a skill set which they often find useful in teaching and other science communication events.
In the 70+ events our Bright Club team has held in Ireland, which take place in informal spaces from pubs to music and comedy festivals, we have found an audience which is diverse and excited to hear from academics who reject the notion of the ivory tower. The talks are always engaging and the interdisciplinary nature of the events helps connect science to the broader constellation of human knowledge, drawing in people from all walks of life. We’ve also found that speakers who take part in Bright Club find comedy empowering: not only does it help them to communicate more accessibly, without jargon, but it helps them to communicate authentically, to find their own voices and their own unique perspectives on their own research. Participation in public engagement events like Bright Club often leads to a strengthened sense of agency and scientific identity, but the use of humour adds an extra level to this by allowing researchers to connect their professional selves to their personal selves. Audiences see researchers in their full humanity, and researchers often report that Bright Club is the first time they have felt that this humanity could be part of their work.
Science affects all of society, and hence it is of critical importance to bring researchers into public spaces to engage the public with what they do. Comedy is an invaluable tool for engagement, not least because the audience response adds the element of dialogue. Researchers report that the laughter and comments from the audience, as well as the process of writing jokes and reflecting on their own work, gave them new ideas and perspective on their research. And audiences reported great joy in hearing academic research presented so engagingly, in a fun setting, with a mix of different topics. Facts don’t speak for themselves – they need ambassadors. So isn’t it time we all started taking ourselves a bit less seriously?
Steve Cross: Hello friends. Steve Cross here. I’m one of the people that started the original Bright Club back in May 2009 with Miriam Miller and I’m the person who’s lived through it. So these days I run Science Showoff, History Showoff, Books Showoff, Law Showoff, I run Fact Fight, I run Never Explain, I run They Fun You Up – the parenting themed expert comedy night. The point is I run absolutely anything where people with knowledge can be funny, interesting, engaging about that. I make experts into the funniest, most effective, most interesting versions of themselves. I also take photos of them being funny and interesting.
It’s a good thing to ask a scientist to do a rant because they will be like, “I feel like slightly more could be done”, but I’m a professional comedian and freelance and loads of people have cancelled work today because of COVID-19 so I’m very poor, which means ranting is totally what I want to do, and I’m going to start by talking to all the scientists who are listening. I’ve one simple message for you, all scientists who are listening, and it is, “No one cares about your work. No one cares about your research. Some people care about you, loved ones, people like that. But no one cares about the work you do. Because if they cared about the work you do, they would be doing it with you, or in many cases instead of you. I realise that there was a lot of competition for your job, but imagine how much more than would have been if anyone else cared about your work.” And if you’re thinking, “well, my work is so interesting that people should want to know about it on its own terms, even if- “, I would ask you how much you’ve learned about macroeconomics, or libel law or town planning, or all of these other things that affect your life in incredibly deep ways and way more ways than your research into whether a nebula points at a quasar… I don’t know anything about astrophysics. It affects their lives and it makes your life way more than any of that and you’ve never learned anything about it, so why would these people come to you and go “do you know what – you know about something irrelevant, I’ll listen to you do a dry talk”, they won’t, they won’t! You’ve got to find ways to make them care. Emotionally, you’ve got to find ways to make them give a damn. And this is where comedy comes in.
Comedy is your route to making people care about value and remember the things you say. And that’s just on stage. But we’ll come on to their kind of workplace benefits of comedy in a minute. Imagine, for instance, that you had enjoyed some comedy and you’ve watched it on Netflix a couple of times, I bet you’re able to quote bits to people at your work. I bet you can’t quote the abstracts of papers that you’ve read. I bet you can’t even quote the abstracts of your own papers to people without looking at them. Comedy is an incredible way of making people care and making people remember, I’ve trained loads and loads of people, as I said I’ve been doing this for eleven years now, and one thing I’ve done recently is go back to lots of them and say, “what did you get from being funny on stage other than the ability to be funny on stage?” and they said, “my public speaking skills are way better and it turns out, this is a much more important skill than I realised it was”. In most workplaces, everybody is avoiding the opportunity to be the one standing up the front and talking, which means by volunteering you to do it suddenly you become the most interesting person at work and the person to whom everybody wants to bring all the interesting projects.
But comedy doesn’t just help you talk there turns out it makes you better in meetings, it makes you better in a meeting with your boss, it makes you better at arguing about the budget that you want, because you know which joke to drop at which point to distract everybody while you argue for the thing that you want. It makes you better at job interviews because you’re used to thinking on your feet – there is no question so weird that somebody with comedy experience can’t deal with it. And it makes you better at just dealing with the life of a researcher. I used to be a researcher. I have a PhD in molecular biology, which many of you will know is the science of moving tiny amounts of liquid from one tube to another, and then realising that you’ve done it wrong. I was a spectacularly poor lab scientist. If I’d had comedy in my life, I might have been a bit better able to deal with it. I might have been able to say, “well, this has all gone wrong, or at least I’ll get five minutes from it about how much I hate trying to do a northern blot”. Those of you don’t know what a northern blot is, be so happy. My point is comedy, for any kind of expert is a superpower. It unlocks all sorts of competitive advantages.
Jessamyn Fairfield: It’s also been really interesting to see how the Bright Club performers react to being part of Bright Club. We do a training session with them, we try to get them talking to each other and obviously that’s interdisciplinary too. But so what’s happened is we have this community now of 150, 200 researchers who have performed at Bright Club, sometimes multiple times, and they are from every single academic field you can imagine. And sometimes they signed up under their own steam, sometimes a friend pushed them into it, sometimes even it was their academic supervisor! But they’ve come in and been part of this event where they get to look at their field in a new way, find their own voice, be a little more authentic than the impartial passive academic voice that’s in their journal articles, their theses. And it can be really transformative, that experience. It strengthens their own confidence and how they think of themselves as experts, but it also encourages these connections between fields – drawing parallels and realizing the commonalities, rather than the things dividing us from each other.
I’m going to say something controversial now. I don’t think you can actually understand your own field, really understand it, unless you seek out these other perspectives. That’s like me standing at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, after rafting down the Colorado River and seeing the walls get higher and higher, and saying I know what the Grand Canyon looks like when I’ve never seen it from the edges, never seen it from the top. The view from the depths is valid and important – you can’t see animals from the top! You can’t see the flowers, the insects, the fish swimming in that river. But you also can’t see a thing wholly when you are inside it, when your focus is on those fish and what do they eat, what do they do all day, leaving the vastness of the canyon, the landscape, the sky, off somewhere else.
So why do we have all types of researchers at Bright Club, is it to trick new people into hearing about science? Sure, that’s what I tell our funders. But it’s deeper than that, it’s trying to bring the whole of human experience into a liminal space where we can share what we know, have a laugh, and walk away with a different perspective than we had when we came in. Knowledge is no good up in an ivory tower – we need to be able to access it, work with it, bring it to everyone who needs it.