I am a bingo caller with ideas above my station.
More and more comedians are nowadays.
Not content with telling jokes, some of us insist on writing them for ourselves too, and possibly then going on to write books, or columns with political intent, or sitting on panels and attempting to create an air of thoughtfulness and wisdom.
Eventually it wasn’t enough for me to be doing routines about my daily life and bothers, or jokes about talking polar bears and psychosexual circus clowns, I started to attempt to write jokes about science, others may do politics and media analysis from a libertarian point of view. I still wanted to be entertaining (if I am honest, I needed to be more entertaining too), but I also wanted to leave an audience enthused.
Then, a possible problem lurked. Not only do I have to be funny, I have to be correct to the best of my ability, or at least able to show my working out. With so many ways to fail as a comedian, you have added another knot hole for the critic to fire at.
I am pondering this for two reasons. One, I am attempting to learn enough about contemporary thinking on the human brain to write a show about it, and, two, I have been reading about Robert Newman’s new show on evolution.
Comedy involves evolution, even if you are not writing about Darwin, Dawkins and Huxley.
Some ideas will be strong enough survive, others will wither and die, too weak for the environment. Others will seem suitable for the environment, perhaps for the low cost warm up shows, but when the theatres get bigger and the ticket fees double, they meet their end.
When I put on a show about scientific ideas, I try to stress that I am no expert. One of the core values of science is the importance of doubt, so I want them to doubt me. If they like an idea that I talk about, then they should not share that idea with their friends until they have googled it first, leafed through a book, ensure that I have not misled them into believing some half-remembered nonsense about many worlds interpretation or the sexual behaviour of Armadillo (Reminder: must write routine about the sexual behaviour of Armadillos). Though, as Al Murray has written, Twitter is the place you go to to argue with jokes, it’s preposterous to argue with Milton Jones that his joke about the possible site of a a snowman genocide is factually inaccurate or tell an observational comedian that her routine on how her husband drinks soup is built on a falsehood. Hopefully, we all have better things to do.
Though my jokes about entropy or Squirrel monkeys can be (and will be) ridiculous, they have to a have their basis in scientific fact or research. If I am writing a show about Charles Darwin, I can’t just pretend he said things for the sake of a joke without making it clear what is fact and what is the nonsense sorbet to ease the process of watching a hyperactive lecture by a human falling into a chasm of impassioned foolishness. If I wish an audience to believe something is embedded in fact, then I have to experience a lot of paper cuts.
I may be good at losing audiences, but I am not attempting to mislead them. As an excitable non-expert, I enjoy those post show conversations at bars where biologists like Matthew Cobb tell me I have clearly not been keeping up to date with the data, or the panicked, offstage calls to Brian Cox, “I’ve come up with a joke about the Higgs particle, can I just check that the punchline is acceptable within the parameters of recent discoveries”.
I started worrying about this when I read interviews with Robert Newman in The New Left Project and in Metro concerning his new show.
It seemed to me that his reading of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene and its ramifications were wrong, moving the “selfishness” of the gene to the idea that this means humans are selfish. (There is the possibility of being misrepresented by an editor, though having seen further interviews since, the same points crop up). Richard Dawkins made a Horizon some decades ago entitled Nice Guys Finish First.
The intentions of the show sounds good and stimulating, looking towards an altruistic society through the ideas of Darwin and beyond, but it worries me that it may be built on a misunderstanding that holds an area of modern evolutionary theory up as something it is not. I hope to see the show soon. I like Newman’s thoughtful work, but I wonder how worried I will be, or should be, if scientific ideas seem to be misrepresented.
Whereas a work of art such as a novel or statue and the meaning intended by the creator can fuel years of debate, the meaning of a scientific theory does not have that flexibility. The veracity of a theory and the implications of a theory may be much debated, but a clearly written, researched and tested scientific theory should not be clouded with a multitude of different possible definitions.
George Carlin said that stand up was a low but potent art, that is why it can be so good at delivering ideas and attempting to persuade people that the passions you possess are worth sharing. This is also why, if we want our ideas to be taken seriously amongst the gags, pratfalls and nonsense, we have to try and take care to represent them correctly to the best of our knowledge and ability.
If you go an see one of my shows where I try to tackle ideas of scientific endeavour, you can trust me, but don’t believe me. Trust me that I believe what I have said is correct, and I am not trying to mislead you, but it does not mean I have not been misled by my slack wit or memory.
Comedians are not prophets, then again, neither are prophets, question the whole damn lot of us.
I am off getting things wrong across the UK – Norwich, Leeds, Hull, Bristol, Falmouth, Sheffield, Cardiff and plenty more, sometimes on my own, sometimes with Josie Long and Grace Petrie. Dates HERE
“The Selfish Gene”, as a title and metaphor, is pure poetry, whereas the ideas and mechanics behind it (that genes promoting altruistic behaviour survive if they end up preserving identical copies of themselves in other organisms) are just mathematically sound and correct.
Complaining about selfishness in evolution is like complaining about bodies in motion moving at a constant velocity being called stubborn, or gravity being the weakest (and most pathetic!!!) force of all. Embarrassing…
I got the feeling from reading the New Left Review piece that Newman’s understanding is more sophisticated than you give him credit for here. But as you say, best see the show before coming to firm conclusions.
What is absolutely without doubt is that Honey Boy Dawkins is the funniest thing on twitter, full stop. He’s treading on comedy’s toes (albeit without any awareness at all – which is part of what makes him so funny) Perhaps Newman trying to reclaim some ground for comedy?
from what I gather there are many interesting scientific ideas in the show. I worry that they can be dismissed by this who wish to disagree with him if the premise is founded on a misunderstanding.
Very nice post Robin, and a very interesting topic 🙂
Comedy is a fantastic hook to draw people to e.g. science, but when they have been attracted, the science presented should be accurate, and the scientific methodology and “way of thinking” should be proliferated to some extent, at least in my opinion. Scientific accuracy was an immutable requirement of CERN re the first LHComedy gig (emailed you RE the 2nd).
If accuracy isn’t maintained, audiences will come to distrust the information disseminated through comedy, and comedy will lose its effect and draw. The Facebook site “I F*cking love science” often worries me, because it uses memes and comedy to present inaccurate science and misrepresents the scientific method…it also has millions and millions of followers
Having been subjected to narky peer review for a good deal of my life in academia I can verify that it’s a highly flawed rating system often influenced by self-interest that has nothing to do with genes. Its like everything in life – those who are successful in promoting their ideas are not necessarily the most worthy among us, we trust them only for the reason they are the most prominent ones. And we shouldn’t.
There are similarities in being a lecturer and being a stand-up comedian in that we are all trying to avoid rotten tomatoes being hurled, but as you have often pointed out, its main purpose is to be a catalyst to knowledge, to raise curiosity in the audience the best way we can. Its up to them to take it further.
Your shows are sell-outs, how’s that for an endorsement of your skill and dedication to a profession that in my mind are one of the most difficult on this planet. To make them laugh and make them learn at the same time, what an unbeatable combination.
Nodding at a fair bit of this – again, I haven’t seen it (though hope to) but it concerns me from what I’ve read. I co-edit New Left Project and was a bit annoyed when that interview went up (another editor dealt with it) if only because as an interview it would have been a chance to ask him more about this. And I think that critique of scientists/ science in comedy can be done well, and could be a great thing, so it’d be a real shame if it wasn’t done on solid ground. I dunno. Anyway, thanks for writing this.
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