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”.
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