A clear recent trend has been emerging within the last couple of years. The job titles of ‘comedian’, ‘scientist’ and ‘entertainer’ are no longer necessarily distinct from one another, with all three meeting together inside a rather succulent melting pot of shamelessly nerdy satire. Countless comedians and scientists suddenly appear to be best buddies, performing on stage in an ambitious quest to promote their message in very light-hearted, science-based shows. It appears to be a mutualistically rewarding relationship, whilst the astronomical ticket sales illustrate the enormous audience out there for their slightly quacky, dry comedy.
The two leaders of this march are undoubtedly Brian Cox and Robin Ince. Cox – who gained a PhD in particle Physics and now works at CERN – and Ince – a stand-up comedian – have been the brains behind a series of shows, such as Radio 4’s Infinate Monkey Cage (available on iTunes as a free podcast) and the epic eight-night festive show Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. In the next few months, they are embarking upon an additional run of live shows, called Uncaged Monkeys.
It is evident from their qualifications that we wouldn't naturally group these two people together, yet the popularising of science through humour – and the evolving nature of comedy to become more sophisticated – has led to a significant (p < 0.05) trend where these two great arts are becoming united. (Hopefully you spotted a joke there; don’t worry if not).
Comedians such as Ince, Stewart Lee, Richard Herring, Ricky Gervais, Ben Miller, Dara O’Briain and David Mitchell are jumping on the bandwagon, whilst scientists such as Cox, Ben Goldacre, Simon Singh, Jim al-Khalili and many others are doing so as well. Why is this?
Firstly, I think it has a lot to do with Robin Ince’s creation of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. These stage events (which can easily be enjoyed by religious people, by the way) involve several comedians/ scientists performing ten-minute pieces, in a spectacular mass exaltation of science and the universe, at a time of the year when the godless don’t really join in the exaltation of Jesus. Scientists become more light-hearted so as to appeal to a mass audience, whilst comedians tailor their pieces to the ‘science’ end of the spectrum.
The shows are extremely popular, and so they’ll naturally milk it for all it’s worth and maintain a winning formula. But this doesn’t explain why they’re popular, and I think I’ve worked this out.
There are so many people out there who really bloody love science. However, general society doesn’t seem to feel the same way. So there’s a slight incompatibility between these feelings and the desire to live a normal life and not repel potential mating partners. I find this rather frustrating and I’m led to think that this major part of me must be kept under wraps because it is just a bit too nerdy for civil society. It seems like thousands of people also feel this way, and the platform that Ince and co. have provided allows us to satirise this to the maximum. We’re laughing at ourselves in many ways, slightly ashamed that we find Robin Ince’s impressions of Carl Sagan so amusing. The society at large wouldn’t accept such humour and this creates an underground network where people can say, “I HAVE WATCHED THE WHOLE COSMOS SERIES FIVE TIMES. I KNOW MOST PEOPLE FIND THAT SLIGHTLY ODD BUT I LOVE IT.”
Thankfully, there seems to be a major group of people who all feel the same way, and therefore there is a niche for these Celebriscientists to tap into. Furthermore, being a comedian isn’t easy. You have to be intelligent, with a thirst for learning and an eye for irony. They are forced to think about things and so I don’t think it’s a major coincidence that comedians do appreciate science, because I’m convinced that any thinking person inevitably will.
So, considering the audiences of the two fields are probably quite similar, it’s not actually hugely surprising this form of entertainment has emerged. It even appears, dare I say it, rather intelligently designed.