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Science doesn’t make good comedy? You must be joking . . .

Posted in Uncategorized by Rodibidably on March 17, 2009

[Originally posted at: Telegraph]

Comedians are suddenly cracking jokes about science. What has happened?

A strange thing has happened to stand-up comedy recently: it has started to find science funny. Of course, in one sense it always has – mocking the other-worldly white-coated geek with his test tubes, Dungeons & Dragons and no sex life, or bemoaning perceived wastes of taxpayers’ money on frivolous research – but not like this. Now professional funnymen and women joke about evolution or particle accelerators, and ordinary people in clubs and bars laugh. From big names like physics graduate Dara O’Briain to fresh-faced newcomers, comedians are talking about science. So how did this change happen? Partly, science is more a part of our lives now than ever. Climate change, stem cell research, IVF – to discuss these topics sensibly requires a grounding in science.

But ubiquity doesn’t equal humour. On the surface, science is either dry, stats-based and academic or vast, monumental and awe-inspiring. How to turn that into jokes? It can be done, says Australian comic Tim Minchin, whose beat poem Storm chronicles an argument about science, medicine and New Age nonsense. “There is comedy there, making something small out of something so huge, in the human condition in the face of the enormity,” he says. Robin Ince, creator of the Christmas show Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People, agrees. “Physics can be hard for comedy,” he admits, “but biology is hilarious. It’s easier to make a joke about the sex lives of bonobo chimpanzees than it is to do a mime representing wave-particle duality.” Another bonus for science is its cast of memorable characters. Minchin mentions Richard Dawkins – “half say he’s a legend and half say he’s a grumpy old c—”. Ince delves into the history books to Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer who wore a gold prosthetic nose after losing his real one in a duel.

But, most importantly, there is nothing a comedian likes more than mocking someone who is demonstrably, yet passionately, wrong – and science can reveal them. “A lot of people, especially in the media, believe you can debate science in the same way you can debate art criticism,” says Ince. Minchin agrees, blaming the relativists who portrayed science as a social construct like religion or literature.

Alternative medicine is a target-rich environment; as Minchin says: “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.” O’Briain points out that, for all our middle-class love of ancient Chinese medicine, Chinese life expectancy has doubled in the last century – “and that’s nothing to do with tiger penises”.

[Read the rest of this post at: Telegraph]


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