Dissecting the Fringe: Edinburgh Diary
The current fashion for science and rationalism in stand-up reaches some sort of a climax when AC Grayling speaks/performs/lectures tonight on the Fringe. This trend is partly an extension of the twee comedy of a few years ago (shows about mixtapes, home-made fliers, etc), with Josie Long's defence of the Enlightenment one obvious conduit. Other comics, such as Robin Ince, have been working at the comedy-science coalface for longer, and the more general cultural interest with science and rationalism has also helped.
Comedy and science are not natural bedfellows. (Comedy and rationalism, i.e., debunking astrology, homeopathy and other new age beliefs, are much more obvious allies.) This isn't to say that the two can't be combined, just that the balance between them is very difficult to get right, more difficult than, say, comedy and politics. Too much scientific detail anaesethises the comedy; too little turns the comedy into shallow name-dropping.i (Politics, by contrast, is inherently dramatic and about performances, and requries just a little exaggeration to become ridiculous.)
Of course, the scientist-comedians are aware of this danger, and plan accordingly. By way of brief and extremely unscientific illustration, consider two shows I saw yesterday: Helen Arney and Domestic Science (a double act between Ms. Arney and Rob Wells).ii Domestic Science avoided the dilemma just described by not really being about science; some of the jokes relied on scientific references, but for the most part it was a standard double-act, with sock puppets, audience participation, and the occasional spat between the performers. The scientific content featured largely as a pretext for these set-pieces. The recurring soap operas featuring the domestic lives of famous scientists relied far more on spoofing bad television than any detailed knowledge of the work of Marie Curie or Charles Darwin.
Helen Arney is leading name in the science-comedy movement, but her solo show wasn't as convincing a vehicle for her undoubted talents. Voice of an Angle was just as whimsical as Domestic Science, but the powerpoint-heavy format felt more like a presentation, and there were fewer concessions to straightforward comedy. The humour was certainly more reliant on recognising scientific terms, but more importantly too much of it relied on the premise that science and the ukelele are an inherently funny combination. This might be true on the radio (specificially Radio 4, on which Arney has performed), but as a live comedy show it didn't have enough punch or downright silliness. Like the kind of culture-geek comedy purveyed by Project Adorno, the science-comedy crossover is basically a good thing, but not the easiest to master.
i I blame Tom Lehrer. It was funny to put the Periodic Table to jaunty music, but it wasn't a particularly good comic song, and unfortunately it's become a template for a lot of subsequent ditties listing reams of scientific data to little comic effect.
ii Disclosure: I know Mr. Wells. I even know his real surname.