Ionic, isn't it?

Academics from physicists to experts on Scandinavian culture are crafting stand-up comedy routines based on their work. But this is no joke. Matthew Reisz finds that a crowd's laughter is not the only payoff

October 20, 2011

It is comedy night at the Victoria and Albert Museum. On the bill are three people from what the compere calls "The Vanda" and three from University College London, all due to draw more or less directly on their teaching, research or curatorial experience.

The nominal theme, tying in with a major exhibition, Power of Making, is "craft", though the audience could not possibly have guessed it. Performers explore Tory drinking rituals and the "extreme decollete fashions" of the 17th century; pubic hair loss during the menopause; the importance of anti-Catholic fart humour in the early development of printing; the difficulties of translating Danish jokes into English; and the history of racist comedy (the speaker warns the audience in advance that "because this is a national institution, I'm not allowed to tell you the punchlines").

A PhD student offers a glimpse of his lonely life: "Today is Tuesday, the day after University Challenge, when I get a chance to spend some quality time with Jeremy Paxman." There is also a song about dinosaurs in Westminster and a polka-dotted cabaret duo, not to mention the occasional groan-worthy one-liner ("Anyone seen Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest? It's going down a storm").

Welcome to Bright Club, described by Steve Cross as "the most scientifically rigorous comedy night you'll ever go to. We spent hours talking to psychologists and neuroscientists and a professor of consumer marketing about how we run it, how we price it and how we make people laugh."

As head of public engagement at UCL, Cross created his academic comedy nights in response to a specific challenge: to find a way of engaging with people in "the great demographic gap" between the ages of 20 and 40. "Universities have been very good at schools outreach and at getting academics on to Radio 4," he explains, "but we haven't been so good at reaching the market in between." Many museums and cultural institutions face a similar problem.

So how could they get "an audience to turn up and listen to members of the university sharing their research, teaching and knowledge in a meaningful, interactive way, face to face and not through a facilitator"? Cross and his team talked to people who ran theatre, music and comedy nights. "We wanted something with content that would attract an audience beyond those already working and studying in universities. The thing we came up with was stand-up comedy - because of the rise of intelligent comedy, because researchers can learn to perform to a good standard relatively quickly, and because you can make anything funny."

Bright Club started in May 2009 with an evening on "lust" that took in everything from Romantic poetry to the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. It has now been honed into a tried-and-tested formula. The performers usually consist of five or six research-active university staff, from students to professors, who deliver separate eight-minute slots - although, in cases such as the one already mentioned, where UCL is forging a partnership with another institution, each provides a smaller team to share the stage.

They are introduced by a professional compere, whose job, says Cross, is "to turn the 80 to 90 people sitting in a room into an audience. You make them a social group so they will laugh together, which is a very specific skill. Only professional comedians can do it really well." (One of the regular hosts is a young Australian comedian called Bec Hill. Sample gag: "I don't know why my friends always give me their babies to hold. I mean, I know how they're made - if I wanted one, I'd have made one of my own.") A musical act concludes each of the two parts.

Each Bright Club night is themed, but Cross admits: "We don't enforce the themes very strictly - I always say: do your best material." While "not afraid of the obvious subjects", he always attempts to "interpret them very widely". An evening on "metal", for example, included both an archaeo-metallurgist exploring the meaning of metal throughout history and a neurologist talking about tinnitus and hearing loss as a result of listening to too much heavy metal music.

The participants' brief, continues Cross, is "to be funny, not just accessible and charming. They don't have to become professional stand-ups, but they do have to find the funny side of what they are working on. That's about satisfying audiences' expectations - it's sold as a comedy night and looks like a comedy night."

At the beginning, Cross went out of his way not to spread the news about Bright Club within UCL so as to ensure that it attracted a "real public audience" rather than just students and others affiliated to the university. Venues tend to be places already established for comedy nights. UCL is lucky enough to own the Bloomsbury Theatre, the best-known comedy space of its size in London, and two Bright Clubs were able to draw on its vast mailing list to sell out shows in its 550-seat main hall. Cross took to the stage on one of these occasions, feeling that it wasn't fair to put others through it if he wasn't willing to give it a go himself.

So how are academics transformed into comedians, if only for a night? Cross gives them a few tips and tricks, a book on the subject and an hour's training with stage microphones, which are rather different from those used in lecture halls. They then get a chance to develop their act, he adds, and meet up for "a full practice on the day. We get together in a featureless meeting room and they are all on edge, performing to just six other people. The result is excruciating! But when they do the gig, with people laughing at everything they say, it's so much easier because they've done the practice."

Now that he has experience of more than 30 gigs and has ironed out the teething problems, Cross is happy to "make the entire model available to those who want to set up their own Bright Club, give them training materials and advice, and tell them all the things we got wrong. It tends to work best in cities where people go to this sort of thing anyway."

There is no charge for this support. Cross and his team form one of the six Beacons for Public Engagement - with salaries paid by the UK higher education funding councils, the research councils and the Wellcome Trust -and are "supposed to share with other universities any new and exciting things developed by UCL. It's about disseminating all the experiments we have done here."

First to take off was Bright Club Manchester, where two enthusiastic volunteers without university connections got the ball rolling. Richard Crawford, who works on mathematical modelling for the AMEC engineering company, came across the Facebook group for the original Bright Club and left a message saying: "How cool is this? Imagine if there was something like this in Manchester?" Cross got in touch and put him in contact with Hannah Mosley, an engagement officer at the Nexus Art Cafe, which now hosts all the gigs.

The two of them have gone on to build up links with Manchester's universities and put together 10 Bright Clubs, after participants have taken part in workshops where they are taught what one called "the science of comedy". Crawford reports great success in getting astrophysicists to talk about pulsars, "families in space" and "a galaxy that looks like a willy", with others contributing their thoughts on computer games, sensitive data, sewage, tattooing, Christmas lights and "the boy band family tree". On one memorable occasion, a "science busker" started to take off his clothes - only to reveal a sumo suit underneath to illustrate the centre of mass.

A more recent addition to the Bright Club circuit is Edinburgh, where a new 250-seat venue came up at this year's Fringe Festival, so a team of researchers was lined up for a trial run in July and a launch in August. Although support has come from the Edinburgh Beltane Beacon for Public Engagement, based at the University of Edinburgh, an absence of formal links to a university ensures that the shows are primarily regarded not as "educational" but as part of the comedy scene.

Participants to date have come from Edinburgh's four universities and the University of Glasgow, and have tackled topics ranging from costume drama and uncertainty to translation studies and reproductive health. Sarah West-Alin, communications and events officer for the Edinburgh Beltane Beacon, has witnessed several cases of people "transform(ed) from 'I'm not sure about this' to 'that is literally the best thing I have ever done in my life' over the space of a few weeks".

Stand-up comedy has a somewhat macho, gladiatorial reputation one might have thought rather at odds with the atmosphere of universities and museums. The latter, as a curator pointed out at a recent gig, tend to be "full of beta males" - although, he added, "There's a lot to be said for being a beta male: you get all the advantages of being an alpha male, without having to spend your life behaving like a complete dick."

Yet Cross estimates that he has a hit rate of more than 80 per cent in persuading people to take part in Bright Club, and he notes that those who seem dry and reserved off stage often come across just as well as the more obviously outgoing or charismatic. An evaluation officer looks at how successfully the shows have met their aims in reaching out - surveys confirm that more than half the audience members don't work or study in a university - and in "unlocking" academics and researchers to do other public engagement activities.

Academics discover many benefits of participating. One, Cross recalls, "had to do five days of EPSRC funding panel presentations a week after his Bright Club (performance), which he'd been worrying about for months - but it seemed really easy by comparison. Ten people trying to interrogate you and put you off, but who all understand your subject, aren't nearly as frightening as 90 drunk members of the public."

In some cases, Bright Club has proved to be even more of a transformational experience. Beforehand, Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at UCL, remembers being "absolutely terrified - it was that back-at-school, about-to-go-into-an-exam panic. I locked myself in the toilet clutching at a copy of my set, as if it were some potent talisman that could save me." In the event, however, "people started laughing quite early on and the applause at the end was outstandingly rewarding.

"It's been incredibly useful as a confidence boost. You do think: if I can do that, I can do anything. Since Bright Club, I have done other (public events) such as Science Question Time and Skeptics in the Pub, which I would never have attempted before. Even in your forties, you can learn new skills, and they can be very, very useful. Plus, doing stand-up made my dad say he was proud of me - which is no trivial thing!"

Claire Thomson, head of UCL's department of Scandinavian studies, observes that Bright Club has been embraced by about three-quarters of her staff and become "an entry point into public engagement". Many of the skills developed, she believes, "are also needed for interdisciplinary collaboration. Bright Club doesn't just allow cinema specialists and scientists and engineers to meet up over a pint and prepare their routines. It also fosters collab-oration across disciplinary boundaries because we're all engaged in explaining to each other what we do, as well as to the audience."

Also rewarding is the opportunity to rethink issues of academic jargon. "The process of becoming an academic in the arts and humanities, and no doubt other disciplines," notes Thomson, "involves mastering a certain kind of exclusive register and vocabulary. Bright Club forces performers to communicate without recourse to that language. If I'm interested in the concept of 'indexicality', for example, can I explain it, and make it funny, without using (specialist) terminology? If I can't do that, do I really understand the concept in the first place - and what's the point of it anyway?"

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