When the Arts and Humanities Research Council announced a major research project in 2013 on “Cultural and scientific perceptions of human-chicken interactions”, the Mail Online inevitably reported “outrage as academics are handed £2m” – for what it described as “a birdbrained idea”.
But lead researcher Naomi Sykes, associate professor in zooarchaeology at the University of Nottingham, was “over the moon”.
Dr Sykes hoped that all the jokey, pun-filled articles offered them “a great opportunity to challenge widely held perceptions (that chickens are just low-risk healthy cheap meat, that they are stupid, ridiculous and meaningless) and for us to demonstrate how important our research is…[with its] serious implications for modern issues of environmental sustainability and food security, it highlights the connection between human and animal health (including antibiotic resistance), well-being and diet (including the obesity epidemic)”.
Unfortunately, by the time the researchers thought about how to respond and use the coverage to their advantage, the news cycle had moved on. A number of public engagement events were held, but Dr Sykes always had the impression that they were “preaching to the converted” when the people she really wanted to reach were “all those many red-top readers who are likely to just accept the stories in the press”.
The only way forward, she decided, was to adopt a more creative approach to outreach and “just embrace the comedy value of the chicken”. It was this that led the team to the unusual step of appointing a comedian-in-residence.
Stepping into the role is Steve Cross, former head of public engagement at University College London, where he pioneered the Bright Club comedy nights which see academics using comedy to present their research. He has now taken to the stage himself in the niche field of “intellectual comedy” and largely makes his living by performing and training others.
“When the project was funded, they had the mickey taken out of them,” he said. “They want me to take the mickey back…I’ll be playing off their intellectual seriousness with my complete lack of it.”
To prepare for his new role, Dr Cross spent a day with the research team that he described as “like a PhD-level supervision in five different subjects”. He has been trying out five-minute chunks of “chicken-based material” at different gigs and will be compering an event on 22 November as part of the Being Human festival.
Himself a vegetarian, Dr Cross has struggled to find the comic potential in topics such as “cockfighting in the Canaries” but promises plenty of other good material from the byways of chicken breeding and the 5,000 years of “human-chicken interactions”.
Although his role was "at the extreme end of the project’s many outreach outputs”, Dr Cross said that comedy "provides another way of thinking” and in that sense was "just like an academic discipline".