Applying the science of stand-up

Life as a comedian at the Edinburgh Fringe has many parallels with the experiences of early career academics, explains Anna Ploszajski

August 23, 2018
Source: Elly Walton

“God, no, take it back,” says the man, shoving the flyer back on to my 100-strong pile. By day, I’m a postdoctoral research fellow, but by night I perform stand-up comedy with a group of like-minded nerds established and coached by professional geek/comedian Steve Cross. This passer-by was interested, until he saw the word “SCIENCE” on the piece of paper advertising our Science Showoff event at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

A short career in academia has, however, coached me perfectly for surviving a week performing comedy in Edinburgh. The hierarchy is painfully familiar. Many of us relative newbies with limited resources and few technical requirements take part in the Free Fringe. We are allocated underground venues in the spare room of a nightclub, fashioned from black strung-up bedsheets and paper-thin plywood panelling. The air is thick with damp and asbestos, and next door’s experimental one-man show about the Trojan War bleeds shoutily through the so-called walls.

The PhD student will be no stranger to such a causal attitude towards health and safety, nor the envy felt walking into the office of people who have been in the game for much longer than them. Proper lighting, a sound desk, tiered seating and a box office make up the everyday environs of those in the stand-up ivory towers of the paid-for venues.

Meanwhile, I’ve trained for five years to perform a show to 10 people. As part of the Free Fringe, our audiences get to pay what they want on the way out – and it’s never as much as we think we deserve. Just getting to Edinburgh and staying a week costs orders of magnitude more than what gets put into our bucket at the end of the show, a feeling familiar to anyone currently paying off their student loan.

Just like a career in academia, performing at the Edinburgh Fringe is a mental health minefield for me. During my PhD, I swam in London’s lidos to stay sane, and this approach keeps my feet on the ground during the Fringe, too – twice we sneak off to Portobello Beach on the outskirts of the city and wash away the heckles of the night before with seawater and sandy ice cream.

Looking at the posters strung up on every flat surface in Edinburgh during August will feel familiar to anyone who has gazed up at the portraits in our esteemed academic institutions and scientific societies. Majority male and pale, the only diversity in the bearded photographs of the city’s new wallpaper is the facial expressions of the performers and the font used to depict the title of their show, which will likely be some variation on “[Problematic subject] performed by [non-self-aware man] with [a loud voice]”. Like research labs, if you’re physically disabled, forget getting access to most of what the Fringe has to offer.

Getting flyered while out and about in Edinburgh is also just like my day job. My work inbox is frequently bombarded with links to other people’s journal papers in the same research field as me. Most of these look identical, with the same buzzwords and repetitive titles, jostling for clicks and an h-index boost. But occasionally one will catch my eye and I’ll plan to read it, but rarely get around to it in reality. And so it goes with other people’s improvised comedy shows.

But despite these shortcomings and necessary sacrifices, thanks to its reputation, the Edinburgh Fringe draws hundreds of performers every year. The prestige of having a show here has overruled any common sense in terms of my financial or mental well-being, not unlike the doctoral passport that a PhD will eventually bring my career, one hopes.

There’s a buzz about the place – it’s oppressive and infectious in equal measure. In the same way that it is only the early career scientists who spend any time getting their hands dirty in the laboratory, the Free Fringe is a place of incredible creativity. Even established acts opt to take part in the Free Fringe rather than shell out for an expensive paid-for venue. It feels somehow more egalitarian, more underground. Only in free shows did I see people taking enormous risks with their performance, trying out new material for the first time and not caring if they bombed. Having nothing to lose seems a powerful driver for inadvertent genius.

I have learned more about comedy in a week in Edinburgh than I have over the past year. I’ve been inspired to write more and to take risks, to engage more with the comedy community where I live and to work hard to get to the next level. Perhaps this is how other people feel about conferences.

The more I try comedy, the more I am compelled to seek success in it. Every gig raises more questions – how could that joke have been better? Why didn’t they find that bit funny? What should I be doing with my face? This annual comedy conference has been one big experiment for me, and, as a scientist, if there’s one thing I understand how to do, it’s experiments. The results have been mixed, but the conclusion is clear: more work needed.

Anna Ploszajski is a postdoctoral research fellow in materials science at UCL’s Institute of Making. Science Showoff, an hour of science’s funniest stand-ups, is taking place daily at Opium, Cowgate, Edinburgh, at 8.45pm until 25 August.

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Print headline: A sideline in stand-up

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