01/06/2023

Knock Knock. Who’s There? Science!

34:40 minutes

three images side by side, each of different people. from left to right: a woman on stage smiling, pointing, and holding a microphone, a woman smiling in a lab coat pouring colored liquids from two scientific glasses into a larger glass, and a headshot of a smiling man
From left to right, comedians Kyle Marian, hosting her comedy show exploring race and science (Credit: Arin Sang-urai), Kasha Patel, and Chuck Nice.

A scientist and a comedian walk into a bar—for an interview about the craft of science comedy. Ira talks to comedians Chuck Nice, Kasha Patel, and Kyle Marian Viterbo about their work bringing the joke format to science communication. 

While all three have different approaches to science—whether it’s sneaking the knowledge into “regular” jokes, or going straight for the factual jugular—they agree that the practice of stand-up has much in common with the scientific process. 

“We normally start with an observation or a question,” says Nice. “The experimentation is the joke itself, seeing whether or not it will get a laugh… you have to tell it in front of an audience. And after that you go, ‘Wow, that sucked. I can’t believe that wasn’t funny.’”

Plus, why comedy can itself be a science, and what good comedy has in common with good (science) communication.

“It’s a long term skillset in playing with, and communicating, and connecting with your audience,” says Viterbo. “To be able to really listen to our audience, which these days we need more of.”


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Segment Guests

Kyle Marian Viterbo

Kyle Marian Viterbo is a community manager at Science Friday. She loves sharing hilarious stories about human evolution, hidden museum collections, and the many ways Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist.

Kasha Patel

Kasha Patel is a science journalist and comedian and the founder of DC Science Comedy in Washington, D.C.

Chuck Nice

Chuck Nice is a comedian and co-host of “StarTalk! Radio” based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. One of my favorite topics is the science of comedy, or the comedy in science. And you know what? Sometimes I think about doing science stand-up like this. Let me try one out on you.

A proton walks into a bar and asks the bartender for a beer. The bartender says, are you sure? The proton says, I’m positive.

[DRUMS]

Ooh. Ooh. How about this one? How do you get a baby astronaut to fall asleep? You rocket.

[SAD TROMBONE]

Tough room. All right. All right. All right. I get the picture. Well, if you’ve listened to this show for even a little, you know that I love puns and dad jokes, whether they’re good or not so good. Because when you tell a joke, good or bad, you get people’s attention. So it can be a great way to talk about science, encourage people to listen, maybe even teach someone something new.

Thankfully, there are people much better at telling science jokes than me. Professional comedians, turning out joke after joke about physics, biology, and even research methodology. Yes. Take this one from comedian Xiang Wang about a common problem with medical research.

XIANG WANG: But how many more times are we going to have to read an article about how they found a new cure for cancer that only works on rats?

[LAUGHTER]

Can we stop printing this article? Can we agree that does not belong in the human newspaper? No, man. That’s rat news.

[LAUGHTER]

That’s wonderful for the rat community. Let them know. Let them know. But keep us out of that conversation.

IRA FLATOW: That is funny. Here with me now to talk about their work as comedians with a nerdy twist are my guests. Kasha Patel, science journalist and stand-up comedian, and founder of DC Science Comedy in Washington DC. Chuck Nice, 20 year veteran of stand-up up comedy and co-host of StarTalk with Neil deGrasse Tyson. And our very own Kyle Marin Viterbo, community manager at Science Friday and creator of the Symposium, academic stand-up, NYC.

Oh, one last warning. Of course, we’re talking to comedians about doing comedy. And, yes, certain language comes with it. You know what I mean? So maybe don’t listen with someone you wouldn’t bring to a comedy Club.

OK. Welcome all of you to Science Friday.

CHUCK NICE: Thank you.

KASHA PATEL: Thank you for having me.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: Kyle, Kasha, you both started your lives in science. Let me ask you, Kyle, how did stand-up comedy enter the mix?

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: That’s a great question. I actually never thought of myself as a creative person, even when I was doing research. But sometime in the middle of my PhD program, I discovered stand-up in the UK.

I think, for me, I’m so used to talking about science on the product end of it. You’ve gone through the research, telling people what you found, but I’d never felt free to talk about what that process actually looks like. That it’s messy. That you have to go through internal politics sometimes. And be able to do that with stand-up comedy was completely liberating. Because then I could really talk and share what life was like as a scientist.

IRA FLATOW: That’s really interesting. And Kasha, how did you– how did your comedy get mixed in with your science?

KASHA PATEL: So I decided to do stand-up comedy because I thought it’d be something surprising for me to do. I thought, people wouldn’t expect, like, this lanky, tall, Indian girl who looks very studious to go up there and try and do some jokes.

To me, science was all around me. I grew up in this household with physicians. And it made sense to me to make jokes about science so I started doing that. And then I realized, even though I was in Boston, people did not like those.

One, because I was terrible at stand-up. So everyone is terrible when they first start something, but it’s so egregious in stand-up comedy. Then I moved to Washington DC. People at my work, which was NASA at that time, found out that I did stand-up comedy. They asked me, hey, do you do jokes about science? And I said, you would come to a stand-up comedy show about science? And they said, yes. And I put it on. And then more people kept coming. And that’s how my science comedy career got started.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. Chuck, I put the same question to you. Although, I know you have kind of a different story because you’ve been in comedy for many years.

CHUCK NICE: Yeah. So the science did not come first. I came to stand-up comedy the traditional route, where I started with a scarred childhood and then developed a drinking problem. And–

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Wish I had a rim shot here somewhere.

CHUCK NICE: But no. Really, I’ve always been a closeted geek, nerd. I’ve always been a person who read scientific materials and admired science and the scientific method. And I think that stand-up comedy and science have very much in common in that respect.

Because when you think about it, we normally start with an observation or a question. We don’t really then research it, but we do formulate a hypothesis about that observation. The experimentation is the joke itself, seeing whether or not it will get a laugh. And there’s only one way you can figure out if a joke is going to get a laugh, and that is have to tell it in front of an audience.

And then after that, you go, wow, that sucked. I can’t believe that wasn’t funny because I really thought it was. So then what you do is you have to repeat that entire process to figure out why it wasn’t funny. So the similarities are really striking. And for me, working with Neil and StarTalk, which is our podcast, and people thought, oh, wow, you really know your stuff. Thinking like, oh, wow, you just know it. No. We would have scientists on the show, and I have to go read their work.

[LAUGHTER]

IRA FLATOW: Oh, details. Details.

CHUCK NICE: From that, that exposure basically made it so that it was very easy for me.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. OK. We have– let’s go play some of your clips, because they’re really funny. We have some of them here. And, Chuck, here’s one of your jokes about climate change. And I want you to listen to it. We’ll all listen to it. And when I come back, I want you to tell us why this is such a good joke.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– I really admire people who take personal steps to mitigate their carbon footprint. However, I have to admit, whenever I see, like, a grown man in Manhattan going to work in a suit on a skateboard–

[LAUGHTER]

I can’t help but think to myself, is that a socially responsible eco warrior or just some dude with five DUIs?

[LAUGHTER]

It was kind of hard to know the difference, because on the outside, it looks the same. You know, on the outside, it’s just like, I’m a socially responsible eco-warrior lowering my carbon footprint by going to work on a skateboard! And on the inside, it could be like, this is bull– [BLEEP]! I used to have a car and a girlfriend!

[END PLAYBACK]

IRA FLATOW: Oh, that’s a great joke, Chuck.

CHUCK NICE: Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: How did you decide that that would be a joke and then craft it?

CHUCK NICE: That joke came out of– I remember specifically– a conversation with someone who was very upset with the self-righteous nature of people who think they’re so doggone special because they’re saving the planet. And so from that, I was like, wow, this guy is really angry. Where does that anger come from?

And then, I started thinking about it. And I thought about, oh, the anger comes from the fact that there are people who are demonstrably concerned about this issue. And they will let you know that you ought to be concerned, too. And that upsets people for some reason.

And I started trying to think about, how do I convey that? But I wanted to convey it in a way where you get the message, but it’s silly. And a guy on a skateboard in a three-piece suit, going to work in Manhattan, which I have seen, by the–

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: He’s probably a finance bro, so you know.

[LAUGHING]

CHUCK NICE: And he probably is a finance bro. I was like, that’s the imagery. That’s it right there. Because if you’ve been in New York, you’ve probably seen that. And you could say, oh, that’s a guy who’s wanting to save the planet–

IRA FLATOW: Right, right.

CHUCK NICE: –or just a guy with five DUIs.

IRA FLATOW: That’s cool. Scientists like to deconstruct things. So let’s deconstruct a joke. What makes a good joke, Kyle? Walk me through the process of writing a new joke. I’m in the writer’s room. What does it look like?

KASHA PATEL: Totally. There is such a thing as a writer’s room, although a lot of stand-ups don’t necessarily have that benefit. So sketch rooms, writing for late night TV, you get writer’s rooms and bounce ideas with other people. But the process for stand-up is totally solo for the most part.

And so sometimes, some of us, like me, for example, I like to start with a story, like what do I find funny about something that happened to me? But some stand-ups are just set up, punchline, set up, punchline, laughs per minute. And I think that’s what’s so great about the process, is everybody has a different process. But to go from the start, the middle is always the same. We need to bring it to people.

We need to understand that, hey, this setup is too long for this audience. They are impatient. They are drunk. They don’t want to have to think about what’s funny. So I need to let go of some stuff.

People paid to laugh. And the craft and the comedian in me is like, OK, how much do I need to cut? And then, there’s the scientist in me and the educator in me, who’s like, OK, how much can I buy time for, so I could set up sort of how I think and get them to think the way that I do so that they’re laughing the way that I would at this joke?

IRA FLATOW: Kasha, are there any topics that are off limits, that are harder to write jokes about? I mean, you’ve got physics, climate change, your research methodology, statistics. Do you have to put stuff off the table, that you can’t tell a joke about?

KASHA PATEL: I think you just have to be creative in how you tell the joke. It’s all about how you package it. Climate change, in my experience, in terms of scientific topics, is one of the harder topics to make jokes about. I’ve tried it. It just bums people out as soon as they hear the word climate change.

And also, there’s a lot of other stuff connected to those words. It’s a lot of political beliefs attached to it. And even if you’re just talking about something that’s just the science, which is what I want to focus on, you still have to address the other things.

But like I said, it’s all about how you package it for an audience. So I don’t think there’s anything necessarily off limits in science. It’s just they have to be really funny, extra tight.

IRA FLATOW: Right.

KASHA PATEL: And you have to find the right angle.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Chuck, if there’s nothing off limits, do you have to assume that the audience is at least fluent in science to get the joke?

CHUCK NICE: No, because your job is to bring the commonality of the room together. So wherever that common thread is sewn through us all, that’s what you want to do with comedy. Not everybody’s married, but most married comedians do jokes about marriage. They don’t assume that people have to be married to get these jokes.

And not everybody has children, but every comic with children does jokes about children. They don’t assume you have to be a parent in order to get the jokes. The idea is to make it so that you find the identifiable commonalities in the subject matter so that everyone can relate to it.

IRA FLATOW: In case you’re just joining us, this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. We’re talking about the comedy of science with comedians Kasha Patel, Chuck Nice, and Kyle Marian Viterbo. Oh, well, let me ask Kasha, because I watched your special. And you were doing a whole special about the oceans.

And my question to you is, then, is the purpose of the joke or the special about the oceans, is it to sneakily give people information that they won’t normally get, but you put it in a joke wrapper, and they get it? Or is it something else?

KASHA PATEL: For me, my personal motivation is to sneak the science into my regular stand-up, because I’ve found that in order to sustain my science comedy shows, I need to practice the jokes. And as Chuck said, the only way to practice it is in front of as many people as you can. And unfortunately, I don’t get to perform for scientists every day at 10:00 PM on a Tuesday.

But I just try and bring them in, dangle a carrot. They kind of sniff that. And then, bring them in and surprise them with something that they can learn.

IRA FLATOW: I have a clip from one of your shows this year, at a show in New York in the fall. And you were talking about your wedding. And you turned it into a lesson on neuroscience. Let’s listen to that.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– I was explaining how beautiful it was to my friend who couldn’t make it, because I didn’t invite her. And I was saying, I want to remember this day forever. And she, who is a neuroscientist, told me that actually, every time you recall a memory, you risk the chance of manipulating it. And it gets further away from the reality that it actually was.

And I thought about it. And I was like, oh, my gosh, I think she’s right. Because I remember her being way more pleasant when we first met.

[END PLAYBACK]

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: I love that joke so much. That was good.

IRA FLATOW: That is a great joke. How long does it take to write a joke like that?

KASHA PATEL: Well, I just got married in July. And I was just trying to write anything new. And the only thing I could think about was, I’m married, and I have this wedding. And it’s what Chuck said, not everyone’s married, but you do married jokes.

So I was trying out my wedding jokes. They weren’t really hitting as well. And then, I was thinking about memories.

IRA FLATOW: Right.

KASHA PATEL: Everyone always– they know these facts about memories. And the funny thing is, when I say the part where my neuroscientist friend said, every time you recall a memory, you risk the chance of losing it and manipulating it, every time I did that joke, people in the crowd nodded their head, yes–

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Mm-hmm.

KASHA PATEL: –or poked their friend, who’s like, that’s true. And that actually doesn’t happen with too many of my jokes, where all these non-sciency people are like, that’s right, and they can actually fact check it in real time. And then, the ending of it, I was like, OK, what’s a creative way to end this? And I thought, just making it a little meta and bringing it back to the joke of what she’s saying, bringing it back onto itself.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: I think one of my favorite things, especially with that joke, Kasha, is that you don’t need to know who in the room is a science aficionado or has read enough about memories and neuroscience. The thing that makes people laugh the hardest is that we’re all thinking it. And that’s the funniest part about it, because Kasha got to tell what the process of memory making is. But the thing that made people laugh so hard was the fact that we said out loud the thing that we’re not allowed to say to somebody’s face, which was like, OK, you were nicer way before–

[LAUGHING]

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: And that’s kind of how we all get to laugh at it. But hey, you learned something along the way. And you’re not going to forget it, because you laughed real hard– maybe a little too hard.

KASHA PATEL: I mean, that’s the hope, right? I’ve had people come up to me after a set, show their phone, saying, hey, that study you talked about is actually real. And I was like, yeah, all my premises are true. I’m not making up science here. But it’s cool that I inspired them enough to remember it and Google it later.

IRA FLATOW: We have to take a quick break. We’ll be right back with more from science comedians Kasha Patel, Kyle Marian Viterbo, and Chuck Nice after this break.

This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. We’re talking science comedy this hour. And this is comedian Sammy Obeid performing one of his many science-themed jokes.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– I trip, and I fall all the time. Gravity and I have an abusive relationship. I’ll show it to my friends with bruises and scars. They’re like, Sammy, did gravity do that to you?

Come on, it’s cool. Sammy, did gravity do that to you? I’m like, yeah, but you don’t know gravity like I do, you know what I mean? It keeps me grounded and down to Earth. He just follows me everywhere I go.

How hard does he hit you, Sammy? How hard does he hit you? 9.8 meters per second squared.

[END PLAYBACK]

IRA FLATOW: We’ve been talking about how science can be a subject of comedy and how comedy can be a science communication tool, with my guests, comedians Kyle Marian Viterbo, Chuck Nice, and Kasha Patel. We know that comedy is an art form known for pushing boundaries of what’s acceptable to talk about, like you hear us bleeping some swear words there. And do you see that famous boundary pushing happening in your science-adjacent jokes, too? Are they just as vulnerable to those boundaries, Chuck?

CHUCK NICE: Yes. A big chunk of my show right now is about science literacy, being scientifically literate and more importantly, how America is becoming anti-science. Now, I won’t say that we’re actually becoming anti-science. I will say that, for some reason, we’re embracing it more readily.

And, of course, that brings up all this politics. And people feel this tension. And they know what I’m talking about. And they know who I’m talking about when I do that. And you will be surprised how many people get upset because I’m saying that we should resist being anti-science.

However, if I were to look at things scientifically, I would say, it makes perfect sense that we are anti-science. Because the human brain does not work– if you think about empirical data being a measure of information, that’s a very recent occurrence in human evolution. That is not something that– mostly what we looked for as a human brain is patterns. So it makes sense that we’re kind of anti-science, but not really in the greatest technologically advanced nation in the world, which is what we’re supposed to be, when really, you find out we’re just kind of masquerading as stupid people with really great toys.

[LAUGHING]

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Chuck, more than me, you have toured a lot across the country–

CHUCK NICE: Yes.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: –with stand-up. And we sell shows to science shows. People buy into it. They know what they’re buying into. But when we do our science jokes at regular comedy clubs–

CHUCK NICE: Right.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: –the times where it falls flat or we lose the room, we feel it. People don’t have to heckle and yell back at us, which has happened. And that’s the thing that really drives it into me when I’m doing stand-up and bringing in the science, is OK, I can’t get it. I can’t get them to laugh about science.

But it then becomes that driving force behind me to be like, OK, how am I going to get them to laugh about the science? This audience isn’t into it. If I talk about anti-science or anti-vaccination, how am I going to get them on my side? And then, I work on that.

IRA FLATOW: That’s an interesting way of looking at it.

KASHA PATEL: Yeah, I mean, if I can say something along those same lines, so I wanted to know– so like I said earlier, I do science jokes. But I do non science jokes, as well. And then for my TEDx Talk that I did, I analyzed 500 of my jokes.

I classified them as science and non-science jokes. And I found out that my science jokes actually did better than my non-science jokes. And this was told probably primarily to non-science audiences, because I perform four to 11 times a week. Most of the time, those aren’t science shows.

So to me, it was interesting that this is what the great gift of comedy is, that if you are able to hit it right– like Ira, you asked me, is there a topic in science that’s off limits? No, I mean, if you are able to figure out the angle, like Chuck’s joke I think was so great, because the three-piece suit on the skateboard– I’m in DC. I don’t need to be in Manhattan. We have that version here. They’re on scooters.

It’s all about the diversion, where it’s like, oh, person looks very socially, very green. But then, what’s the surprising other explanation for it? The way it’s crafted, it’s crafted like a regular joke, just with science terms in there.

And I think that the audience, non-scientists, want that. They just don’t know that they want it. And that’s why it’s up to us to use comedy, in my opinion, to sneak it in there, spring it on them.

IRA FLATOW: Speaking of scientists and non-scientists, it occurred to me while you were talking that there are a lot of scientists who were very angry at the TV show The Big Bang Theory, because they thought they were making fun of scientists, when in fact, if you looked at the actual science they were talking about, it was real, right?

KASHA PATEL: Well, I think a lot of comedy writers also did not like that comedy show. So everyone just kind of hated that show, that was represented in there, I suppose.

IRA FLATOW: No, the audience loved it, so. Right, right.

CHUCK NICE: Yeah, they did and–

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: They did, yeah.

CHUCK NICE: However, I will say the one benefit that the show did have culturally was that it made embracing science, science literacy, the professions that they all held, all of those things became far more acceptable and even somewhat glamorous because they’re being glorified on television. And I thought that that was a good thing.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: And one thing I would like to add, too, is with comedy– any form of comedy, whether it’s sketch, stand-up, whatever, our audiences have to give us permission to misbehave. And that’s what makes it funny, because we’re talking about human failures and why it’s so weird to be a human being. And I think sometimes, we do get this pushback from scientists, from organizations, that using humor and comedy is a no-no, because it doesn’t look good for the PR of scientists.

You’re pushing people’s understanding of what’s OK to say as a scientist, as a comedian. And if you don’t frame it perfectly, then you fail. And a huge part of both science and stand-up is that you have to keep failing to figure out how to say it the best way.

IRA FLATOW: So speaking of saying the best way, I want to play a clip of yours, Kyle, from one of your recent performances, in which you go out of your way to challenge the historic lack of diversity in who gets to be a scientist. Let’s hear that now.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– I’m a former scientist. And I feel like there’s always a hero story whenever someone’s like, I’m a scientist. Listen to me.

But it’s interesting, because my hero story starts in the Philippines. I don’t know if you guys know this, but in the Philippines, we consume a lot of American media. And I was watching something, and I fell in love with science, because I fell in love with Indiana Jones. So hot!

But what was funny, too, is OK, cut to a few years later, our parents decide to bring us to New York City. We immigrate, and I realize I can finally follow the American dream– become a white man who has tenure, can [BLEEP] off in the middle of lectures, go to a developing nation, steal something from Indigenous peoples, and say, that belongs in a museum! But it’s not stealing. White people, am I right?

[END PLAYBACK]

IRA FLATOW: That’s brilliant. Brilliant.

CHUCK NICE: Wow, you hit all the notes. That was amazing! That was great.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: And it’s crazy, because it’s like I just read a story about how the archaeologists were taking stuff from Mexico. It’s a fight that’s still going on.

CHUCK NICE: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: Well, Kyle, did you feel and do you feel that’s part of your goal as a comedian, to help keep these things in view?

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: I mean, this is why I gravitated toward stand-up. And it was at a time when I was feeling really burned out by being a paleoanthropologist. But the fact that I’m Filipino, I wanted to study human evolution in Island Southeast Asia.

And the permissions I had to get from Western museums, from all of these white men in power to get a chance to study and look at fossils and really understand what it meant to be from Island Southeast Asia, where humans came from, all of these museums that still hold power over these things and have first rights to study these things, like these were things that were at the back of my head and kind of nagging me, even as I was doing my research. But I never had the courage to talk about it openly until I found stand-up. I just feel like there is, for me, power in being able to actually speak that out loud.

One of my proudest moments is hosting a comedy show about how museums are not neutral spaces and to actually host it with a bunch of museum people in the audience, many of whom were uncomfortable. But I had the few people who were people of color come up to me, laughing so hard at how uncomfortable everybody was. If a regular stand-up saw that, they would have thought I bombed. But the fact that they were really uncomfortable that they were part of a systemic issue like that, that felt so good.

IRA FLATOW: Kasha, you’re involved with NASA. How does your stand-up comedy connect to the more straightforward serious work that you do?

KASHA PATEL: That’s a good question. I think it’s so interesting. I always like talking to Chuck and Kyle, because I think all three of us– every science comedian I meet has kind of a different perspective on what they want their science comedy to mean. Kyle is very targeted, and I think it’s extremely important.

I just try and go for the broadest brush that I can get. So for NASA, everyone loves space. So I just try and educate them.

When I worked at NASA, I have a lot of jokes about what it’s like to work at NASA, because people always ask me that. And I have a joke about how it was really hard working there, because everyone loves NASA more than any other government agency. I’ve never seen someone walking around with a shirt that said IRS because they liked what they did in the 60s.

So in that same regard– so my science comedy is more of just trying to get the broadest brush and communicate scientific findings. Earlier, Kyle said that some stand-up comedians are more premise punchline. And that’s what I would classify myself as, where I sift through scientific studies.

I’ll write a headline, almost. That’s how it kind of relates to my journalism. I think of the premise–

IRA FLATOW: Right.

KASHA PATEL: –as the headline of an article. It just has the bare minimum of what you need to understand it. And then, I’ll write a one- to two-sentence punch line right after that.

IRA FLATOW: Chuck, I’ve got a wild card question for you.

CHUCK NICE: Go right ahead.

IRA FLATOW: Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy is a comedian turned politician, right?

CHUCK NICE: That’s right.

IRA FLATOW: Well, as a comedian who knows comedians, are you surprised that he turned out to be such a charismatic leader?

CHUCK NICE: Not at all. One of the things that being a comedian is most about– and Kyle touched on it without saying it this way– is that what we do is we hold up a mirror to society. And sometimes, people don’t like what they see in that mirror. And if that’s the case, then we’re considered being a person who speaks truth to power.

And then, sometimes, people identify with that mirror. And then, we’re considered the comedian who has their finger on the pulse of the zeitgeist. But the truth is, we’re doing the same thing, no matter what. We’re just holding up this mirror so that people can take an honest look at themselves, because that is really what it’s about, authenticity and honesty in the reflection of society through our particular gaze.

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about the comedy of science. We’ve got one more joke for you. This is comedian Ronny Chieng, talking about encountering COVID-19 deniers on the internet.

[AUDIO PLAYBACK]

– All right, this is the miraculous technological era that we live in right now. Within three months, in March, 2020, they decoded the genome of the virus. Yeah, they decoded it! They decoded it.

Yo, I’m like, yo, everyone look, we found it. We found the enemy. Everybody, look, we got it right here. Look, it’s AAAA BBBBB GGGGG A BDDDDD A CCCCC T.

Can you imagine showing that to these idiots on Facebook demanding evidence? It’s always, where’s the evidence? It’s right here. Yeah, we got it. We found the exact sequence of proteins and amino acids.

The [BLEEP] is this [BLEEP]? Oh, yeah, right, you decoded a genome.

[END PLAYBACK]

– What about scientists? Is the takeaway that everyone, especially scientists, should just be funnier when they talk about their research? Is this the takeaway message? Does the world need funny scientists?

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: You don’t have to be funnier to be hilarious. I think it’s a skill set, right? The fact that anyone can start something, anyone can start a craft, anyone can start a little bit of stand-up, but it’s a long-term skill set in playing with communicating and connecting with your audience. And so I think I’ve trained up academics and scientists to add a little humor to their work. But it’s something that gives us the flexibility and to be able to really listen to our audience, which these days, we need more of.

IRA FLATOW: Kasha?

KASHA PATEL: Yeah that’s a great question. Stand-up comedy is hard. Like Kyle said, it is a skill set that you have to hone.

I actually just recently published a study with some other science– real PhD science people. That’s what they’re called. And we did a bunch of my science jokes. And we had a bunch of different comedians say them in front of an audience. And they were either labeled as a scientist or a comedian for one of the scenarios.

And we found out that people thought that if the joke wasn’t that funny, they thought that the scientist was a less effective communicator than the comedian, which is a little bit surprising. To me, I took that to mean that people have the stereotype of what scientists are, that if you try and be funny and you don’t make it, the repercussions for that are a lot harder than if you’re labeled as a comedian. And I think what the stand-up comedy teaches us– Kyle is a good example, where she talks about what it’s like to be a scientist.

And you mentioned scientists hate Big Bang Theory. Well, the reason they don’t like Big Bang Theory is because it’s all science stereotypes. It’s scientists who are nerds. They can’t communicate well. And I think all three of us show that you can talk about science in a fun and engaging way. And I’m not saying that scientists need to be funny and be cracking punchlines, but I think tapping into more of their personality, the basis for good stand-up comedy is also the basis for good communication in general.

IRA FLATOW: Well, I’ve got to say that I think this was the funniest segment we’ve done in 31 years on Science Friday. And I want to–

[LAUGHING]

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Oh, wow. That’s funny right there.

CHUCK NICE: Notice how we all laugh.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: Well–

KASHA PATEL: We’re like, you should really come to our shows. You’d be a great audience.

IRA FLATOW: You’re laughing with us not at us, I’m hoping, so.

CHUCK NICE: Absolutely.

IRA FLATOW: Kasha Patel–

KASHA PATEL: Yeah.

IRA FLATOW: –Chuck Nice, and our own Kyle Marian Viterbo, thank you very much, all, for taking time to be with us today.

CHUCK NICE: A pleasure.

KYLE MARIAN VITERBO: Thank you.

KASHA PATEL: Thanks for having us.

IRA FLATOW: You can find links to more of their work plus other great comics. It’s up there on our website, sciencefriday.com/comedy.

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Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Kyle Marian Viterbo

Kyle Marian Viterbo is a community manager at Science Friday. She loves sharing hilarious stories about human evolution, hidden museum collections, and the many ways Indiana Jones is a terrible archaeologist.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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