Would You Like Laughs With That Science?

By Daisy Rosario

Science has found a new friend: Comedy. 

Neil deGrasse Tyson (center) onstage with Eugene Mirman (L) and Sarah Silverman (R).

From science professionals to enthusiastic amateurs, live shows and online podcasts that mix science and comedy are becoming a big hit.

Science can be a dense, overwhelming, and sometimes, boring, topic. But recently, some scientists have started inviting comedians to help them break down difficult concepts. Meanwhile, comedians with an inclination towards geekier topics are inviting scientists to talk about their work and explain the smarts behind fun subjects.

Comedian Chris Hardwick always had a love of science. In 2010, he started The Nerdist, a comedy podcast based out of Los Angeles. For him, comedy and science go hand in hand.

“I was a math major in college, until I decided that I wanted to be a philosophy major. I was always obsessed with comedy but I loved science at the same time. Science is all about figuring out problems. And I feel the same way about comedy,” said Hardwick.

In the two short years since it began, the podcast has opened numerous doors for Hardwick. He’s hosted TV specials for BBC America, released a book, opened a Nerdist venue in Hollywood, and taken the show on the road around the country. Until finding success by digging deep into his own interests, he was best known as the former cohost of the popular 90s MTV game show “Singled Out.”

While Hardwick brings science to comedy fans, one show is trying to bring a better understanding of the universe to the general population.

That show is “Star Talk.” It’s a radio show and podcast started by American Museum of Natural History astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2010. Tyson is arguably the current pop culture face of science. His frequent appearances on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher and The Colbert Report have brought him out of the planetarium and into the living rooms of people who like their comedy with a side of smarts.

“Our mission statement for Star Talk is to bring science to the public in ways where they realize that science is all around them. Science is not some topic that you need to reserve time in a day to learn about,” said Tyson.

Star Talk Live featuring (l-r) Jim Gaffigan, Sarah Silverman, Eugene Mirman, Dr. David Grinspoon, and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson had a comedian as his cohost from the very beginning. A few comedians rotated in and out. Eventually Eugene Mirman became one of the cohosts. Tyson and Mirman hit it off. That’s when things changed.

“We hooked up with a comedian, Eugene Mirman, who already had a comedy festival in place. It didn’t take much of a conversation to land on the idea that maybe we could do a live show in front of the audience that he’s already cultivated,” Tyson said.

Mirman is a popular New York City stand up who tends to perform at independent venues like bars and music venues, instead of the big “two-drink minimum” comedy clubs. He also has his own annual comedy festival.

The very first live show featured Tyson, Mirman, and actor Alan Alda, best known for his role as Hawkeye Pierce on the television show M*A*S*H*. Alda isn’t a scientist, but he’s a well-known science enthusiast who hosted the PBS show Scientific American Frontiers for 12 years.

The live shows sold out from the very beginning. Though originally they sold out over the course of weeks or days.  The most recent show in September at the Bell House in Brooklyn sold out in less than two hours.

Dr. David Grinspoon, curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, was the science guest at that show. Grinspoon is also the first ever chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress.

Grinspoon was part of the NASA team that recently landed a rover on Mars. He does many speaking engagements, but said the enthusiasm he felt from the audience at Star Talk Live was on another level. Tyson’s mere mention of the Mars rover, while introducing Grinspoon, sent the audience into a tizzy.

For Grinspoon, it felt like a big private party. Though a member of the team, he wasn’t in the room with Mohawk Guy and the so-called NASA “blue shirts” that the world saw celebrating the rover’s successful landing.

“That almost felt like my moment. I wasn’t wearing a blue shirt but at least inside I was jumping up and down,” said Grinspoon about the Star Talk audience reaction.


But the mixing of science and comedy isn’t exclusive to those who are online or on TV. They just reach the widest audience.

A little show called Nerd Nite is taking the ideas and entertainment of presentations such as those found at Ted Talks, and bringing them to your local bar. Nerd Nite happens in many US cities, including Seattle and Austin.  There are also Nerd Nites around the world in places such as Amsterdam and Johannesburg.

In New York City, Matt Wasowski acts as “overlord,” of the event, which he describes as, “The Discovery Channel with beer.”

Wasowski said he emphasizes the drinking because the audience is at a bar with friends on a Friday. The fun is important. But the fun doesn’t take away from the talent of the people making the humorous presentations.

Recent presentations include the psychology of the Twilight movies, the significance of romance novels, and “Butt Night,” where they focused on the role the anus and rectum play in people’s lives.

“Our presenters are for the most part, despite the ridiculous sounding nature of many of the presentations, are actually PHDs, or really the best of the best in their fields,” said Wasowski.

So what are you up to Friday night? Skip the movie and laugh and learn instead. Or at the very least, if you know a high school student who is bored with their science classes, let them know that, like most things, once they are old enough to drink, science is going to get a lot more fun.

[Photos by Daisy Rosario]

* Nerd Nite recently launched their own podcast. More info here.

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