Thursday, October 30, 2014

And now for something completely different

Earlier this year I took part in a stand up comedy event at CERN. I knew one of the people who arranged it last year and tentatively put my name forward. A few months later I had to confirm my interest in the act and somewhat nervously decided to go ahead with it. I like to paint myself into corners like this, it focuses the mind. I wrote a set and after some help slashing the worst jokes I was left with fifteen minutes of presentable material. On the evening I got on stage, performed the act, got many laughs and a few rounds of applause. It felt great and I am very glad I put my neck out to do what is often considered one of the most challenging acts to perform.

The amateaur lineup before the show.

The main reason I was glad was not because it was fun, or because of the great people I met, or because I helped the outreach efforts of CERN, or because of the support of my friends (although I am glad about all these things as well) but because it was something completely new that challenged me in ways I'd never thought about before. I was given a brief that went something like "Create a fifteen minute set related to physics or CERN for an audience of people who are mostly non-scientists, who do not speak English as a first language." That brief was simultaneously constraining and liberating. There was a huge scope for creativity in terms of content, style, behaviour, and delivery. At the same time having to craft each joke to fit in with the thematic and language constraints stretched my vocabulary. For example, I couldn't say "vial of poison" when discussing Schrödinger's cat, it had to be a "bottle of poison", and I couldn't use the word "mantlepiece" at all. None of my jokes could rely on speaking quickly or using British idioms. Even referring to simple scientific concepts reqired explanations. Perhaps the most difficult part was seeing the act from the point of view of the audience, and realising that their collective sense of humour was not the same as mine. They didn't know where the jokes were heading, and I did, so I would have to lead them very deliberately from one joke to another, including a few callbacks.

One of the organisers took this photo in rehearsal. It looks as though I'm talking about something dynamic and insightful instead of joking about cats.

All these challenges exercised skills I hadn't really used before and the experience was exhilerating. To realise you can take on something so alien and succeed is a huge achievement. Even better, it improved my general communication and public speaking skills, which is very marketable when looking for new jobs. It was an opportunity to step outside of the world academia and research, which values thoroughness, discourse and precision, to stand up comedy, which values storytelling, empathy, and a certain amount of ambiguity. In an act it's not acceptable to stumble or be corrected, whereas in an academic discussion if nobody questions what you say then you are either irrelevant or not communicating clearly enough. In addition to that the presentation of the message matters almost as much as the message itself, which is the complete antithesis of academic discourse. (One of my friends told me that with the correct timing and delivery the audience will laugh no matter what you say, which is true to an extent.)

My friends came out in force and after the event they started the after party.

Once the show was over I was of course very happy with what I had done, but I wasn't sure what would come of it. It turns out that I didn't merely perform a set, I met many new people who would encourage me to explore comedy further. In my next trip to the UK I made a point to visit the Edinburgh Festival with one of the event talents, Chella. Next week I intend to meet some more talent, Helen, for another project that could open up a few more exciting projects. In between I've met with all the organisers of the event and it's helped to change the way I think about how we communicate with the public, and the importance of getting the message right. Whatever the next decades bring this experience will help to shape the way I approach my work and add some new edge to my communication skills which should serve my career well. Being challenged is good, being creative is good, novelty is good, and getting outside one's comfort zone is great. If it's possible to entertain people along the way then all the better.

We all take to the stage for a final bow.

You can view the event in its entirety with the following link. My set starts around 30:00. Webcast archive of Comedy Collider 2014

(All photos © CERN:, or @AlexBrovvn.)

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