Science: Clowning, Comedy, Cabaret

1.1   Description


A major problem with science in the public realm: It comes off too dry, long-winded – it plainly turns people off. The wonders of science, methods, results, perspectives are neither being understood nor appreciated. Even worse: The public money which is being spent on the funding of research finds no way of being assessed by the citizens and taxpayers.

Not that we have a lack of popular science. Since the 1980’s media has made giant steps to make science comprehensible and visible. Beginning with journalism, there was a hype of popular science media, meanwhile, scientists and communicators have learned to present research less nerdy, more at ease and entertaining.

However, we have observed in the past couple of years that the presentation of science is taking a new tack, namely to apply wit, fun, make people laugh. This is important because humans learn much better in joyful environments. They also ignite creativity.

This is what we dwell on in this format. But who says that a science cabaret is just about comedy? If we measure it with the standards of political cabaret it should also apply satire and parody. After all, science, research and technology are conducted by men and women, who commit mistakes, are driven by egos, exert a lot of power which at times is very poorly controlled by the checks and balances in a democratic society.

What’s valid for politicians must also be valid for scientists: They also work by, for and with the people. So jokes about their performance may be allowed and thus become a vehicle of discourse and democratic exchange.

So here it comes, a broad-based roll-out of clowning, comedy, cabaret—with a spice of satire.

 

1.2   Objective


This instrument is made to become part of the toolkit of interactive and participative platforms and moderation techniques. In this box, it joins science slams which have been around for a decade or so. They are entertaining, make people laugh, however, their focus is rather narrow: talk shop or better lab in a loose-type of the atmosphere. Thus, science slams very little to reach societal mainstream. They remain too close to science and miss to reach a critical distance, not to speak about a critical mass. So, the main objective of the introduced method is to enhance this very well established and successful format of science communication and conquer new audiences, add more spice and flavour. Clowning, Comedy, Cabaret in very simple terms boils down to exchanges between a serious white clown and a silly red clown who asks dumb questions.

 

1.3   Structure


General Structure: Single Event

It’s mostly a single event, what we propose here, which means a one-shot evening performance, on stage, on-campus or in a theatre, even out in the open in the public sphere such as on a market square. The bandwidth is considerable: from a series of sketches of just a few minutes to a full-blown 90 minutes play. And, of course, nothing stands against to make a series out of this, with training sessions, hands-on workshops, talent shows and the whole works.

 

1.4   Duration



Main Event Duration: A few hours / Full day / Several days or more

Let’s opt to begin with a Main Event Duration: With moderation between 90 minutes and 120 minutes, if necessary longer – let’s be flexible.

If we want to train students and researchers and get them ready for a public performance it might take days of preparation, depending on time availability, perhaps even weeks. With lay actors, impro performers, talented folks we’ll progress much faster, within several days, but with less teaching effect in the scientific community. However, a demonstration might get it aroused and started.

2.1    Staff & Volunteers


Requires volunteer recruitment / Core organising team only

Staff and volunteers are nice to have, however are not urgently needed for a specific event. Try to pull it off with your own means—which means: less overhead and administrative costs!
A humour session can be organised by a few persons, whether they are volunteers or a team. However, you need to fall back on participants who pitch in with funny ideas and sketches. You may rely as science slams do on talented students and academicians and you must recruit them, personally or by social media. Where do you find stuff for comedy, narratives, jokes? Everywhere, just open your eyes. For example, nobody would assume that the “Deutsches Museum”/Munich is funny, the world’s largest museum of natural sciences and technology, founded in 1903 when Germany was ruled by kings and emperors. Architecture-wise it’s a rather intimidating place. But you’re in for surprises. When you enter the astronomy department, for example, you find the history of the detection of the first neutron star. The scientists demonstrated humour and baptized it LGM-1, Little Green Man. What followed is black humour. Not the woman who detected the star received the Nobel prize, but her professor. Science is full of gender satire. Just one example, if you want to vary the subject, read Einstein. His writings are full of humour and also self-irony, the essential ingredients of funny stuff. He is an inspiring training ground.

 

2.2    Venue Hire


Venue: Indoors, also outdoors (i.e. like ESOF Science in the City)
Capacity: >10 (seminars), <1000 (conferences)

Sessions may be hosted indoors and outdoors. Humour sessions will energize and loosen up seminars as well as conferences. They break up rigid communication architectures which especially in non-Anglo countries are still very common and which limit the intellectual gains of participants – according to the iron rule: Relaxed atmosphere and jokes make you learn and remember better.

 

2.3    Partner Institutions


Partner Institutions: Not required, but they do help

A humour session, as stated, may be part of a major conference or symposium, but it can also be run independently and serve smaller events. Since humour is difficult to begin with, even more difficult in science, research and technology environments, where it has not much of a tradition, organizers might want to team up with partners and coaches. Right off hand, two can be recommended. Vince Ebert, one of the inventors of science cabaret in Germany with highly successful shows, also in English. And the Spanish group Big Van, an ensemble of some 20 scientists, who regularly rock events and audiences of various kinds around the world. They are regular guests at the PCST conferences, also cooperate with UNESCO in an attempt to introduce humour to schools and to the STEM subjects.

 

2.4    Budget


Yearly / Project Budget: 2000 – 8000€


Budget and costs depend on the size and context of the session, whether it’s part of a conference or stand-alone activities, whether organizers draw up an own concept or receive coaching by professionals in the field. Money must be raised with educational institutions, research bodies, foundations with a suitable profile. The target for fundraising efforts should be organizers of conferences in the realm of science, research, technology. A science cabaret certainly would be welcomed as an attractive addition to the program. Eckart von Hirschhausen, the German medical doctor and inventor of the “Medical Cabaret”, was at DGPPN 2016 (German Psychiatry Congress) one of the main attractors.

Budget Point Details Event Cost
Personnel Fees Voluntary work is for free, but professional coaching & training needs to be invoiced 1500-2000€
Venue Hire This could be part of a major conference with scientists or journalists or run independently 0–2000€
Marketing Design / printing of posters or buying advertising space in local papers / on social media 500–2000€
Materials

  • The venue should be able to cover any basic needs (chairs, tables, etc.)
  • Researchers can provide other materials, e.g. lab equipment needed for experiments

0–1000€
Other
    Refreshments, if not provided through venue, could add an extra cost per event
0–1000€
Total 2000–8000€

3.1   Target Audience


Target Audience: Preschool (0–4) / Primary School (5–11) / Secondary School (12–17) / Youths (18–25) / Younger Adults (26–45) / Older Adults (46–64) / Pensioners (65+)

A professional group of science journalists, communicators or scientists. It may be a mixture of professional and lay people in the audience. The general public could also be the target. From preschool to retirement folks.
 

3.2   Marketing

Marketing is customary for every event. Collaboration with partner institutions provide synergy effects and attract diverse audiences. Humour in science and research, from comedy to satire, are a novelty and well-advertised and marketed can draw sizeable crowds, especially of people who do not usually attend these type of events.

 

3.3   Dialogic Strategy

First of all, this format does not have barriers. There are no regular experts in the traditional sense. We have performers and audience, with very little division between both. Like in poetry or science slams and impro theatre, everyone can participate, get up and experiment with his or her jokes or funny approaches to science. At least during the breaks. Overall it’s advisable to have a skeleton of some sizeable major plays. Let’s take as an example the white and the red clown, the distinguished and the silly clown. The presumably silly one asks questions as citizens would ask: How does such and such machine or invention work, who is paying for it, what are possible hazards, what’s the general use of it for the society. The white clown, also the way he is dressed, represents the educated, the academic elite. In his particular language, he answers, but in very abstract terms, always interrupted by his counterpart, who pushes for concrete, hands-on answers. So these two figures represent academia and mainstream society, involved in a wrestle to understand each other, make science accountable to citizens, but make them also understand difficult scientific issues and how to tackle them with the means of science. It boils down to a mirror of society, a give and takes, bridging the gaps between two distinct groups and on the way detecting a lot of bias and misunderstandings on both sides. To sum it up, this new format playfully enacts the barriers and experimentally as much as humorously searches for holes. Yes, the Berlin Wall would be a nice historic symbol for the division as well as the driving forces to overcome and unite. To round it up, at the end of these sessions a debate between the real academic experts and citizens could follow to assess the reality behind the performances. This could be kicked off by a panel with the later inclusion of the audience. And if time and creativity allow, the results could be presented afterwards in short sketches, pantomimes, cartoons, similar to visual storytelling or graphic recording, only a bit delayed. It’s all about the arts, which science traditionally is a part of.

4.1   Project Timeline

Time Activity
Months in advance
  • Venue hire and provisional setting of dates for the events
  • Contacting participants to confirm their availability
  • Firming up of Storyboard and Scripts
  • Rehearsals and Coaching
  • Poster design and Press release writing
Weeks in advance
  • Marketing: poster distribution, Facebook event and other social media
  • Finetuning of presentations
  • Last Rehearsals
  • Check List
On the day
  • Prepare audio equipment
  • Rundown of things to come

 

4.2   Single Event Structure

Time Activity
0-15 mins
  • Welcome-Introduction-Warmup
15-75 mins
  • Presentations
75 – 120 mins
  • Moderated Q&A, Panel, Debate – Refreshments & Socializing, Open End

 

4.3   Personnel roles

Person Activity
Core Team
  • Arrive at venue three hours in advance to set up equipment, arrange requisites, costumest
Active Participants, Actors, Moderator
  • Final briefing and general check one hour in advance

 

4.4   Materials


If push comes to shove, the whole show could be enacted “raw”, which means minimalistic, with just a red nose and perhaps some makeup. With requisites and costumes, it becomes more authentic.

 

4.5   Other Logistics


None at this point of outline and projection

As indicated above, humour addresses a whole spectrum of emotions, which is one of the reasons why many people go about humour so cautiously. And this is exactly the reason why science tries to avoid it because it’s not being accepted as a serious contributor to scientific truth. However, as we demonstrate emotions and arts are a powerful tool to communicate science. This has been fully recognized by the renown German Academy of Science and Technology acatech. With the beginning of the Easter season, the end of carnival and beginning of Christian Fastening, it’s traditional in Munich that comedians make jokes about politicians (“derblecken” in Bavarian German). Acaech had a public session in which a stand-up comedian and organizer of Bavarian science slams ridiculed the communication of the organization as too nerdy and very difficult to comprehend for common citizens and laypeople.
All in all, this is, if we want to, a “Copernican Turnaround” in science. Not only in terms of depicting the societal dimension of science and its perception. Humour has healing power. The German medical doctor Eckart von Hirschhausen invented the “Medical Cabaret”. Being funny helps patients to overcome sickness. Doctors as clowns disguised – only a red nose does it – helps children to improve their health and increase their resistance. So humour is therapeutic, not only physically, but also mentally. Depression, anxiety, burnout have become one of the major civilization diseases and a quiet killer. Why not apply humour as a doctor. If we enact on stage or as a role play anxiety, for example between a white clown and a red clown, or between a buffoon and the devil this could release a lot of tension and stress. Let’s not forget that kings in medieval times employed jesters who made fun of them. As a mirror to the king to correct his own behaviour – and as a sort of public security valve and prevention that subjects remained docile and did not turn into dangerous rebels. So this important aspect could add to creativity and performances in this field.

Regular evaluation of these events should be customary. This could be part of discussions and debates with the audience after a performance, by measuring the applause as known from science slams, by having a jury (in poetry slams), by circulating paper sheets or electronic means. Evaluation must be a standard procedure to assess progress of this new format, also in terms of sharpening the profile of this newcomer.

Vince Ebert: https://www.vince-ebert.de/keynote-speaker/
Big Van: http://www.bigvanciencia.com/
German National Academy of Science and Engineering acatech and its Carnival Event (in Bavarian)
https://www.acatech.de/allgemein/acatech-am-diensdog-sauba-derbleckt/
https://www.teli.de/lachen-ueber-wissenschaft-wird-zum-programm/

Anxiety Clowns and Buffoons: http://netzwerk-gemeinsinn.org/der-angst-kasper/

A book published with Springer will be on the market in 2019 on Humour in Science, author of this template is the co-editor.

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Cite this Activity


Goede, W., & Styles, C. (2021, January 07). Science: Clowning, Comedy, Cabaret. Retrieved from https://steamexperiments.com/activity/come-on-lets-add-some-humour-to-science-clowning-comedy-cabaret-with-a-spice-of-satire/

First published: January 7, 2021
Last modified: January 7, 2021