What a brilliant idea …:
Academics from physicists to experts on Scandinavian culture are crafting stand-up comedy routines based on their work. But this is no joke. Matthew Reisz finds that a crowd’s laughter is not the only payoff
Here’s an idea of the content:
The nominal theme, tying in with a major exhibition, Power of Making, is “craft”, though the audience could not possibly have guessed it. Performers explore Tory drinking rituals and the “extreme decollete fashions” of the 17th century; pubic hair loss during the menopause; the importance of anti-Catholic fart humour in the early development of printing; the difficulties of translating Danish jokes into English; and the history of racist comedy (the speaker warns the audience in advance that “because this is a national institution, I’m not allowed to tell you the punchlines”).
A PhD student offers a glimpse of his lonely life: “Today is Tuesday, the day after University Challenge, when I get a chance to spend some quality time with Jeremy Paxman.” There is also a song about dinosaurs in Westminster and a polka-dotted cabaret duo, not to mention the occasional groan-worthy one-liner (“Anyone seen Ralph Fiennes in The Tempest? It’s going down a storm”).
And here’s the rationale:
As head of public engagement at UCL, Cross created his academic comedy nights in response to a specific challenge: to find a way of engaging with people in “the great demographic gap” between the ages of 20 and 40. “Universities have been very good at schools outreach and at getting academics on to Radio 4,” he explains, “but we haven’t been so good at reaching the market in between.” Many museums and cultural institutions face a similar problem.
So how could they get “an audience to turn up and listen to members of the university sharing their research, teaching and knowledge in a meaningful, interactive way, face to face and not through a facilitator”? Cross and his team talked to people who ran theatre, music and comedy nights. “We wanted something with content that would attract an audience beyond those already working and studying in universities. The thing we came up with was stand-up comedy – because of the rise of intelligent comedy, because researchers can learn to perform to a good standard relatively quickly, and because you can make anything funny.”