Can scientists communicate better with comedy? | Opinion

An astrobiologist, two comedians and a desire to communicate science to the public walked into a bar…actually they met for dinner. And the result? A sell-out Sydney Comedy Festival bringing together academics and comedians to rapturous audiences.

The steam room concept was created by Luke Stellar, a PhD student at the Australian Center for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) and co-founder of the communications and creative collective Praxical.

Stellar was inspired to create the steam room while watching friends working in comedy. “I saw them as brilliant communicators on stage and within seconds [they could] engage an audience and get them hooked, interested and wanting to know more,” he says. “And I thought, why can’t scientists be that engaging? Why can’t scientists have fun on stage?’

A beautiful monster of an event

Stellar won a grant from National Science Week to help realize its comedic vision, but lockdowns and Covid-19 restrictions meant the project took a little longer to launch than originally planned.

The first time [our scientists] once attempted comedy was in front of 500 people

Luke Stellar, co-founder of Praxical

The hiatus allowed Stellar space and time to share his idea over dinner with friends Ru Halwala and Tom Stevenson, who had just formed their production and performance duo Scary Strangers.

“It just seemed like the perfect moment where we said, ‘Why don’t we all work together and see if this thing can happen?’ … and it turned into this beautiful monster of an event,” Halwala explains.

Instead of programming the event as part of National Science Week as planned, the steam room was launched as part of the Sydney Comedy Festival. Stellar explains that this was a deliberate decision to try to find a new audience outside the “scientific echo chamber”.

Seven scientists and six comedians performed in the first-ever steam room hosted by Halwala and Stevenson. Short skits performed by the scientists were interspersed with comedians and a special guest performance by science communicator “Dr. Karl” Kruzelnicki. “When we said it was the first time our scientists were taking the stage, it was true,” says Stellar. “The first time they tried comedy was in front of 500 people.”

The first thing that struck me about working with scientists was their humility

Tom Stevenson, comedian and performer

However, the scientists were very well prepared. “We hosted three two-hour improv workshops in our studio to start with, and then we all met at UNSW and did a day-long workshop with a stand-up comedian,” Halwala says. “Then we had weekly rehearsals leading up to the show itself, where we really practiced the material … and also gave them tips in between and things they could do at home.”

For Halwala and Stevenson, the collaboration was their first time working with scientists, and they really enjoyed it.

“The first thing that struck me about working with scientists was their humility,” Stevenson says. “They were so trusting and willing to just do what we asked them to do, and a lot of it was really out of their comfort zone.”

Falling carelessly

Samantha Young was one of the scientists who took part in the show after successfully applying through a Facebook ad. Although he was comfortable on stage in a variety of roles, Young was new to comedy. “It was very scary,” she says. “We’re really lucky that Luke organizes the workshops… I don’t think I could have done it without them.”

Young’s doctorate was in reproductive biology and genetics, and she found her former counselor’s words playing in her mind before the event. “I think he was quoting someone else, though I don’t remember who, [when he said]: ‘Scientists defy physics by rising with gravity and falling with ease,’ so he always encouraged me to be more serious in order to be taken more seriously,” she shares. “That’s always been a fear ever since, because that’s really the state of science … the more serious you are, the more seriously you’re taken.”

It was important for Stellar to be part of the show, as well as produce it, to show his colleagues that he was ready to take the plunge, while gaining an understanding of the format and developing his own science communication skills. There is one particular aspect to it that demonstrates why the steam room is such a hit.

“You have to work with artists and comedians in this space,” he says. In his view, other science-comedy events are largely organized by scientists for friends who “like their particular kind of science humor.” “I think you have to diversify and look outside of your field and really value artists and comedians as experts in that space.”

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