'Why did the scientist cross the road?' - Scientist turns comedian for the night

24 January 2011

UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience postdoctoral research associate Dr Zarinah Agnew shares her experience doing comedy stand-up at this month’s brain-themed Bright Club.

“‘How on earth did I end up here?’ This thought kept thundering through my veins as I stood on the stage of a Clerkenwell pub, in front of a sea of expectant faces, eager for me to make them laugh.

“A few weeks earlier, I had been asked to take part in Bright Club, a cabaret night involving comedy with a science twist, and having had three glasses of wine, I thought, why not? Both other members of my lab had already taken part, and I couldn’t justify avoiding it, especially as the theme for this night was ‘Brains’.

“I knew that it was well out of my comfort zone and my initial action plan was to avoid thinking about it at all. When I told my friends and family about it, they got very enthusiastic and brain-flavoured jokes started pouring in. However I knew that if I was to do a comedy routine, there was no way that I’d be comfortable just getting up there and reeling off one-liners. I wanted to make sure there was some science in there. After all, if they had just wanted comedy, they would have got a professional comedian in!

Zarinah Agnew

“Bright Club, the extremely successful and popular brainchild of Steve Cross, Head of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit, is a themed cabaret night. The evening is compered by a professional comic and includes a few musical acts and a number of UCL academics from a range of departments, talking on a subjects in a comedy stand-up style. The idea is to combine science with entertainment, and the result is something really amazing, both for the audience and for the performers.

“With about three weeks to go, I started to think about what I was actually going to say. It took quite a lot of effort to do this without feeling a sense of panic. But I decided on my subject area, and started scribbling notes. By the time I had finished my writing, I realised that there were no jokes in it at all. The material I had was interesting all right, but definitely not funny. However, my material evolved significantly over a matter of days and eventually I felt that it was going to be OK. Three days before my performance, I was still writing new things and making props!

“I had eight minutes to fill, so I tried to think of a subject area that people could understand without too much background. I decided to focus my script around functional neuroanatomy and I used a prop to stop the facts from becoming too dry. I converted a trilby hat into a ‘tril-brain’ so that halfway through the performance I could remove the top section of the hat and reveal a red plastic brain, which I could then use to describe the anatomy more clearly. I made a few jokes about being a scientist, and then described somatotopic representations in primary motor and somatosensory cortex, with a few jokes scattered throughout the skit.

Zarinah Agnew

“Strangely, I found that practising in front of other people was not very helpful – not having had comedy experience, they were not very constructive and often made me feel worse. The most helpful thing I did was to practise in front of someone who has already done Bright Club, as they know what to expect.

“On the day of the performance, we had rehearsals and soundchecks from midday, which really helped me get to know the people I was performing with, and there was a growing sense of shared excitement and nerves.

“The actual event was great. The hardest thing was worrying that I was going to forget what to say, but just like the first few times speaking at a seminar, once you get going, you are on a roll and there’s no looking back. The feeling I got though was completely different from any kind of academic meeting.

“The audience are incredible and it’s an amazing feeling to know that you have made people laugh at the same time as communicating some interesting facts. It’s an unbeatable experience. It’s boosted my confidence and made me think about how to communicate science to the public in novel ways (in addition to having gained new found respect from my boyfriend). I had some great feedback from members of the audience afterwards and I highly recommend giving this a go. It’s not often enough that we are forced out of our comfort zone.”

Photos: Hillary Jackson

Media Contact: Alison Brindle


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