When I tell people that I research ancient Persia, they sometimes tell me that it sounds like a bit of a joke. It’s a joke, they say, that I spend my life reading ‘stories’ about ancient kings. It’s a joke that I don’t have a ‘real’ job. Well, my subject might be a joke – but is it funny? That’s the challenge that Bright Club sets young researchers: to present their subjects in an informal, and hopefully funny, manner to a general audience.
Here’s my attempt to find an engaging and entertaining way of presenting some of the ideas from my PhD.
I’ve been involved in lots of different Outreach events, but the evening was certainly one of the most enjoyable. Outreach events are usually all about making research accessible. Bright Club does that, but it does a lot more besides: suddenly, academics are given the chance to be entertaining in a totally different way. Rather than making people think, ‘oh that sounds interesting’, Bright Club offers you the chance to make your subject area sound interesting and fun.
Kent Valentine and Jonny Berliner, both professional comedians, set the tone for the night – Kent compered the evening with traditional stand-up, and Jonny closed out each half with witty songs about science. I was fortunate enough to follow Kent’s opening to the second half and, after a brilliant tale about taking a pram on the tube, the audience were pretty much still laughing when I took the stage. That made my opening lines much easier and made relaxing on stage more simple than is often the case!
Joining Kent and Jonny were five of the universities funniest researchers. And me. With predictable jokes like that you can see why writing a set was a struggle – after all, how do you write a comedy set about an academic topic you know incredibly well, but very few other people have heard of?
Writing a Joke
Funny jokes require knowledge on the part of the audience – I could have written the funniest joke about Cyrus the Great (or at least tried to – comment with your suggestions) but, if the audience had never heard of him, the joke wouldn’t have worked. I tried, therefore, to find amusing parallels with accessible imagery – ancient kings with testosterone-charged teenage boys, for example.
Writing a Set
This method soon gave me a handful of jokes – the next problem was putting them together in the right order. Moreover, although Bright Club is about putting on an entertaining evening, it also has an academic slant and I wanted people to learn a little about my research. I was adamant, therefore, that I would include more detail than a cursory explanation of the time period would allow.
But you can’t just delve in to talking about the reliefs of Darius and the rest of the Achaemenid crew without a little bit of context. I felt this even more strongly since the evening was ‘Quantum’ themed and I half-expected the audience to be dominated by people with an interest in science rather than history. On reflection, I realise that I didn’t give any specific information about the time period in question, nor even the names of the kings who ruled the Persian Empire, but, before talking about reliefs, I did attempt to contextualise the evidence that we have for ancient Persia. In doing so, I hoped to convey a flavour of the difficulty that we experience in trying to piece together events and attitudes from the period. I was trying to make people think – and then laugh.
To bring some cohesion to the set, I set-up an imaginary conversation with a woman in a bar. My hope was that by placing questions in her mouth, I could address some of the issues forming in the minds of my audience without simply taking on the mantle of the lecturer. This strategy also allowed me to bring in some more general material that I’d performed before and was fairly confident would prove entertaining. The downside of this was that the final joke doesn’t really fit within the set – one of the general rules of stand-up is to end with your best joke and I wanted to end with a laugh. However, I hadn’t expected my explanation of the structure of the set to be quite so well-received and the set-up of the final joke killed that momentum; I should probably have stopped on the penultimate point. All in all though, I think the conversation gave the set a sense of purpose and direction.
What should you do now?
Get involved! If you’re in Cambridge, Andy Holding runs frequent training sessions, which are a great way to get to know a little bit more about Bright Club and give you some ideas about writing jokes. Keep your eyes on the Bright Club website or twitter for details. Or, if you fancy an interesting and funny evening learning a little bit about some of the research that’s going on in the university, get yourself along to a gig. Equally, podcasts from past events are available here (hopefully you’ll find an interview with me on there soon as part of the Quantum podcast).
If you’re not in Cambridge, see if your university runs something similar. If not, why not set it up?