“Part of my job is that I have to explain the difference of fact versus myth for the general public,” announced comedienne Kasha Patel at the November Science on Tap New River Valley.
“For instance,” she continued, “fact: the fingerprints of a koala are indistinguishable from humans. Myth, koalas have created a lot of crime for New York City.”
Patel brought a night of laughter to the Science on Tap community. Are you looking up “koala fingerprints” right now? That’s something she hopes her Fact vs. Myth jokes do: spark curiosity.
A science communicator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Patel started doing stand-up comedy eight years ago when she was a graduate student in the science journalism program at Boston University. Her science comedy venture did not fully kick off until she moved to Washington, D.C., after graduate school and performed at a local comedy show hosted by the D.C. Science Writers Association.
What does science communication have to do with comedy? Patel finds many parallels.
“Science communication is explaining a difficult concept and making it easier to understand,” she explained. “Comedy is taking a difficult concept and making someone laugh about it, and in order for them to laugh about it, you have to make sure they understand it.”
Patel cited recent research on the role of comedy in science communication and told the audience about George Mason University faculty member John Cook, whose “Cranky Uncle vs. Climate Change” book and game combine Cook’s cartooning skills with his Ph.D. in the cognitive psychology of misinformation. Another paper she mentioned examines the role of co-creating comedy in student commitment to climate communication.
Patel applies her own science background—she has an undergraduate degree in chemistry—to her comedy. She uses an extensive spreadsheet to analyze her jokes and shows.
“I analyzed about 500 of my jokes,” she told the Science on Tap audience. “I categorized them as science jokes versus non-science jokes, and I wanted to know which ones performed better.”
Her analysis showed that science jokes received more laughter, even though only about a quarter of her jokes were actually science jokes.
When asked to identify the best part of doing stand-up comedy, Patel responded, “I am able to stand out in a line-up of comedians.”
One of the challenges of being a science comedian is making the material work for both science and non-science people.
“I’ve often thought that some of my science jokes aren’t science-y enough,” she said.
Patel has several suggestions for people who want to start science writing or stand-up comedy. She recommends being concise (or you’ll lose your audience’s interest), focusing on word choice (especially vocabulary and word flow), and thinking creatively (use metaphors and different perspectives).
She also emphasizes the need to practice. For those wanting to pursue comedy, the more time you have performing on a stage, the more likely you are to become a better comedian. Similarly, communicating effectively about your research requires dedication and practice.
When Patel is not performing comedy, she is working at her day job as a science writer and video producer for NASA Earth Observatory. She also produces YouTube videos and science podcasts. Check out Kasha’s podcast, Science Comedy Paradox, and her YouTube Channel, Kashablanca. She also has a TEDx talk titled “Sneaking Comedy into Science.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kashablanca.
The next Science on Tap event will be at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, February 25, and will feature Bennett Grooms from Virginia Tech’s Department of Wildlife and Conservation. Grooms will talk about the role of human behavior in wildlife conservation in his presentation titled “A New Age of Conservation: Helping Wildlife by Understanding People.” Register here.
Science on Tap takes place on the fourth Thursday of each month.
By Susan Chen, graduate student member of the Center for Communicating Science advisory board