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Laughing matter: Brian Malow's science comedy

Speed read
  • Brian Malow has performed for the NSF — and a bunch of other acronyms.
  • Science comedy does not require safety goggles.
  • Comedy echoes one of Newton’s fundamental laws of motion.
  • The chicken crossed the road to escape Colonel Sanders.

Like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Malow is one of the new breed of science communicators demonstrating science and comedy are not such strange bedfellows as you might think. A veteran stand-up comic, Malow's work has appeared in TimeThe Weather Channel, and Scientific American. We sat down with the wise guy recently (well, virtually anyway) to ask him what's so funny about science.

Science and comedy: An unlikely combination or the unlikeliest?

Oh, on the contrary — I think it’s a perfect and inevitable combination! Like peanut butter and jelly. Or, cookies and milk. Lennon and McCartney. Starsky and Hutch. I could go on.

Isaac Asimov once said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not, ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny.’” I’ve always liked that quotation because it highlights that science is a process — and that it begins with observation. It begins by noticing some odd or ‘funny’ little thing and then probing deeper to possibly reveal more.  It’s detective work. 

Northern exposure. Some of Malow's best from the IFLS festival at the Ontario Science Center in Toronto. All videos courtesy Brian Malow.

I feel like my comedic 'discoveries' are analogous to scientific discoveries. Comedians strive for originality and freshness, in the same way that scientific scholarship must be new and original. We start with what was done before and we try to expand the boundaries.  We stand on the shoulders of giants, as Isaac Newton said.

Science is simply the methodical process of trying to understand the universe that we find ourselves in — and, in our own way, that’s what comedians are doing: Illuminating the human condition, which is why I like to think of comedians as stand-up philosophers.  

So how did you end up as a science comedian?

It was a quite natural evolution, not a calculated decision. I liked science first, since childhood.  So, when I became a comic, it wasn’t surprising that my love of science would permeate my act.  So, even if you’d seen me early in my career, you could’ve figured out that I was into science.

I realized I needed to find the complementary audience to my act:  the adenine to my thymine, the guanine to my cytosine, if you will.  I started defining myself as the science comedian which led to other science communication ventures — science videos for Time, audio essays for Neil deGrasse Tyson’s radio show, programs on The Weather Channel,  blogging for Scientific American.  And I have spent a lot of time helping scientists communicate more effectively to the public.

So it’s been a long, strange trip for someone who set out to be a comedian.

But aren’t scientists serious people?

Sure, scientists can be serious.  But, on the whole, I believe scientists — more than any other single group — tend to maintain their passion and child-like wonder with the world. They’ve dedicated not just their careers, but also their lives to trying to understand why the sky is blue or how butterflies can migrate 2500 miles and return to the same location that a previous generation left from. 

They’re serious about their work — but they’re pursuing their passion. In my experience, they love what they do and this translates into being fun people and enjoying life.

The force is strong in this one. Brian observes how science is misused in movies.

How does your comedy dovetail with the NSF mission of broadening the reach of science?

I share that same mission with the National Science Foundation — but I didn’t set out with such noble aspirations. I didn’t become a science comedian for the benefit of humanity. I am simply following my own bliss, as Joseph Campbell recommended. 

Perhaps my favorite thing to do is to interview scientists and serve as a bridge between them and the general public. I get to satisfy my own curiosity — and bring other people along on the journey toward understanding.  

The universe is amazing, and there’s something in me that really wants people to appreciate that.  I love to surprise and delight audiences by revealing the wonders of the world — on the scales of microbes and insects or clusters of galaxies.  And if I can do it in such a way that they learn something new and are also amused, then I’m happy.  

You have contributed to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Star Talk Radio and spent some time with him (and are one of the few people he follows on Twitter).  What’s he like in real life?

Birds of a feather. It's scientifically proven that Neil deGrasse Tyson is a rock star. Brian Malow is one of the few people Tyson follows on Twiter. You do the math.

It’s hard to think of something to say about Neil that you don’t already know. But here’s something I noticed: He likes to challenge people. Not in a bad way, but like a great teacher. When someone asks him a question, sometimes — instead of directly answering their question — he likes to lead them to reason through it.  Make them work it out for themselves, by prodding them with questions. He likes to challenge people’s assumptions. If a question is based on a false assumption, he homes right in on that assumption, so that you have to re-think your question.  

A Malow Sampler

  • The Higgs Boson walks into a church. The priest says, “We don’t allow your kind here.” The Higgs Boson says, “But without me how can you have mass?”
  • Women have passed through my life like exotic particles through a cloud chamber, leaving only vapor trails for me to study for clues to their nature.
  • I saw a movie with my friend Chuck. I don't like seeing movies with him because he always has to sit in the front row. Because he thinks he gets to see the movie before anybody else.
  • My ex-girlfriend was a lot shorter than me. In fact, the first time I saw her, I thought she was farther away than she actually was.
  • I noticed a long time ago whenever my mother would lose weight, my father would gain weight. And when my dad lost weight, my mom gained weight. It was like the conservation of mass — within our family. I had a theory that you never actually lose weight — you just give it to someone else. Fat can be neither created nor destroyed. It's one of the basic laws of the universe.
  • I had a frightening experience this afternoon. I was sitting in a cafe and I noticed — in the display case behind me - someone had put pasta and anti-pasta right next to each other! (Are they out of their Vulcan minds??!!)

I like that because I believe we learn better if we figure out something for ourselves rather than being spoon-fed answers.

I also can’t help but love the guy because he’s been a great supporter of mine. Tweeting about me. Quoting my jokes on stage. And I know he supports other interesting comedians and artists — in much the same way that Carl Sagan had helped him early in his career. I think he likes paying that forward. 

And he’s a fine successor to Sagan — once again, standing on the shoulders of giants — continuing to bring science, in general — and especially astrophysics — to the masses.  Using stories and passion and enthusiasm — and even humor.  What’s not to like?

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