Climate Comedy

21 Sep 2018

So as well as being an environmental economist and UKERC researcher, I am also a stand-up comedian. This year I performed my new comedy show ‘Climate Strange’ at the Edinburgh Fringe. It is the second show about climate change in as many years that I have taken to the festival (last year’s was called Filibuster). ‘Climate Strange’ is my fourth hour-long comedy show and this year marked my ninth consecutive year of performing at the Fringe. Essentially I have spent the last decade learning how to become a competent comedian and I am now combining that skill with my research and interest in environmental issues, in particular climate change, in order to engage with the wider public in a way that really hasn’t been done before.

Originally I had no intention of getting into the world of science communication. I was using comedy as a hobby… an escape that enabled me to forget about the stresses involved with being an academic working on environmental topics. In 2017 I realised I had a skill which could be put to good use and embarked on exploring whether I could make the stuff we talk about on a day to day basis funny to someone who knows nothing about it.

So what have I learned?

Firstly, I think comedy has a lot to offer when engaging the public on such a heavy and serious subject as climate change. Other art forms – such as writing a dark play about the future – it can make the audience feel laden with fear and guilt. However, with comedy you can be entertaining, light-hearted and funny about a subject that people normally associate with negative emotions. By changing the emotional context, you can help open people up to new ideas and ways of thinking. Plus it is much easier to learn if you are enjoying yourself rather than being lectured at!

Secondly, it’s really hard! That should not be underestimated. Good public engagement is extremely difficult to pull off well, as doing it badly may well put members of the public off the topic forever.  It requires skill, time and dedication to make something that stands by itself and isn’t simply regarded as being “good for academic public engagement”, but funny enough to compete against hundreds of other quality shows. It’s tough to get the balance right between information and jokes – I make sure it’s funny first and informative second.  I also have to make sure that is doesn’t alienate those with no prior knowledge of the subject.

Putting a show together takes around 6 months, encompassing the majority of my spare time. Weekends in May, June and July are spent writing and performing preview shows around the country. Don’t ask me for work deadlines in July. I often don’t see my partner for weeks on end, and I spend far too much of our income on doing these shows. Then there’s the worry that it’s not going to be good enough. It’s costly in both financial and emotional terms.

The audience

The feedback I have received has been very encouraging. The best is when someone who had no real interest or knowledge on the subject says they were surprised at how funny they found it AND they enjoyed learning something new. It makes it all worth it. Often the most challenging audience members can be those who work in the environmental sector, they often focus on the technicality of the show – nodding & pointing at graphs rather than laughing at the jokes! So it’s good to have a mix of audience members.

A number of colleagues have also seen the shows, I like how they appreciate it on another level, knowing how difficult it can be to make this stuff engaging let alone funny.

The challenge

Regardless of how difficult it can be, it is important that scientists all begin to engage with public groups in various ways. Often as an academic it can be frustrating when we don’t see change happening in the world fast enough – it can seem like we’re all sitting around presenting work to each other in a bubble. It’s important to break that cycle from time to time – if you have a talent, be brave and challenge yourself. Use it to tell people about your work or other people’s work that you admire. Make things which connect with people emotionally, or start learning a new talent. You never know it may take you to places you never thought you’d go, to do doing things you never thought you’d do.

And finally, no, there are no jokes in this blog, you’ll have to come to a show soon to hear them…

Dr Matthew Winning is a Research Associate at UCL and leads the UKERC Energy and economy project which forms part of the Resources and Vectors theme.