Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mixing science and comedy sounds like mixing oil and water: almost impossible. As it turns out, science — in the right element — can be pretty funny.

“I used to be an astronomer, but I got stuck on the day shift,” quips fast-talking science comedian Brian Malow during a recent stand-up performance at the Marian Koshland Science Museum in Northwest.

The full-house audience of 70-plus mostly scientist types erupts in laughter.

“This is a pretty nerdy crowd,” says John Gudas, an audience member who does materials science research for the defense industry. (At a question-and-answer session after the performance, a majority identify themselves as physicists.) “They look like scientists.”

It’s also a graying crowd. Most, with a few exceptions, are baby boomers. Some sport pocket protectors, and many arrive alone, armed with reading materials. Several are museum members who say they found out about the performance through the museum mailing list. Perhaps surprisingly, men and women attend in fairly equal numbers. Glasses and beards also are part of the mix, but mostly these people are just frighteningly smart.

It doesn’t take being a scientist, though, to understand most of Mr. Malow’s jokes.

“I do this for a general audience, so there’s something for everyone,” Mr. Malow says before the performance, which focuses on the final frontier — meaning areas of science we still don’t know much about, including the oceans, time travel, microbes, viruses and space.

However, he turns it up a notch and really “geeks out” if he knows he’s guaranteed a 100 percent scientist crowd, says the science enthusiast and 15-year stand-up-comedy veteran (

Speaking of space, Mr. Malow, standing in the main museum hall surrounded by displays and monitors, says his world, er, universe view has been turned on its head since Pluto was disqualified as a real planet.

“They want to call Pluto a dwarf planet,” he says. “That’s not even politically correct…. They prefer to be called ‘little planets.’ ”

Chuckles and nodding heads abound.

He then says he would love to do stand-up in zero gravity and use the line: “It’s not the heat, it’s the humanity.”

Catheryne Chen, a molecular biologist who does cancer research, smiles.

Before the show, Ms. Chen studies a globe-shaped tank containing a sealed living system that involves algae and water and mimics the Earth’s carbon cycle.

“This is really cool,” Ms. Chen says of the tank.

This is her first time at a Malow show (although he’s been at Koshland three times in the past few years) but she’s a fan of stand-up comedy in general.

“It’s good therapy,” she says, adding that Mr. Malow’s science is pretty “elementary.”

That’s easy for her to say.

Take this one-liner: “I found myself drawn to her … with a force that was inversely proportional to the square of the distance between us.”

What does that even mean? This crowd knows and chuckles.

Still, whether he’s performing in front of a general audience or a “geek-out” crowd, Mr. Malow’s jokes are ripe with gravitas. It’s as much about expanding the mind as it is tickling the funny bone.

“When I write a science joke with a geeky punch line, it’s based on a smart science observation,” he says before the performance.

So, he weaves into his comic routine research on animals that can benefit humans (alligators have amazing immune systems; salamanders can grow limbs); energy (if we can find a way to tap into the jet stream, we don’t need any other sources of energy); and bacteria (there’s evidently a type that’s not only resilient in the face of radioactive material but consumes it and thrives on it).

He talks about human evolution and makes the following funny-even-to-a-layman observation:

“We traded immortality for sex. Now, once we’ve reproduced, we [can] die. … That’s a hell of a trade.”

At which Dia Michaels, a repeat audience member, lets out a knee-slapping laugh.

“Very funny,” she says after the performance.

Mr. Malow’s routine a few years ago, though, was roll-on-the-floor funny and more polished, she says.

“It was hysterical,” says Ms. Michaels, a local children’s book publisher.

Though she didn’t get quite as many good belly laughs this time, she says Mr. Malow performs a very important function: He makes science accessible. He pulls information from superspecialized fields and makes it comprehensible — or nearly comprehensible — to a wider audience.

“Science comedy is the ultimate sound-bite science,” she says.

So, what’s Mr. Malow’s next move? No, not space travel, time travel or anything having to do with the speed of light. But, seriously.

“I’d like to be a funny Carl Sagan,” he says. “Where he brought serious science credentials, I bring serious comedy credentials.”

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