QI: British Comedy Panel Show Takes on the Nativity… and Scientific Comedy!

I’m not particularly nationalistic, but there are certain things that I rate about Britain, and one of them is our comedy. We have a rich variety of comedy and we can pretty much say what we like. I have previously posted a good selection of clips that take religion to task.

Well, considering that I have been focusing on the Nativity and the census lately, I was delighted when guerillasurgeon posted this QI clip. For those who are unaware of QI, it is a semi-intellectual comedy panel show that looks at certain topics and likes to bust a few myths. It has been traditionally hosted by Stephen Fry (and now Sandy Toksvig, here a panellist). It’s interesting that Dara O Briain and Al Murray, two panellists on this clip, are committed, science-loving humanists. O Briain hosts three TV shows about maths and science –  He attended University College Dublin (UCD), where he graduated in mathematics and theoretical physics. This article looks at the interesting crossover that is now happening in the science and comedy worlds:

Ó Briain is a big draw for audiences and networks – his name appearing above the door of two of the three science shows makes that obvious – but he is keen to downplay his significance in the recent boom. “My role is just as a conduit. I don’t deserve to be included alongside people like [theoretical physicist and Radio 4 broadcaster] Jim Al-Khalili and [anthropologist, TV presenter and the Observercolumnist] Alice Roberts, because I’m not a scientist. I’m not presenting any work I’ve done.

“You know, I ran away to the circus,” he says. “I could have done science but I became a clown instead. And it’s not like comedy isn’t well-rewarded. I wouldn’t describe it as thankless: I get my thanks every 15 to 30 seconds when I do standup, which scientists don’t get. They might get a shake of the hand or something when they do a viva. So I’m not the one in the poor house. It’s not a bad position to occasionally hand the microphone over to other people.”

If this is a golden age for science – as many experts, including Ó Briain, suggest – then it is because multiple factors have converged. A new generation of communicators is one part of it, with Cox and Alice Roberts the reigning king and queen. There has also been a long run of juicy, front-page stories that need explaining, from the Large Hadron Collider to the latest adventures of Nasa’s Curiosity rover on Mars. But perhaps the most significant change is the sense of community that now exists. For Ó Briain, this loose grouping of like-minded rationalists came together through the increased ease of writing blogs, creating podcasts and spreading the word through social media. The heroes were Professor Richard Dawkins, Ben Goldacre, author of the best-selling Bad Science, and the rationalist standup comedian Robin Ince, and their targets were theists, quacks and the nutritionist Gillian McKeith. “Like the clumping of matter during the early stages of the universe, suddenly things began to coalesce,” he says….

While he believes it is important to maintain a gap between Ó Briain the comedian and Ó Briain the science nerd, the distinction can be – spacesuit aside – a nebulous one. Scientific research is often surprisingly funny: his standup routine has included riffs on the subatomical particles neutrinos and the pseudoscience of the now-defunct BBC show Honey, We’re Killing the Kids, which promised to show parents accurate computer projections of what their child would look like as a 40-year-old. Ó Briain certainly does not shy away from a tussle; ongoing adversaries include astrologers and homeopaths, and he saves a special disdain for psychics.

He is aware that these are arguments that he is not going to win definitively. I ask if any of his friends believe in homeopathy – his wife, Susan, is a surgeon – and he thinks for a moment before telling the story of a woman who went to a healing retreat. In the pub afterwards, the man who ran the course had a heart attack and the group’s response was to surround him and form a healing circle. Ó Briain smiles guiltily: “My friend watched them while waiting for the ambulance to arrive: ‘Sorry, do you mind breaking up the healing circle? We’d like to get in and defibrillate the guy…’

“I occasionally get into discussions with astrologers but I don’t want to be an arse about it. It’s like the religion thing: I’m not one of the angry atheists. That’s their world view. No one is ever going to go, ‘I have wasted my life! No, you are absolutely right’.” He thinks there might be a few “floating voters” he can win over but is mostly satisfied that the scientific community is in such robust health. His belief that there is an audience for smart, high-brow science and maths programmes has been handsomely vindicated.

Anyway, the clip:

Both the comedians I mentioned have been involved in Nine Lessons and Carols for the Godless – a super example of the conjunction of science, atheism and comedy.

Here are some examples, with one of the masterminds Robin Ince:

And my favourite:

 

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