January 2010

Brian Malow: A Stand-Up Man for Science


MalowFairly or unfairly, the public’s perception of science seems to include a series of less-than-flattering words that begin with “S”: stodgy, stuffy and serious. But it doesn’t have to be that way; science also can be silly.

Brian Malow would wholeheartedly agree with that assessment; in fact, he believes in science’s humor potential so much that he’s made an unusual career out of it, performing across the country as a “science comedian” for the past decade.

Whether he’s giving quick one-liners like “I just started reading ‘The Origin of Species;’ don’t tell me how it ends!” or longer musings about how the constant weight fluctuations between his parents— whenever his mom lost weight, his dad gained weight— was a prime example of the first law of thermodynamics, Malow seamlessly intersperses scientific terminology into jokes about everyday topics, like parents and relationships, that are the staples of comedic routines.

And that little extra science kick, which has given Malow the kind of distinctive niche that every comedian seeks, might be a valuable tool in making the average person more knowledgeable about science.

“After listening to some of my new material, a friend once told me, ‘Your jokes contain more information than other comedian’s jokes,’” Malow says. This inspired him to begin adding more educational content to his routines – wrapping education in a bit of laughter is a great way to teach people without them knowing it.

At the very least, Malow hopes to inspire more enthusiasm about science during his routines, which have run the gamut from intimate shows at places like Washington, D.C.’s Marian Koshland Science Museum of the National Academies to a nationally televised appearance on the “Late Late Show” with Craig Ferguson.

Although Malow has no professional scientific background, he embraced science early on. Growing up, he loved reading both science fiction and nonfiction, and he was especially influenced by authors like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke, who could write both types of material with equal skill.

Today, he continues to immerse himself in the latest print and online scientific stories daily, turning his brain into a giant scientific database. Physics and astronomy remain his favorite subjects, but he touches on all types of science in his comedy.

Malow’s foray into stand-up was not premeditated. “It’s certainly not a career I planned,” he says. “My friends thought I was pretty funny, but I was never labeled the class clown in school or anything like that.”

For more information

• Go to our podcast page to learn more about Brian Malow in a podcast in which he further discusses what it’s like telling jokes to scientists and details some of his recent efforts to improve science awareness and engender enthusiasm.

• You can visit Malow’s Web site at http://www.sciencecomedian.com

While living in Austin, Texas, he was encouraged to participate in a “funniest person in Austin” contest. Although he didn’t win, the positive feedback he received convinced him to try comedy.

Over the years, as Malow progressed from working the local comedy-club circuit to becoming a nationally known comedian, he began incorporating more science into his routine. “It proceeded through a natural evolution,” he says. “I had all this scientific information in my head, and, as I worked out some comedic material, some weird little fact would pop out that would fit in so well with the joke.”

Even so, Malow never really considered himself a “science comedian” until recently, after he started doing more shows for scientifically savvy audiences. While he tries to keep most of his science content at a level anyone can understand, he found occasional jokes based on obscure scientific references just didn’t work for a general audience. However, those same jokes would get big laughs from scientists, giving him a new outlet for his less traditional material.

A nice example is his one-liner: “I’m so spontaneous, I have a negative delta G.” Malow notes that joke would pass over the head of most people, but it’s a riot among chemists.

Malow really enjoys performing in front of scientific audiences, whether at universities, museums or companies like Apple or Dell. “Nothing is more fun than making scientists laugh. I feel that, if I can bring some levity into their science world, using their science terms, then I’ve done a great job.”

“Now, it does add a layer of difficulty,” he notes, “since, unlike other comics, I have to not only be funny but also scientifically accurate. We’ve probably all heard jokes that make no sense, but, among scientists, if your joke is based on a false premise, then it may fall flat, no matter how funny the punch line is.”

So, beyond laughter, Malow likes to scan his scientific audiences to see if anyone is nodding along in with the joke, signaling that the scientific reasoning behind it is sound.

On the plus side, Malow reads about new scientific discoveries every day, so he holds a distinct advantage over other stand-up comedians who talk about their foibles, annoying parents and spouses or other types of observational humor: He never runs out of material.

Nick Zagorski (nzagorski@asbmb.org) is a science writer at ASBMB.

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