25 February 2019

Laughing with Science: SciComm with a dose of Improv Comedy

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Tom Di Liberto

The Hypothesis improv team. Credit: Tom Di Liberto

Moments before our first show, we were all huddled back stage, confidently saying that we had each other’s back. But in the back of my head, that confidence eluded me. All I was thinking was “Geez, I hope this idea works.” And as They Might Be Giant’s “Science is Real” blared on the loudspeakers, we introduced ourselves as The Hypothesis, a science improv comedy team. Then we dropped our surprise. Before we would perform, we were going to have the audience listen to a scientist talk about DNA. Only after did we perform the most nerdy improv comedy you could imagine. Later that night in front of the theater, we heard our reviews. Everybody loved it! So much so that the only thought in my head was “Geez, when will our next show be?”

We all fell in love with improv comedy for some of the same reasons we fell in love with science: the way it pushes us mentally, the fun in mutual discovery of something new, and the magical way it clears our minds to focus on the task at hand.

But then a lightbulb went off. What if we use improv to connect science and scientists with improv audiences—23,000 people attended shows by the Washington Improv Theater in 2018—who trend younger and are science-accepting but who otherwise are not specifically seeking out scientific information? Can we show them, through comedy, how themes in science are not that dissimilar from those in real life?

Since 2016 the Hypothesis has been performing in comedy shows and festivals around Washington DC. To date, we have treated comedy show audiences to science talks from neuroscientists, climate scientists, biologists, and social scientists. In addition to regular shows performing in theaters like the Washington Improv Theater, the Hypothesis has collaborated twice with LabX of the National Academy of Sciences and plans to collaborate with the National Museum of Natural History and Story Collider to bring science to the masses one comedy show at a time.

We are also looking into ways of actually quantifying the effect, if any, our brand of science communication has our audience. So if you’re a social scientist who’s interested in the impact comedy has on science retention, please contact us.

And of course, if you just want to have a fun night out or want to book us for a show, check our Facebook page for our contact information and news about our next performance.

Tom Di Liberto, meteorologist/climatologist/science communicator, is a federal contractor who works at NOAA’s Climate Program