A Comedian and an Academic Walk Into a Podcast …

September 07, 2016

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"Time travel, that’s a complicated subject. Stephen Hawking tried to think about it, ended up in a wheelchair. Oh, it’s OK, I can make that joke, I have a friend who’s a physicist."

That’s comedian Shane Mauss from an appearance on the Conan O’Brien show. All jokes aside, he really does have friends who are physicists — and scientists of all types. Today we’ll find out how this emerging comic has become an unlikely science educator and learn why academics need stand-up comics.

Hello and welcome to The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning podcast, a look at the future of education. I’m Jeff Young. I recently stumbled upon this stand-up comic because of his unusual science podcast, called Here We Are. Each week he sits down with a different college professor to talk about their research in plain-spoken terms.

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His primary interests are what makes people tick and the meaning of life, so he talks to psychologists and evolutionary biologists. He jokes that he’s unqualified to hang with these Ph.D.s because he doesn’t even have a college diploma. But because of his outsider status, he’s bringing in new audiences to the latest research findings in many fields.

Of course, Mr. Mauss is not the only comic talking to professors. Stephen Colbert used to bring many on The Colbert Report, and they joked that they would get the famous "Colbert bump" in interest in their research.

Lately, Mr. Mauss has even started doing live shows of this podcast, and, yep, the venue is a comedy club, with a brick wall in the back and everything. He’s literally bringing scholars into the stand-up world. And as Kate B. Nooner, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington who was a guest on his first live show, says, "That’s a public service."

"All of us are qualified to talk about science and look at science," she says. "What Shane Mauss is doing is bridging a really important gap in terms of saying, Hey, you know what? I am not someone who’s had a formal education in this, but I’m curious and I want to think about it and see how it might be funny or interesting or useful."

And as we’ll see, there are even times when this comedian is teaching the academics that he interviews.

He has a deadpan style, and when I called him this summer, I think I might have woken him up. Turns out journalists and comics might be on different schedules. My first question was, how in the world did he come up with this idea for a science podcast?

Listen to the full audio. Below is an edited and adapted transcript of the podcast.

A. So the short version of how I came up with it was, in the course of searching for new and unique ideas and things to talk about, and also in the course of being in a new relationship and writing a lot of relationship jokes and watching a lot more Animal Planet than normal, I stumbled across evolutionary biology and psychology that kind of changed the way that I looked at the world, and I started reaching out to academics in the field and a bunch of researchers and stuff, and a few of them got back to me. I was, at the time, trying to maybe put together a TV show or something. I had no idea what I was doing, but in meeting these people I had such fascinating conversations that I decided that it would make for a good podcast. And then I had a few friends in academia by that time, so I just started reaching out to them and asking them for advice. And that’s how I kind of ended up doing Here We Are.

Q. A comedian primarily talking to academics — it seems like that might be a misfit. What has been your experience having these conversations in a kind of entertainment podcast, essentially, or trying to reach a mainstream audience talking primarily to scientists and academics?

Courtesy of Shane Mauss
 A. Well, my goal with the podcast has always been to put the science and the ideas first and foremost. And in the beginning I definitely tried harder to crowbar in a few jokes here and there because I’m a comedian and obviously that’s kind of expected out of my audience. But the less I try to be funny on the show, the funnier I end up being, and the funnier the guest ends up being, too. My ideal podcast is very thought-provoking, a lot of new, interesting ideas and insights — and then hopefully some, a few, laughs along the way.

Q. I’m curious, as you’ve been doing this for a while, what value do you think you bring as somebody who’s not in that academic world — and in fact in the comedy world?

A. Well, a lot of things. One, I had a built-in audience that most academics aren’t going to have from my comedy, from having done TV appearances and whatnot. I have a fan base already. Certainly I’m better at comedy than them, which, it does help the medicine go down.

And I’m a very different person than most academics. I have lived an adrenaline-fueled, reckless life. I am not really a bookworm. I’ve done a lot of blue-collar jobs and that sort of thing. I’m offering kind of a fresh set of eyes, and I also understand some of the things that academics might take for granted that the listener is going to need further explanation on. I basically assume that if I don’t know it, the listener doesn’t as well.

Also, I have this freedom to travel with my comedy — so much that I can go around and talk with a whole bunch of different people in a bunch of different fields. I feel like I’m kind of getting one of the best educations that there is. A lot of academics are kind of bogged down by data and kind of digging deeper and deeper into one specific field, and I’m able to kind of bounce around and get to a wide range of subjects. And so, through that I’m also able to put together some kind of unique and interesting perspectives.

A lot of times an academic will be telling me about their work and it will remind me of something from a different field that I know about, and so I’ll tell them, I’ll actually be teaching them something about something that’s related but they would have never heard about because it’s just in a totally different field. I definitely bring that to the conversation, as well.

Q. What has been the most surprising thing as you go about and build your own education here, going around the world talking to scientists?

A. I wouldn’t have expected the support that I would get from both fans and academia. I have fans who have just put their own money into advertising the show just on their own. I didn’t ask them to do this or anything like that. It’s just something that they’re passionate about, and they want more people to know about. I’ve never even mentioned that on the podcast before, that people do that. I’ve never asked anyone to do that, and it happens quite a bit. I have people that call and want to be research assistants or help out with PR work or whatever. Yeah, it’s been really incredible.

Q. So what’s next for the podcast?

A. I’d like to start doing more live ones, for sure. I’m trying to sort that out.

Q. Yeah, I heard the one you did recently in North Carolina, right?

A. Yeah. Yeah, I really enjoyed that. I think there’s a lot more potential for the live ones. I do have TV-show ideas kind of related to it that I’ve been tinkering with, but I don’t put a lot of time or effort into that at the moment.

Q. It sounds like you’re fascinated with the science that you end up talking about. Is this kind of a science-literacy project, in a way?

A. Yeah. I think one of the most important things that we should be doing is looking for ways to look at life in as many different ways as possible. And I think science is a really good medium for that.

I also have a stand-up show about psychedelics, which force you to look at life in a different way. I think that the more viewpoints that we have — I feel a lot of people are kind of stuck. A lot of people are in ruts. A lot of people haven’t really done much to challenge their own attitudes. They’re like, ‘I am a Democrat,’ or ‘I am a Republican, and this is a very important thing that I am and there’s no sense in looking at life in any other way than how the evening news tells me — the evening news of my choice — tells me how to look at it.’ And I think that if we want to advance our lives as humans we’re going to have to start challenging ourselves to take a bit more of a challenging look than that.

Q. Is there a quick version of how you, yourself, got into comedy?

A. It’s something I wanted to do my whole life, since I was like 9 or 10 years old. I had the idea that I wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I was planning on, as soon as I was 18, I was going to move and start stand-up comedy, and I kind of ended up getting a lot of blue-collar jobs to save up money and do this and that, and it didn’t really work out that well for me. So I put it off for five years or so, and then I ended up tagging along with a friend and moved to Boston and started out there and things kind of progressed pretty quickly for me, actually.

Q. Since then you’ve been on Conan O’Brien and had specials …

A. Yeah. Netflix and Comedy Central. Yeah, it’s all worked out. It’s more a matter of keeping the ball rolling. It’s easy for a career to plateau in comedy, and then once it plateaus it starts to dip after a while and people lose interest, so it’s nice to have new projects like this that get people’s attention.

Q. Well, hey, thank you so much for taking time today.

A. Thank you for your time.

So Mr. Mauss is clearly transdisciplinary. His podcast isn’t perfect. There are times where he rambles a bit, and the interviews can be unfocused, but he does put his guests at ease.

But most weeks, the scholars sound less like formal researchers and more just like people at a bar, or maybe a comedy club, talking about the meaning of life with a friend.

And that just doesn’t happen much in media portrayals of scientists.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.

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