By Helen Cramer
Centre for Academic Primary Care, University of Bristol
An engineer, a biochemist, an architect, a clinical trialist, and a qualitative health services researcher (that’s me), walk into a room……sounds like the start of a bad joke, doesn’t it? But actually we were a multidisciplinary group taking part in comedy training in the hope that it might help with our public engagement activities.
We had all been taking part in a professional development programme for researchers and academics when someone suggested we tried some stand-up comedy training. The five of us hunkered down for two days in a University of the West of England (UWE) classroom with our patient trainer, Chris Head. We were a multidisciplinary and multilingual group – as the only native English speaker, I felt I had a distinct comedy advantage/disadvantage depending on how you view it.
Chris took us though some basic exercises and comedy principles and we all enjoyed the training immensely. The only dampener on the training for me was the stipulation from our funders that at the end of the training we would perform somewhere. For one person in the group this performance was a personal challenge to rise to, but for the rest of us the thought of doing an actual comedy performance about our research made us feel slightly hysterical. We could all stand up and quite confidently present something about our work to a full lecture hall, especially if you gave us a projector and PowerPoint slides to fiddle with. But standing up and speaking under the weighty heading of a COMEDY PERFORMANCE was another thing entirely.
Anyway, as there didn’t seem to be an honorable way of wriggling out of the agreed performance we all tried to develop areas within our research or teaching that might lend themselves to comedy. For some reason the idea of exploring trends in how treatment and care decisions are negotiated between doctors and patients struck me as a funny and fruitful area. I therefore shamelessly went about revealing some personal experiences and plucked out a load of possibly amusing thoughts I had been having about shared decision-making, partly because of an interesting PhD that I am lucky enough to be supervising.
On the actual night of our performance at Bristol’s Bright Night only three of us managed to go through with it. On a raised stage with a microphone we had an audience of 30-40 adults and kids in the picnic area of @Bristol.
The trialist went on first with very little preparation, a single gin and tonic and winged it brilliantly about the process of being involved in a trial. I went next and managed not to freeze, got laughs in the right places and it seems to go ok. By group agreement, the architect went last and got the most laughs for drawing parallels between doing a PhD and marriage. She is a natural comic and makes people laugh constantly with a very dead pan sense of humor and a thick Spanish accent. Usually sporting a long black trench coat and heavy heeled boots, she says that she is often mistaken for being the cleaner even though she is the head of department.
What did I learn? Well, I think I do feel a bit more confident and keen to add in some funny bits to any future presentations. And I know that some of the better and more memorable presenters often have some witty comments or comedy elements in their talks. I feel really glad that we did it. We seemed to have an appreciate audience and there’s no video evidence to prove it was seriously unfunny! So would I do it again? Hmm I’d rather not do the performance bit again myself but would I recommend having a go? Yes of course I would and the training part was great fun. Try it yourself!?
2 thoughts on “Go extreme with your public engagement: try stand-up comedy”
WOW… very impressed! Well done Helen. Alisonxx
Thanks for sharing your experiences on this topic. I’m also interested in the idea that humour also involves critical distance, wit, and narrative, so there’s not reason why it should not intersect with academia and creativity. There’s a Stand-Up course running at the MAC in Birmingham at the moment which has roused my curiosity. You’re undoubtedly aware that there’s a vast sub-zone of comedy that deals with the medical care sector (with links to gallows’ humour…!).