When science news is filled with crises from climate change to COVID-19, it can feel like there’s nothing left to laugh about. Yet some journalists manage to find humor in science and satisfy our appetites for comic relief.
In an email conversation with science journalist Carolyn Wilke, six reporters and science communicators discuss how the process of science can yield funny nuggets. Noticing unexpected oddities, such as bizarre animal behaviors or awkward moments in the field, and digging into strange experimental methods can provide bits of humor and surprise. It’s “so much more memorable to convey science with emotion—whether that be humor, pathos, or anything else,” says science journalist Bethany Brookshire. “Most of us would rather laugh than cry, so the choice is clear.” She and other members of the roundtable share tips for tailoring comedic communication to different audiences and media, as well as their strategies for bringing levity to serious topics. (This discussion has been edited for length and clarity. Sadly, some puns didn’t make the cut.)
The participants in the discussion are:
Elizabeth Preston, freelance science journalist for outlets including The New York Times and humor writer for publications such as McSweeney’s
Sabrina Imbler, reporting fellow on the science and health desk of The New York Times
Bethany Brookshire, freelance science journalist for outlets including Science News for Students and Scientific American and the author of a forthcoming book on pests
Titi Shodiya, co-host of Dope Labs, a weekly podcast that mixes science and pop culture with a dose of friendship
Emily Willingham, freelance science journalist who regularly contributes to Scientific American and the author of the books The Tailored Brain and Phallacy
Kasha Patel, reporter at The Washington Post on weather, climate change, and the environment, and science comedian
Carolyn: Science is often seen as a serious subject. Why do you choose to approach it with humor?
Emily: Perhaps part of it is that I don’t see science as necessarily serious. Once you’ve written about the dibbler, an animal with a dangler on its dingle to insert into a partner’s anus to avoid dabbling in the wrong place, you can’t unsee the non-serious side of science. I think surprise is an important element of humor, and science is full of surprises. That dibbler information certainly caught me unawares. Humor is also helpful when you’ve stodged your way through some boggy material—it’s great if you can surprise the reader with something cheeky just when things start to get a bit thick.
Sabrina: I feel lucky that a lot of the science I write about spans more oddball subjects, including creatures and the many bizarre ways they manage to make a living on this planet. I don’t see this science as any less serious—it can have enormous implications for conservation. But so many of these stories have an inherent humor to them. It’s funny that the best way to understand the ecology of a rare mollusk species was to put a tiny computer on a snail. It’s funny that bats roost underneath the bare buttocks of scientists in outhouses. It’s funny that worm blob is a technical term. To ignore the inherent humor of these stories would feel false, I think.
I wrote about this paper, which found testosterone modulates a frog’s aggressive display gesture. How did they figure this out? By injecting a frog with testosterone, putting the frog into a tiny box, and watching its feet closely for eight hours. That’s so funny to me. Eight hours of frog feet. The researcher said he had to listen to Charles Dickens novels on audiobook to pass the time.
Titi: Throughout my training as a scientist, I felt like I had to approach [science] with a level of austerity at all times in order to be credible. Respectability politics is at the core of the field, which is why it excludes so many people. The tides started shifting when I was a graduate student and decided to teach in a way that was fun for me and for students. This was the genesis of Dope Labs, a weekly [podcast] where we show how science intersects with pop culture. The tone of scientific communication completely shifts when people feel like they can relate to you and you are on the journey with them. Instead of presenting ourselves as experts on everything, we say, “Hey! I don’t get this either so let’s find out together.”
For example, we used “cuffing season,” when folks decide to couple up with someone to get them through the cold winter months, as the entry point to talk about behavioral ecology in wildlife. This introduces a typically complex subject in a way that makes it more understandable and relatable. The humor we bring to the show establishes a friendship with everyone that listens, and we know that people trust their friends.
Kasha: To me, humor in science communication is a lot like Channing Tatum in a movie. It’s not always necessary, but it’s more enjoyable when it happens.
Humor also provides benefits in addressing gaps in science literacy. I first dipped my toe into science humor through stand-up comedy almost 10 years ago and now run science-themed comedy shows. I ended up analyzing over 500 of my stand-up jokes in a TEDx talk and found that my science jokes performed better than my non-science jokes, which was surprising. I found humor helped engage people who actively told me they didn’t like science.
Research shows that good-natured comedy can enrich climate communication, helping people process negative emotions and sustain hope about Earth’s future. Another study showed an audience’s perceived expertise of a scientist increased if the scientist was funnier.
Carolyn: How do you get funny material out of your sources during interviews or field reporting?
Elizabeth: Once in a while, you get lucky and interview a scientist who speaks in a funny way. But more often, if there’s humor in a story, it’s in the details of the research process. Scientists will probably not volunteer this information, because to them it seems mundane or tangential or obvious. I [recently] published this news story about bats at The New York Times. I talked to the two lead authors and they kept alluding to how difficult it was to get GPS data. I wasn’t understanding what was hard about it. Finally, they clarified that you need to retrieve the physical GPS device to get the data, but because these devices were glued onto wild bats and designed to fall off after a week or two, there was no way to control where they landed. So when they said “we got the GPS data,” they meant they knocked on doors in fancy neighborhoods and sweet-talked people into letting them search their property, or they tore up bushes or went down rat burrows.
Sabrina: Scientists can become inured to the eccentricities of the research process, where things that feel so surprising to us or a general audience are just a matter of routine for them. I have found it helpful to dig into the supplementary information for other fun nuggets, like the names of the animal subjects or the brands of specific products that were used in the experiment.
I pay attention to the things that are not glamorous, whether it’s the weirdness of technology or intrusions from the outside world. One time I was Zooming with a scientist as she dissected the parasites out of a fish. But she was the only one in the lab, so the lights kept automatically turning off every 15 minutes. She had to keep running around waving her hands to get them to turn back on. Moments like those make you remember that while science has these bold, noble aims, sometimes it means running around alone in your lab holding a frozen fish and fighting with an automatic light timer.
Bethany: I do think that the field sciences lend themselves to a little more hilarity than the bench ones, on average. It’s way funnier to see two scientists try—and fail—to get a tiny rat into a tinier GPS collar than it is to watch someone pipette. People in paleontology go around licking rocks to distinguish rock from bone, and sometimes they’ll lick a fossilized piece of poo. That’s just the way the coprolite crumbles.
Titi: A lot of scientists are afraid to be funny because they don’t want people to think they aren’t credible, so in those cases I just try to create funny moments between us. A question that usually gets them to shine a light on some things that they find absurd is, “What are some misconceptions about your work?” This gets them to poke fun at their work and how it’s perceived.
Emily: I try out a joke myself and also am someone who laughs easily. If a source responds in kind, then things likely will go swimmingly, and I’ll get something fun from them. If they don’t take up the humor banner, I’ll usually let it go. Some people just aren’t funny, and although that’s sad, we must accept it. But in seriousness, I try to reflect my source’s demeanor in how I represent them in what I write, and I think that if I tried to force something humorous in a way that wasn’t true to that, it wouldn’t be fair.
Carolyn: How does your process of writing and revising jokes or other funny bits work? Is it just as tortured as other writing?
Elizabeth: Absolutely, writing something that’s meant to be funny can be just as tortured as any other kind of writing. Sometimes more so, because you’re scrutinizing every single word to make a line as funny as possible—but after you’ve stared at something long enough, it’s no longer funny to you at all. I do humor writing for sites like McSweeney’s, and for those pieces I never submit anything without running it past at least one trusted reader first. Because by the time I finish a draft, I’ve lost all perspective on whether it’s funny or clear.
Kasha: Much like my dishwasher, I take a few tries before I produce something polished.
I think the key to a successful joke is trial and error. You can probably reduce the number of trials as your humor acumen increases. Humor is formulaic (centered around misdirection), but the better you know the formula, the easier you can experiment with the variables.
In the most basic terms, a joke that I would tell on stage consists of a premise, punchline (an unexpected twist), and sometimes an additional punchline or callback. A common comedy technique in science articles is wordplay. Wordplay is good misdirection because you’re using a word in an unexpected way or relying on a not-obvious meaning/sound of the word.
Sabrina: I always write my lede first, and sometimes I’ll write four or five versions of the same premise to see which approach is the funniest. For this story about reconstructing Neanderthal hearing, where an underlying question was whether Neanderthals could have heard verbal speech, I had this idea of someone from our time trying to talk to a Neanderthal. The study found that Neanderthals probably could hear consonants like t, k, and s, so I tried to imagine what the funniest words that used those sounds could be. I spitballed a few before landing on “spanakopita” and “TikTok.” There was another version where I imagined a time machine, but I cut it, as it felt distracting and too silly.
Bethany: Most [jokes] spring fully formed from my head. Unfortunately, only about 10 percent of those are actually funny. But often, when I see a new scientific study, I will immediately see something hilarious about it. The difficulty then is trying to convince my editors that it is, indeed, really funny. Generally, though, if you have to explain why something is funny? It’s not. A joke should never have to be explained.
One thing that often gets glossed over is how important tone is. When someone is being serious and heavy, and then a spurt of humor comes out, it can sometimes be off-putting because it is so off the tone someone was expecting. A lighter tone throughout—shorter sentences and sunnier words—keeps people ready to laugh. A joke is as much about context as it is about the content of the joke itself.
Carolyn: Is it okay to use humor in serious stories, for instance about climate change or COVID? And if so, how would you pull that off?
Titi: There is a lot of humor in reality, so I have been funny when talking about more “serious” stories. We did an episode called “Protect Ya Neck” about vaccines. It was before we had ever heard the word “COVID,” in 2019. It’s fun and packed full of information. I loved [Dope Labs co-host] Zakiya [Whatley]’s analogy for a virus as a bunch of kids on each other’s shoulders in a trench coat, pretending to be an adult selling you encyclopedias. Then once they enter [your] home (your body), they wreak havoc.
With COVID, it’s usually surrounding the absurdities, like opting to take a livestock dewormer as treatment instead of getting a vaccine. [In an article for Scientific American, Zakiya and I] tried to balance that with highlighting that people in marginalized communities that have a sordid past with the medical field have every right to be unsure. This was/is a really serious topic in the Black community, so we never make light of or dismiss people’s feelings for comedy. Not everything is funny or should be made into something funny, and we respect that.
Kasha: There are two approaches to comedy. One is to find something that is funny (or could be funny) and present it in an engaging and humorous way. The other approach is to take a serious topic and make it funny. Many stand-up comedians do this, joking about their childhood, bad relationships, inequalities, health issues, government, or whatever. This is very difficult though. Comedians spend their careers honing their ability to make serious topics funny. I can get into theory, formulas, and tools, but there’s [a] saying that vaguely goes: Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog; few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
I do explore this second approach (and probably kill a few frogs in the process) in my podcast, Science Comedy Paradox. At the beginning of the pandemic, I did an episode on “Coronavirus Comedy.” I talk about a Norm Macdonald (RIP) bit from March 2020—very fresh when we had no idea how serious coronavirus was going to be. The set is built on tension from preliminary COVID reports and protocols, and his commentary helps relieve the tension. I think the timing of this bit was important because it provided relief to everyone’s uncertainty, which probably helped promote laughter at a weird time.
Sabrina: I let my sources guide me in these cases. Sometimes the story can grapple with very serious issues, but if my sources—who have lived experience in these issues or think about them daily—make a joke about something incredibly serious, like colonialism, I think that can be okay to include their joke as a quote in the piece. But I would never make a joke of my own.
Carolyn: How do you tailor humor to different outlets, types of media (such as audio versus print), or audiences (such as kids versus adults)?
Kasha: One thing I strive for regardless of medium is to make a joke within the first sentence or two, if the piece is supposed to be funny.
For funny videos, I try to make a joke about every other sentence or at the end of every nugget of factual information. It helps propel the viewer through the material and sustains interest. Videos are great because you can use physical humor, funny on-screen text, sound effects, memes, and editing tricks. I have a few examples of this on my YouTube channel, including a funny history-science video and an even sillier video that I filmed with penguins in Antarctica.
I’ve also had a lot of fun participating in a kids’ podcast for American Public Media called Smash Boom Best. I think audio lends itself more to scene-building than video because you don’t have to rely on your physical acting skills as much and can tap into people’s imaginations. You can also let your personality shine a bit more. Some of the funniest bits were the banter and off-the-cuff comments between segments.
Print can be the hardest medium for truly laugh-out-loud and continuous jokes—at least, it was the hardest medium to get jokes approved with past science[-focused] employers.
Bethany: I think there are some things that are universally funny: Penguins. Butts. Everything else is kind of up for grabs.
But certainly, for children you want to stay away from things they won’t get and things their parents won’t approve of. The parent stuff is obvious, but the hardest thing, I find, for many writers working with kids for the first time is understanding the jokes and references kids won’t get. No human under about 25 knows the sound of a dial-up modem, for example. I remember the heartbreak on one poor editor’s face when I had to tell them that William Shatner is not this generation’s Captain Kirk. (I still feel guilty about that one. The editor is still in therapy.) If it’s a Disney reference earlier than Frozen? Skip it.
So I guess the big message is: Know your audience. The audience of The New Yorker will probably not get a joke about Marcel Proust (because no one really does, don’t @ me), but they will absolutely get a kick out of pretending they do.
Carolyn: What are your views on puns? Discuss.
Bethany: Puns are one of the highest forms of humor, and each pun is a brief love letter to human language skills. I will fight people.
Emily: Puns are such an accessible form of humor, and I love them so, so much. I think looking down the nose at forms of humor carries some aspects of various -isms. Pun lovers are, for example, seemingly highly represented among autistic people. The thing about puns is, they always carry that moment of “What?” followed by the “surprise realization” and the laugh (or groan, which is fun, too) and it’s the best.
Elizabeth: Unlike references to Captain Kirk, puns can be timeless. And they can be a great way to get people’s attention. Just ask Sabrina about the moray headline that went super viral! Also, I think a pun in writing might feel less groan-inducing than a spoken pun?
Kasha: Some wordplay can be pun-ishingly bad, but it’s groan on me.
Elizabeth: OK, maybe I was wrong about puns in writing.
Carolyn Wilke is a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and a Chicago-based freelance science journalist. She’s also one of the hosts of the podcast Science for the People. Find her on Twitter @carolynmwilke.