Kate Cross is a researcher at the University of St Andrews and performs stand-up comedy for the Bright Club. Here she explains why scientists shouldn't be scared to stand up and tell a few jokes


What’s this all about then?

It started, as many things do, in London. Steve Cross and Miriam Miller of UCL decided to try out an experiment: What would happen if we got academics to try their hand at stand-up?

The result was Bright Club, a ‘thinking person’s variety night’ where any academic - from astrophysicists to avant-garde poets, from Deans to doctoral candidates – can take to the stage with eight minutes of jokes and funny stories about what they know and love best – their own research. The idea quickly spread to other cities in the UK.

With Bright Club Newcastle and then Bright Club Edinburgh, I went quite rapidly from being the painfully shy final-year PhD student at a ‘public engagement skills’ workshop, to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I almost never shut up about Bright Club and spend quite a bit of time telling people how great it is and why they should do it.

So in the next 500 or so words I hope to convince you that, if you’re an academic, getting on stage and doing 8 minutes of stand-up comedy about your specialism is one of the best damned things you could do.


1) You’ll become a better, more confident, speaker

Doing stand-up is initially nerve-wracking. But after you’ve done it, a conference talk will never hold anything like the same fear. I’ve seen people grow in confidence immeasurably because of Bright Club (I include myself in this).

It’s hard, if you plan to do it well. Think of how many 20-minute conference presentations over-run and bore the audience rigid. When you have 8 minutes you’re forced to strip out everything that isn’t absolutely critical. You’ll write and you’ll re-write and you’ll throw out stuff you thought was essential. You’ll have no time to fumble. You’ll be too excited to look bored. You’ll give the most engaging presentation of your career. You might also see your research in a whole new light – it never hurts to step back and start from the beginning with “What is my research actually all about?” and “Why does it matter to me?”

2) It’s a great night out

Bright Club fills the Stand Comedy Club in Edinburgh on a weekday night, with some audience members coming back month after month after month. The only thing the audience members all have in common is that they’ve come along to have a laugh and hear something they’ve never heard before – whether that’s what quantum physicists are actually up to, notes in the margins of renaissance texts, sustainable forestry, or what geologists are doing about climate change. Bright Club has been described as an atmosphere “brimming with goodwill”, and it is.

All of this makes it very easy to have fun. You will have fun. You’ll get laughs, you’ll come off the stage buzzing, and you’ll feel like a hero for days. As a bonus, your friends and colleagues will look at you with a new respect bordering on awe. Promise.

3) Universities and funding bodies really like to know that you can talk about your work with a wide range of audiences.

That one’s pretty straightforward, really.

So why not have a go?

But I’m not funny/my research isn’t funny

The most common reason people give for not signing themselves up is that they’re not naturally funny. Well, neither am I[1]. All Bright Clubbers get training, guidance, and support in getting the funny out of their research. I’ve seen people do very successful sets on everything from the genetics of cancer treatment to long-term unemployment. Academics have a big advantage when it comes to comedy – they all have something different and new to talk about.


I don’t want to joke about my research – I care about it

I can understand this one. But the comedy doesn’t come from belittling our work. In many cases it comes from conveying just how passionate we are about it. Does your research make you feel overjoyed? Overwhelmed? Frustrated? Triumphant? Has it changed your social life or the way you think about everyday tasks? Has it – to borrow a phrase – changed your life? Good. That’s what we want to hear. We can identify with those feelings, they make what you say memorable, and they make us laugh with you.

OK. Tell me more

Brilliant! If you’re interested in signing up/finding out more, the best thing to do is probably to type ‘Bright Club’ plus the name of a nearby city into the search engine of your choice. If you’re in the UK, there’s bound to be one somewhere near you (and if you have the tremendous good fortune to live in Scotland, they are all gathered in one place here: www.funnyresearch.info). Bright Clubs have also been held in Sydney and Melbourne. If there isn’t one in your local area/country/sector of the galaxy, all you need to get one started is a friendly professional comedian willing to share some know-how, a few academics, and a venue. But maybe that’s a story for another day…


Article by Kate Cross

Photo Credit: Lynsey Hall of Bright Club Edinburgh


Videos of Kate performing :





[1] See?