Anyone into comedy will know that all the greatest comedians are, to put it bluntly, massive nerds. Doing comedy as a hobby – or if you’re successful, a career – requires an obsession with the intricacies of language and human behaviour, combined with a neurotic desire to use the laughter of others as self-validation, that the stereotype of the nerd possesses in droves. (I write this as a fully paid-up nerd.)
With that in mind, Bright Club #12 sounds less surprising than it originally appears. Organised by the University of Surrey, it represents an interesting intersection between the areas of comedy, science, academia, music, and even politics. The vast majority of the line-up are not professional comedians but Surrey academics or researchers, and unsurprisingly what they perform is not even “comedy” in the traditional sense, but a discussion of their research with a heavily comedic spin. Host Francesca Day, for instance, is a PhD student in Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, but rather than give a lecture she spends a solid portion of time explaining how theoretical physics is like “physics fan fiction”, making up new particles and trying to find evidence for them. Later on in the evening, too, she gives a humorous feminist rant about the lack of women in science, and (as is fast becoming an iron law of comedy) roundly mocks Brexit and Donald Trump. Bright Club #12 therefore crosses boundaries between comedy, academic discussion and political debate – but what remains constant throughout the night is that nerdish sense of inquisition, humour, and attention to detail.
This genre-shunning eclecticism makes Bright Club #12 both refreshing and enjoyable in equal measure. At its best, the night is both intellectually intriguing and surprisingly droll. My personal favourite act is sociologist Gary Pritchard, who recounts amusing tales from his time in South Africa doing an ethnographic study of hip-hop culture in Cape Town as part of his PhD thesis. Retold in his down to earth, self-effacing manner, stories about drug dealers and producers in a dangerous part of the world come to be not just sociologically interesting and exciting, but also thoroughly funny. Monique Botha, researcher on autism and minority stress, also proves to be a highlight of the night. Certainly, it is one of the most interesting; her discussion of the misconceptions of autism and the struggles of living with it is not just sardonically funny but also massively important, targeting a taboo that still somehow lingers in the supposedly enlightened West. Last of all, Paul Stevenson, garbed in outstanding neon orange suspenders, also deserves a mention, not just for his colourful attire but also his unassuming and entertaining insights into the life of a senior physics lecturer.
As a community comedy night, there are of course peaks and troughs, and certain acts stand above others. For example, although he adds a welcome change of tone and pace to the show, headliner Ben Champion gives an unfortunately repetitive set of musical comedy numbers that lack the unique charm the academics-cum-comedians bring. His assortment of comical takes on the mundane minutiae of life in 2017 (think songs about having too many bags for life, for example) are no doubt sharp and well-performed, but they all too soon acquire an unfortunate quality of familiarity.
Nonetheless, it does little to detract from the quality of the night, which I come to realise half way through has a distinct sense of bonhomie. The jokes might not always land and the references to theoretical physics may land on some deaf ears, but it makes little difference. The audience lap up Bright Club #12, a unique and successful evening of science, comedy and music, that possesses an increasingly rare conviviality that all the best community events have. What matters not is the smoothness of the performance (not that Bright Club #12 appears amateur) but that it brings people together, and in general I can’t help but be taken in by its charm.
Text by Jake Roberts
Picture research by Jon Espiritu; featured image by Matthew McCormick.