Why Did The Scientist Cross The Road?...To Meet Kasha Patel! : Short Wave When Kasha Patel decided to try out stand-up comedy, she was told to joke about what she knew. For her, that was science. Today on Short Wave, Kasha talks to host Emily Kwong about how she developed her sense of humor, how she infuses science into her comedy and why on Earth she analyzed 500 of her jokes.

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Why Did The Scientist Cross The Road?...To Meet Kasha Patel!

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.

Hey, Kasha, do you know what my favorite element is?

KASHA PATEL: There's a lot of options here.

KWONG: It's AH - the element of surprise. Ah.

PATEL: Ah, ah, ah (laughter).

KWONG: I got one.

Kasha Patel is a stand-up comedian.

PATEL: So the things that make me laugh versus the type of comedy that I do are a little bit different. I love (laughter) slapstick comedy. What - like, physical humor, like, "Three Stooges."

KWONG: And her favorite part of being a comedian is the joke writing.

PATEL: People have said my comedy - I don't know what this word means when you describe comedy - but cerebral. And I think it just means you - some of my punchlines make you think about why they're funny, kind of like a slow burn.

KWONG: Cerebral because science is central to Kasha's comedy. She often cracks jokes about scientists, critters, but also things that seem impossible to make light of, like climate change.

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PATEL: All I want to do is make people laugh. I want people to look at a situation in a new way.

KWONG: So today on the show, we try our best to make science comedian Kasha Patel laugh.

Kasha, any idea why you can't trust an atom?

PATEL: Because they make everything up.

KWONG: [Expletive]. Did we steal it from you?

PATEL: (Laughter) I have heard so many...

KWONG: And in exchange, Kasha invites us into her topsy-turvy world of science stand-up and tells us about that one time she statistically analyzed 500 of her jokes. I'm not kidding. I'm Emily Kwong, and you're listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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KWONG: Kasha has done a lot of comedy. She runs science-themed shows in Washington, D.C., has traveled around the country and the world performing. She's even done stand-up in Antarctica.

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PATEL: Welcome to the first stand-up comedy show in Antarctica, as far as I know. Today we're going to be talking to some penguins, trying to make them laugh.

KWONG: What was your relationship to comedy when you were growing up? Where do you think you got all this from?

PATEL: I have three older brothers, and I think that's honestly where it came from because they like to play jokes on me. There was this game that they would play with me called Kasha's It. It was like hide-and-seek, but it was called Kasha's It because Kasha was always it, and I had to go hide, and they would never come find me.

KWONG: (Laughter) How dare they?

PATEL: Yeah. There was another one where (laughter) - I just wanted to hang out with my brothers, and they'd be playing video games. So they would give me a controller, and they would put the cord in the back, but they wouldn't actually connect it.

KWONG: That's so funny (laughter).

PATEL: And I thought that I was just really bad at video games for pretty much my entire life until I recently learned they never plugged it in.

KWONG: So you have your older brothers to thank for what exactly, you think?

PATEL: (Laughter) The way that I think of comedy is - obviously, it's about making someone laugh. But even before then, I think of how to approach a problem creatively. And in both of those situations, I think that my brothers found creative ways to make me feel included without infringing on their personal happiness.

KWONG: (Laughter) I hear that. All right. So, Kasha, you were born and raised in West Virginia. You majored in chemistry at Wake Forest. And then you got your master's degree in science journalism at Boston University. Tell us a bit why that was the time in your life you thought, oh, I think I'm going to do stand-up comedy right now, you know?

PATEL: I did it because I thought it would be something different and surprising for me to do, you know? I'm, like, this small, lanky Indian girl trying to study science and science journalism. And I never tried to be funny, I just didn't want to be boring. So I was just surrounded by science. And you're supposed to joke about the things that you like. So I thought, oh, it makes sense to joke about science. But the problem was I was starting standup comedy, and I was terrible. Everyone is terrible when you're starting out at something. I think it's just maybe more apparent in standup comedy because you are up there and no one's laughing. And, you know, I don't think I got...

KWONG: Right. You get, like, an immediate grade.

PATEL: (Laughter).

KWONG: And everyone knows it at the same time as you.

PATEL: Oh, yeah. Yeah. The shows that I was doing were, like, 10 p.m. on a Tuesday with locals. There was one time in particular where, I think, another comedian booed me, where it was just, you know, quiet and then an audible boo. And I just walked off stage and thought...

KWONG: So harsh. Aw.

PATEL: ...OK, I guess people don't want to hear science jokes. But then when I moved to Washington, D.C., people found out that I did standup comedy at work. And they said, oh, do you do science-themed jokes? And I said, you would come to a show that has science-themed jokes? And they said, yes. So I put a show together...

KWONG: Right.

PATEL: ...And made it free. And surprisingly, a lot of people came. People had a good time. And then I just kept doing it.

KWONG: Is there a line of when comedy applied to science is taking it too far? Or is it all on the table for you? I'm thinking about, like, mental health, climate change, health disparities. These are very serious topics that we talk about in very serious ways. How do you navigate that?

PATEL: Yeah. I think climate change is one of the hardest things to joke about because there are so many preconceived notions about it from both sides. On Earth Day - (laughter) for Earth Day, I'll go up at a comedy club, not a science comedy show. I'll go up to a comedy show and say to the audience, like, who's excited for Earth Day? And nobody cheers. And I just respond and say, well, that's why climate change is a problem, you know? Stuff like that.

KWONG: (Laughter).

PATEL: And they laugh at that.

KWONG: What do you think happens when we go through the process of finding the funny in these science topics that are otherwise such a bummer? Like, does that last with people beyond your comedy show?

PATEL: That's the cool part about this. There's one study in particular that focuses on good-natured climate jokes. And these group of researchers found that the people who wrote the jokes - they were students. The people who wrote the jokes actually felt less disillusioned after they wrote the joke. They felt more motivated. And they felt hopeful about the future. So in a way, it kind of was like, you know, a surprising therapy where you can make jokes about this in a positive way. And you feel like there's climate action that can be done.

KWONG: Kasha, I want to now turn to - I'm going to open up a tab - this TEDx talk that you gave in 2018 where you kind of blend comedy with scientific analysis. The talk is called "The Benefits Of Using Comedy To Explain Science." And you tell the audience that you analyzed over 500 of your jokes. Let's listen to that.

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PATEL: Here's an example of...

(LAUGHTER)

PATEL: ...My Excel sheet, where I typed in all my jokes and I measured a bunch of different things. One of the things that I measured was how long a premise took to take and then how many seconds of laughter it produced.

KWONG: I saw this and I was like, Kasha, what are you doing with your free time? What is this? What is this?

PATEL: (Laughter).

KWONG: You tell the crowd that you're doing this data analysis on your own jokes. And you kind of share some statistics with them.

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PATEL: I also categorized my jokes as science or not science. And it turns out that only a quarter of my jokes are science jokes. But this small percentage actually had the biggest impact out of all of my jokes. If you looked at my jokes overall, my science jokes actually performed 40% better than my non-science jokes.

KWONG: I burst out laughing when I heard this. I also felt huge relief. Like, maybe this podcast we make has a future. But what is up with that?

PATEL: (Laughter).

KWONG: Why did your science jokes, which weren't that many in your set, do so well? What have you figured out since?

PATEL: The thing about science is...

KWONG: Tell me the thing about science.

PATEL: The thing about science is it relates to everybody, whether people know it or not. And whether it's about your diet or an attraction to somebody, there's science in everything. So a person who says that they don't like science - I think they might not understand that science takes so many forms. And I think that, you know, maybe this past few years, people have really gotten into science with COVID - learning what the vaccines are and things like that. But, you know, even before then, science is everywhere. And I think people just aren't necessarily aware that when they're eating their food or when they're taking their vitamins or anything like that - you know, when they're walking outside and they see a bird that they normally haven't seen before, I mean, that's all part of science.

KWONG: Yeah. You're reminding me of the fact (laughter) that one of the ways you got on our radar is because someone on the team saw your talk entitled - I think it was a panel discussion - Engaging Your Audience with Poop Jokes and Other Funny Elements.

PATEL: (Laughter).

KWONG: We all poop - all of us, no matter our political leanings. I mean, ideally, hopefully - you know, IBS is a real problem in my family. But we all poop, and we can all, like, laugh about that. And there's, like, scientific knowledge to be had in that. What role is comedy playing in those moments when it comes to communicating science, do you think?

PATEL: Yeah. I think it depends on the topic sometimes. So for some of these sillier jokes that might not have a effect on people's everyday lives, I just want to show that science can be cool. It can be fun. I want science to be approachable. And I think that people think of scientists as kind of stodgy people, and the stuff that they do is too difficult to understand. And I want my jokes to show, no, it's all about how you approach the subject, how you can communicate the subject. And it can be something quite enjoyable. There's a lot of potential for bringing science to the masses through comedy.

KWONG: Yeah, there is a lot of potential.

PATEL: I've been really astounded to see how many people enjoy it. And they come back, and we have sold-out shows. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I'd be making - one, that I'd be a stand-up comedian and, two, that I'd be known for making jokes about science around the world. So that's pretty cool.

KWONG: What do your brothers think of all of this?

PATEL: (Laughter) They think it's cool. They think it's cool.

KWONG: I just think as the little sister, you're getting the last laugh here. I think that's pretty cool.

PATEL: (Laughter).

KWONG: It was a pleasure talking to you.

PATEL: Yes, yes. Thank you so much. Pleasure talking to you, too.

KWONG: Today's episode was produced by Berly McCoy, edited by Stephanie O'Neill and fact-checked by Katherine Sypher. Brian Jarboe was the audio engineer. Gisele Grayson is our senior supervising editor. Andrea Kissack is the head of the science desk. Edith Chapin and Terence Samuel are the executive editors and vice presidents of news, and Nancy Barnes is our senior vice president of news. I'm Emily Kwong. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.

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RICHARD: Hi, SHORT WAVE. This is Richard (ph) from Breckenridge, Colo. Neutron walks into a bar, orders a drink. Bartender says, for you, no charge.

SHELLY: Hi, I'm Shelly (ph). I'm calling you from South Jersey with a great joke. How do scientists solve the problem of bad breath? With experi-mints (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, SHORT WAVErs. I saw a group of protesters out in front of a physics lab holding pro-time travel signs. And a big chant started up, and the leader had a bullhorn. And he yelled, what do we want? And the whole group replied, time travel. He yelled through his bullhorn, when do we want it? And the whole group yelled back, irrelevant.

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