Shadowy cabinets crowded with curiosities – jars of assorted specimens, dissected organs, posing skeletons – frame the proceedings of Animal Showoff, an alternative open-mic performance where science meets stand-up. The Showoff Series is a programme of themed comedy events ranging from science and history to food and law, which give experts the opportunity to share their research, passions, and humour in 9-minute sets. The venue for Animal Showoff, curated and emceed by Showoff founder and ‘science comedian’ Dr Steve Cross, is the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL. Here, natural history is celebrated with an underlying chuckle —think escaping specimens and an Extinct Animals case filled with plastic toy dinosaurs.
First up is Catie Williams, a PhD student studying primate gut bacteria at UCL. Catie explains the arguably grim duties of her research, which require her to search for faecal samples at London Zoo, and shares her recent odyssey of self-discovery. On a quest to realise her public identity (read: “What will future employers find if they Google me?”), 45 minutes of digital soul searching revealed one definitive conclusion: Catie is the only person on the web to proudly- and professionally- claim the role of ‘primate poo collector’. She’s since updated her CV to reflect this, modestly tagging on the deserved title of ‘Word’s Greatest’.
Next, Olivia Neville of London Zoo presents a set that can only be described as quiz show-cum-abstract performance art (or perhaps we’re unwitting subjects in a social experiment). She rummages through her bag and produces a photo of a tiger. “First the girls: What species is this?” We answer. Next, she pulls out a large printed ‘m’ (as in the universal symbol for ‘bird’ that we pluck from the depths of our creative intuition in nursery school). “Now the guys: What animal is this?” Mixed answers, but the consensus is unanimous. From there, her line of questioning adopts the path of a harassed pinball. “What Disney movie features four vultures?” “What are the vultures’ names?” “Which one looks like this?” [She strikes a pose.] Head-scratching prompts for miscellaneous musing include competitive rounds of humming the Mastermind theme tune.
Dr Andrew Cuff of UCL’s Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment shares experiences from his paleontological fieldwork in North America. Dr Cuff brushes over the standard challenges of fossil hunting- snakes and sinkholes, floods and puma encounters- you know, the boring bits, and seems more keen to plug his personal take on the ‘paleo diet’. His secret: weeks of dawn-to-dusk digging and hauling gear on 13-mile hikes. Dr Cuff mentions the time he happened upon a partially-exposed dinosaur skeleton while ducking behind a bush to relieve himself, but his enthusiasm for this discovery was tepid in comparison to his career highlight: hunting for dino bones alongside Jurassic Park consultant Dr Philip J. Currie.
Elise Bramich’s set takes a darker tone. She discusses ways that animals have been used in warfare from ancient to modern times and focuses on Project X-Ray, also known as Bat Bomb, a weapons scheme developed by the US government during WWII. Project X-Ray consisted of attaching small incendiary bombs to Mexican Free-tailed bats, which were placed in capsules to be dropped over Japanese villages. Each capsule would deploy a small parachute before hitting the ground and would release the bat upon impact. The bats were then expected to roost in homes and buildings, their cargo set to explode at a particular time. This horrifying strategy was not implemented. However, Elise suggests that it would have been significantly less destructive than the ensuing atrocities.
Sarah Lambert of Goldsmiths University of London walks us through a history of European elephant renderings, all of which were drawn, painted, embroidered, or tiled by artists whose experience with elephants was limited to titbits of (what one could only imagine to be spectacularly vague) hearsay. Prominently displayed on royal tapestries and synagogue walls, such depictions range in anatomical accuracy from tusked wolf-lions to mouse-rhinos. However, as a recent round of Pictionary revealed that my personal ‘elephant’ looks strikingly like a pig crossed with a garden hose, I tip my hat to all pre-Attenborough attempts.
Kew Gardens’ master of mycelium, Lee Davies, takes a rebellious approach to the event’s theme and crafts a compelling argument to explain why fungi are superior to animals. He cites fungi’s role in the development of anti-rejection medications for organ-transplant patients and gives examples of the world’s most spectacular, beautiful, and bizarre fungal specimens. Perhaps most importantly, Lee reminds us of the fact that the ‘four main food groups’ (cheese, wine, beer, and bread) wouldn’t exist without it.
While less comedic than other Showoff events that I’ve attended, the night was entertaining, informative, and certainly well-suited to its venue. The next gig in the series is History Showoff, a return to the brand’s standard model of pub-basement stand-up. It will be held at 7pm on 3rd February at The Star of Kings in Kings Cross.
Science Showoff events often sell out, so it’s a good idea to book in advance. All proceeds from the next performance will be donated to the charity Living Water Satisfies. Tickets are £6 each and can be booked online.
Erin Frick is studying for an MSc in Science Communication