Making Climate Change Fun and Funny: Why Do It? For One Thing, Get Folks ‘Into the Room’

Is comedy on climate change an antidote to the obstacles impeding improved public understanding?  For one thing, it can get people otherwise not inclined “into the room,” says stand-up comedian Yoram Bauman of Seattle, who points also to other advantages.

So, you think climate change is no laughing matter. Not many chuckles to be had from rising sea levels, shrinking glaciers, more sultry summer days, and carnage for who-knows-how-many species?

How ’bout economics? Now, there’s a real knee-slapper. Just think what fun it would be to pair the hilarity of climate change with the frivolity of economics. They’d be rollin’ in the aisles, right?

Maybe.

Who knows? Humor just may be the silver bullet, the key to unlocking the communication brick walls standing in the way of that more informed citizenry so critical in a democracy. After all, not much else has worked so well that humor should be denied its opportunity.

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It’s not that there’s no humor whatsoever in the climate change arena, mind you. Think of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert and his “Climate Catfight” point-counterpunch to get a good laugh. And the Fox Network’s “Simpsons” shows have gotten their share of laughs on the climate issue too. In addition, some climate change “believers” surely must find some of the points persistently made by “doubters” to be downright laughable … and, it must be added, vice versa. Humor — and attendant laughter, ridiculing, and otherwise — sometimes just happens after all.

But with one West Coast stand-up comedian and adjunct college professor, climate comedy happens frequently, and by design. Just ask Yoram Bauman, as The Yale Forum recently did in a Q&A.

Yale Forum: Tell us a little bit about how you got into the stand-up comedian shtick with economics, and now climate change, as a focus.

Yoram Bauman: The humor started in graduate school, where I wrote a parody of an economics text book by Greg Mankiw. One thing led to another, and it got published in “The Annals of Improbable Research,” which is a science humor journal. And they run a humor session every year at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meeting.

In 2004, that meeting was in Seattle, so they invited me to present my paper. Which I did, and I had so much fun that I got into stand-up comedy and started going down to open-mic nights, and learning how to do stand-up comedy. And then I found out that people were interested in stand-up comedy about things beyond economics, so I developed some material that wasn’t just about economics. And then I developed a bunch more economics-related material. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since, performing stand-up economics comedy.

The climate change piece is mostly that. My PhD work is related to environmental economics and using market forces to protect the environment. That’s what I’m particularly keen on. I’ve started in doing more and more work in my teaching and my research and, with my activist’s hat on, about climate change. And carbon taxes in particular. That’s something I talk about in my routines because it’s something that I’m passionate about, and it’s something that I feel I can make a contribution to.

One Goal: Get People to
‘Take Their Hands Off Their Ears’

Humor is a good way to do that. I feel a lot of the challenge with climate change is getting people to take their hands off their ears and listen to people who have opinions that are different from their own, arguably on different sides. Especially right now, with conservatives who are skeptical of climate science.

Since I do economics comedy, I speak to a lot of business groups and conservative groups. And I have what I think is a pretty friendly message for them: I’m not anti-capitalism; I’m not trying to destroy the economy. I’m trying to reform the tax system in a way that’s going to both help the economy and help deal with climate change.

And … Just Get People ‘Inside the Room’

Yale Forum: What can humor accomplish that other modes of communications can’t, aren’t, or can’t do as well in informing the public about climate change?

Bauman: Maybe the most important thing is just getting people into the room. People will come and see an economics comedy talk who would never go and see a talk about climate change. Simply because it’s a matter of self-selection in the audience. Just getting people into the room is one thing that I think you can do with a humorous approach.

And then once they’re in the room, I think that there’s some value in … you know, you can kind of break down some barriers when you use humor. Especially if you make fun of yourself a little bit, or you make fun of economists in general, or people in general. But showing that there’s an element of comedy, that you’re open to criticism, that you’re someone who is reasonable and interesting to talk to, even if you don’t necessarily agree with everything they say.

Remembering Jokes Better Than They Do Pie Charts

The third thing is that sometimes people will remember comedy a lot better than they will remember anything else. I was looking at a course evaluation for a class I taught at the University of Washington, and there are little metaphors, little analogies of what people remember from the class. And jokes are among those things they remember. People will sometimes remember jokes, or setups, or punch lines much more than they will remember dry presentations of facts and figures.

Yale Forum: Let’s accept for a moment that economists are not generally viewed as inherently humorous people. And climate change as a subject is not generally seen as a riot. In fact, people in the environmental field are often seen as taking themselves “too seriously.” So how do you combine those areas and get humor? Is it in fact because they’re both so serious that you can make them funny?

Bauman: I think that’s certainly true of economics. What I think you need to do good comedy, is that you need sort of a stereotype to begin with. And there’s a strong stereotype about economics: You know, economics is boring, and economists are money-grubbing and hyper-rational.

So when you have that, you can do a joke like “You Might ….” lines. For instance, “You might be an economist if you think ‘supply and demand’ is a good answer to the question of where do babies come from.” That’s the sort of joke that plays with that sort of stereotype.

Climate change is a little trickier. Partly because it’s a little bit more difficult to get that strong stereotype to play with. And also partly because it’s such a raw political topic. So I spend a couple of minutes in my routines talking seriously about climate change.

In a one-hour presentation, if I’ve spent a half-hour telling jokes that people have been laughing at, then I’ve built-up enough good will that they’ll allow me to spend 5 minutes talking about something rather serious, like climate change, that I’m passionate about. And then I go back to telling jokes.

I have some jokes that I talk about when I discuss climate change. Some of them are kind of like meta-jokes. So I spend about 5 minutes talking about climate change, and I thank the audience for letting me talk to them seriously. And then I go back to telling jokes.

When the ‘Funniest Part’ is the Serious Part …

But I did this once for a very conservative audience in Minnesota, and a person came up to me after the show and said that he thought the serious material I did on climate change was the funniest part of my whole act.

There’s stuff like that that sort of establishes a personal connection that some of the audience can relate to. So I now take that experience in Minnesota and include it in my comedy about climate change, and it always gets a good laugh.

I talk about Svante Arrhenius, the very early climate scientist. I don’t really go into the details of climate science, I just say that climate science goes all the way back to the work that he did in 1896, and that he was a chemist in Sweden, and that his estimate of climate sensitivity is not that far off from what people talk about today. And then I say that the big difference in where he was then and where we are now is that he thought climate change was going to be awesome, because he lived in Sweden. And if you go back and look at his writings, he sort of said that there will be this temperature increase, and crops will grow better, and it will be fabulous. And I always get a laugh at that line.

Yale Forum: Your own climate comedy clearly is from the standpoint of one who cares deeply about the issue and has a pretty thorough understanding of climate science. Are you aware of any stand-up comedians addressing the issue from a “skeptics” standpoint?

Bauman: You see a lot of funny stuff, sort of in blogs. Ray Pierrehombert [University of Chicago scientist and by no means a climate "skeptic"] on Freakonomics, the map to get to his campus office, etc. There are things like that on both sides, people who make their points with humor.

Yale Forum: Do you find your own climate comedy routines play better with some audiences than with others?

Bauman: I think humor plays better with “skeptics,” because … what I do is public education. The fundamental problem is a lack of trust. And when you have a lack of trust, the biggest challenge is just getting a dialog started. How you get people in the room. How you get them to consider reasonably what you have to say, instead of blowing you off or blowing you off by simply not coming. And liberal audiences tend to be more, like, well they’re ready to show up and listen to a climate scientist talk seriously about climate science….

It’s like if a person were on the left side of the political spectrum, and someone wanted him or her to come give a talk about privatization of Social Security. You could get a famous PhD economist to come in and give that talk. But some people are never going to give them the time of day if they don’t have an open mind about that particular topic. So humor is a way to get people into the room and a way to establish sort of a connection with the audience. If you can make that connection, then they’ll travel with you down the road for a while.

Being Funny While Being Thoughtful

Yale Forum: There’s a comment on Jon Stewart’s Comedy Central site that a viewer felt climate change is too serious an issue to be joked about. In effect, it’s no laughing matter. How do you react to that?

Bauman: I hear that from time to time. Mostly my feeling is that you can do comedy about all sorts of serious topics. So I don’t think climate change is out of bounds. I do a joke about the death penalty: I say you might be an economist if you say you’re opposed to the death penalty because it’s too expensive ….

People often associate something that is funny with something that is not thoughtful. But those are two different things: you can be stupid about climate change and you can be stupid/funny or stupid/not funny. And you can be thoughtful about climate change in a humorous way. And I think it may not be for everybody, but it’s what I do.

The ‘Vanilla Ice’ Climate/Economy Model

Yale Forum: Have you found a guaranteed laugh line for climate change? A couple of guaranteed zingers?

Bauman: They’re less one-liners, and more kind of laugh lines that come as part of a story. So for instance the one about the fellow in Minnesota — the one who said that my serious talk about climate change was the funniest part of my routine. That sort of always gets laughs. And that’s actually a true story.

There’s a point in my routine that I talk about cost-benefit analysis models. And I talk about how Bill Nordhaus at Yale has a model called the Dynamic Integrated Model of Climate and the Economy, which is the DICE Model for short. And a few years later he came up with a regional version of the model, which is called the RICE model.

I say I have my own version of the model which is called the Value-Laden, Assumption-Laden Nicely Intertemporal, Largely Linear Approximation Integrated model of Climate and Economy, which is called the VANILLA ICE model. And then I have a picture of Vanilla Ice. People always laugh at that.

Yale Forum: Is anything about the climate change subject simply off limits for humor?

Bauman: I don’t think so, as long as you do it in a thoughtful way. I recall a routine on TV where a person says, so climate change happens. So what? I’ll just take off my sweater. And that’s the punch line. And that’s just stupid. It’s not thinking thoughtfully about the subject matter. But if you can thoughtfully joke about sea level rise or fossil fuels, go for it.

Yale Forum: Is it more difficult to be a stand-up economics comedian than a stand-up climate change comedian?

Bauman: I’ve found a surprising amount of difficulty getting folks from the environmental side of things, from the climate change side of things, to be interested in stand-up economy as an approach.

When people hire me, they hire me to do economics comedy. And that’s partly because I am an economist. I’m not a climate scientist. But I think there’s a little bit of that “This is serious, and we don’t want someone coming in here and making jokes” sort of attitude.

Yale Forum: You also work with comic books? Are they an effective medium for addressing climate change?

Bauman: Comic books are awesome, but they have some of the same challenges that stand-up comedy has in terms of being accepted as a medium of communication. And they have some of the same benefits in terms of being able to reach out to people. People who would not pick up a 600-page economics text book will pick up an economics comic or cartoon book that they can read in two hours. I have a macro-economics cartoon book coming out next January, and after that I hope to do a cartoon book about climate change, targeted at upper-year high school or lower-year college classes, for instance people who are taking “principles of economics” college classes.

If you have a PhD in economics, you might get more of the inside jokes in my comedy routines that will entertain you. But even if you don’t know anything about economics, you can read them and learn from them. That will be my goal also with the climate cartoon book.

Yale Forum: A final question: What’s funnier: Carbon taxes? Or cap-and-trade?

Bauman: [Laughter] I’ve never been asked that question before.

I can see humor in neither for the most part. Jokes about cap-and-trade would be about how complicated it is, because everything is as clear as mud. Jokes about carbon taxes would be that it’s very transparent — a tax and carbon prices would go up.

I can tell you one subject comedians love dealing with: comedians love to talk about gas prices at the pump going up.

Yale Forum:  Maybe that last point is your common ground with some in the environmental community or some supporting action on climate change. Maybe it’s the “door opener” you need to work with them in particular. Thanks for the interview.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is editor of The Yale Forum (E-mail: bud@yaleclimatemediaforum.org).
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