5 Comments »Posted on Wednesday 2 December 2009 at 6:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Radio 4 comedy is sometimes good, but often terrible, while their science programmes are normally pretty decent. A new series called The Infinite Monkey Cage attempts to jam both science and comedy into one show, and as you might expect, the results are mixed.

The regular presenters are physicist Brian Cox and comedian Robin Ince, a self-confessed “keen idiot” when it comes to science. They’re joined in the first episode by the comedian Dara O’Briain, who studied cosmology at university, and Alice Roberts, an anatomist and science communicator. You may remember that Cox and O’Briain previously worked together on Physics Rocks, which formed part of the BBC’s LHC coverage last year.

It’s a good cast, and the chatty tone makes it easy to imagine yourself joining them down the pub for a drink and a natter about science, but I think billing the programme as a comedy is misleading. O’Briain draws an interesting parallel between scientists and comedians, who both effectively spend their lives comparing things to other things, but the conversation quickly takes a more serious turn.

When I’m listening to a comedy show, I don’t expect questions such as Cox’s “how do we educate people to respect the scientific method?” – not that it isn’t worth discussing, but its not funny either. They later try and bring things back with a sketch on the absurdity of science funding, but this was extremely “Radio 4″ comedy – in other words, dire.

Following up with Cox briefly interviewing science minister Lord Drayson just adds to the overall feeling of a programme trying to do too much. Is it about cracking science-themed jokes, or is it about discussing science as part of our wider culture? Am I meant to laugh, or learn?

Mixing science with comedy is difficult to do well, and The Infinite Monkey Cage doesn’t quite manage it. I’d much prefer something like Punk Science – big on laughs and lighter on content, but you still come away with some sort of insight. I’ll be checking out the next episode (it’s running for another three weeks) to see if they do any better.


  1. 5 Comments

  2. I’m not sure if its generally supposed to be about comedy or that’s just this week’s theme – the tagline is “a witty, irreverant and unashamedly rational look at the world according to science”. I’ll be listening on iplayer in a moment.

    By Katie Goates on Thursday 3 December, 2009 at 4:43 pm

  3. Well as of June 2011 it hasn’t improved any. I give up with the program. It’s as if they feel the science needs to be presented in a humourous way to appeal to people and the humour *is* terrible.
    As you say, it’s that very special Radio 4 ‘failed’ humour that makes you wince with embarrassment and roll your eyes yet again at how such lazy and tired material keeps getting commissioned.
    I thought I’d give it another chance today as they were going to be discussing the future of of space travel. Literally the first few minutes were taken up with the presenters being “funny” by retaliating to criticisms of the program being too ‘laddy’. You could almost imagine them high fiving each other at how “funny” they were being.
    I just don’t have time for this kind of mess of a program that desperately wants to be hip at the cost of any serious interest in science. Infinite Monkey Cage actually does a good job of reducing the interesting to the banal.

    By blipper on Monday 13 June, 2011 at 5:01 pm

  4. I haven’t heard the latest episode, but listening to last week’s I’d say it does seem like they’ve improved – I enjoyed it much more than this first episode.

    By Jacob Aron on Monday 13 June, 2011 at 10:00 pm

  5. I have listened to the first 5 episodes and I love it! There is nothing wrong with being funny, which they are, and informing people, which they do, on the different topics they cover.

    By john on Friday 23 December, 2011 at 10:28 pm

  6. If you mark this as “not funny”, you’re not getting the finer points and probably just isn’t interested enough in general science.
    The balance feels perfect, but I did think to myself that the finer jokes ( that are not killed with audience-laughter ) would fly over most heads.
    Which is exactly what it is for, to entertain an average science-geek and above. Then it’s a perfect mix. And should not be listened to in public areas as sudden bursts of laughter after quiet contemplation might appear.

    By Johnny Lunder on Thursday 1 November, 2012 at 3:12 am

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