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.