Brian Malow | May 19, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 20 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 20 | p. 44 | C&EN Talks With
Issue Date: May 19, 2008

Brian Malow

For this comedian, science is not just a source of awe but also the stuff that mirth is made of
Department: Science & Technology
Credit: Tara Fredette
Credit: Tara Fredette

"SOME HELIUM GAS drifts into a bar," comedian Brian Malow says with a casual, welcoming delivery and his signature stubble-framed smile. Part of that life-is-fine look betrays his own disbelief that he now makes a large part of his living telling jokes to scientists—chemists, even. Malow continues. "The bartender says, 'We don't serve noble gases here.' " Pause. "The helium doesn't react."

For an astronomy audience, he floats this one early in the show: "I used to be an astronomer ... But I got stuck on the day shift."

For the particle physicists out there: "Women have passed through my life like exotic particles through a cloud chamber, leaving only vapor trails for me to study for clues to their nature."

Last year, Malow even came to ACS headquarters in Washington, D.C., during National Chemistry Week and treated an audience of a few dozen staffers to a half-hour of serious laughing. Malow gets a lot of steam out of bartender jokes like the helium one. Says the bartender to a superconductor that walks into the bar: "We don't serve superconductors here." After letting it sink in to his audience that someone is even telling a superconductor joke, Malow resolves the moment: "The superconductor leaves the bar, putting up no resistance."

And this one always gets a few guffaws in his geekier audiences: "I had a frightening experience at a café today," Malow begins, scanning the audience with a grin. "In the display case behind me, somebody had put pasta and antipasto right next to each other!" Pause. "Are they out of their Vulcan minds?"

Malow's jokes really are for everyone, not just scientists. In fact, because he often performs for audiences with mixed backgrounds in the sciences or no background in the sciences at all, he is happy to assume the role of an on-stage teacher, providing his audiences with just enough scientific background to get the joke. His growing list of credits now ranges from colleges, universities, and even high schools, to TV gigs (including an appearance on the "Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson"), to corporations and organizations such as 3M, Texaco, the National Academy of Sciences, and the March of Dimes. He also has served as a warm-up act for comic heavy-hitters, including Lewis Black and Drew Carey.

Last month, when C&EN caught up with Malow in Washington, D.C., he was riding high. Just two weeks earlier, he had been in town for a gig at the Koshland Science Museum—his third there in three years—where he rolled out his new show called "The Final Frontier?" that features jokes about the space program. Like last year's more microbiology-oriented show, "Science Comedy: It's Infectious," this new one was a hit. "It was hysterical," says Annie Drinkard, communications director for the museum and coordinator of the event. "He always is a popular draw."

The abundant laughter during the show was a sure sign of success, Malow says, but it was the National Aeronautics & Space Administration people who came up to him afterwards that really made his day.

"They asked if I would submit a question to Stephen Hawking," the brilliant celebrity cosmologist with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, who was scheduled to give a talk on April 21 to invited guests at George Washington University as part of NASA's yearlong 50th anniversary celebration. Not only did planners of the event approve the question Malow submitted the next day, but they also invited him to attend. Perfectly comfortable with his own geekiness, Malow could not hold back his ebullience over receiving this honor. His coup, he said, is that he managed to incorporate an arcane cosmology joke into his question.

This is where Malow's teacher side comes in. To get the joke, Malow first tells you that Hawking had developed a theory about how some black holes might not be that black after all and that they might give off what's called "Hawking radiation." Then Malow tells you about another theoretical phenomenon, a naked singularity, which is like a black hole except that it would be visible. With that background, you don't have to be Hawking to get the joke:

"What did the naked singularity say to the black hole," Malow asks. Answer: "Is that Hawking radiation or are you just happy to see me?"

In its promotional description of Malow, Seattle's Mainstage Comedy & Music Club points out some of what has gone into making this comedian funny: "Brian Malow is a rare breed: a Jew from Texas. Transplanted to California, he now resides in San Francisco." Malow recalls being a funny guy among the clique of friends he grew up with in Houston, but he says he was never the class clown. At the University of Texas, Austin, he was pursuing the premed route and doing well enough, but the idea of a lifetime of doctoring ultimately didn't sit well. For him, the more memorable experiences from those times derive from his role as a lyricist for a keyboardist friend who sang ballads and did '80s music.

THE TRANSFORMATIVE MOMENT for Malow came from his participation in "The Funniest Person in Austin" contest. He didn't win the top honor, but he did well, and, he notes, it was only his third time on stage. "That is all it took," says Malow, who since then has adapted his comedic twist on science and other matters for various media, including print, film, radio, and an Internet talk show.

Helping Malow with booking gigs, snapping promo pictures, maintaining morale, and writing material for what she describes as the "science geek market" is writer, former real estate appraiser, and Malow's girlfriend, Tara Fredette, of whom Malow says, "I find myself drawn to her ... with a force that is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between us."

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