Chris Addison is a stand-up comedian, writer, actor and director. He is known for his lecture-style science themed stand up shows, his regular appearances on panel show ‘Mock the Week’ and for his role as Ollie Reeder in ‘The Thick of It’. In 2013 he has also directed numerous episodes of HBO series ‘Veep’.
Where science and comedy meet is they’re both trying to explain the world.
On being interested in science
My interest in science is, well, it’s a generalist interest in science really. It’s an amateur, ‘ooh, look at that’, kind of interest in science which I think is probably the same interest in science that most people have.
When did I get interested in science, though? I had a terrible moment when I was a kid where for…pretty much for all of my life up to the age of 11, I was certain I was going to be a scientist, that was it. Then in my first proper science lesson at big school I thought: ‘This isn’t going to work out for me. I don’t have the brain to deal with the technicality of it, I don’t have, or I can’t do all the stuff, the tinkering back there. The big ideas I can deal with but all of the little bits, I can’t do that.’
This is, in fact, my experience of science as a layman is best illustrated by…I bought Feynman’s ‘Six Easy Pieces‘, right? And so, originally Richard Feynman delivered these as lectures which were for an advanced physics class but were to kind of bring them up to speed. So the idea is, you should really, if you’ve got a brain on you, this should kind of lead you in. Great. OK. So I bought Feynman’s ‘Six Easy Pieces’ and I read the first easy piece and it wasn’t that easy but I got through it and the second, I was sort of half way through the second lecture and I turned the page over and began to read this page and thought ‘Oh, I’ve missed a page’. And I went back and, ah, I hadn’t missed a page. I just kept turning it over and I couldn’t see any connection between them and eventually I had to close the book and put it away and think the other, the remaining four and a half easy pieces, are for the people who can do this stuff.
I buy, not so much as I used to, but I used to sort of buy religiously the books like ‘Magic Universe‘ and things that are kind of popularising science for dummkopfs.
On science heroes
It’s such a terrible cliché but I love Darwin. I love him. And I love him because, ah, I really…humanity, the humanity in science. I like it when you can see the humanity in science. You know when, I’m a huge geek for the moon landings, I love all that, anything to do with moon landings, that’s me, and it’s interesting that the moon landings, we talk a lot about, whenever it’s discussed we talk obviously about the astronauts who made it to the moon. We talk about other members of their community and the, you know, the people involved in the kind of training of them and the science of the spacecraft on top of the rocket. Science of the command module and the lunar module. We don’t really talk about the scientists who made the rocket that sent them there because the scientists that made the rocket that sent them there are the same scientists, or some of the same scientists, some of them are, who sent the V-2 rockets to London and employed Jewish slave labour in the Harz mountains of Germany to develop these systems of ballistic missile, which is fundamentally what a Saturn V rocket is – it then became adapted for the Americans’ space program.
What I love about that is, Wernher von Braun, who is the man who led that, he was the scientist that the Russians and the Americans chased to capture at the end of the Second World War because they knew that he had the team and the technology and the know-how to win the space race and win the arms race, more importantly, and, ah, he…he’s a very controversial figure because it’s not clear how much Wernher von Braun believed in serving the Nazis. It’s not clear how much he felt this was what he had to do in order to serve science and survive, you know, where he was and so forth. So he is a shady, difficult, controversial figure who contributed to mankind’s greatest moment of exploration and I kind of like that. I know I shouldn’t, in a way, but I kind of like that, that even that moment of astonishing achievement is mired in the complexities of humanity. I absolutely love that, it appeals to me hugely as an idea because, well, for lots of reasons, because it seems more honest, it seems more like this species doing it rather than some weird exceptional sub-group of this species doing it.
And Darwin, for me, that’s what…one of the reasons I love Charles Darwin is because he is so human and because his discoveries caused him such pain but he pursued them. He continued with them, knowing that what he was about to, the journey he was continuing on, he probably didn’t know when he was embarking on it, the journey he was continuing on, would destroy his own faith which was extremely important to him and extremely important to his wife and obviously society at the time so much, much bigger deal to decide God doesn’t exist in the 19th century than it is now when, you know, it’s just one of the points of view and I love that Darwin, he’s such a meticulous man, he’s such a meticulous scientist, he’s such a, you know…I wonder if because he was involved in the life sciences it’s easy because you can see his stuffed pigeons, you can see the samples he collected, it’s easy for us to connect with, those are images we understand, they’re not odd diagrams representing something that can’t be seen by the naked eye, they’re just there for you. So I think immediately what he’s doing is kind of appealing, just that sort of examination of these little things, but the notion that in each tiny examination of each tiny gradation of change he’s moving incrementally towards, and knows it, a terrible, terrible moment in his own psychology and his own life. I love that.
Advice for getting interested in science
I would say pick the thing you’re interested in, because we’re living in a phenomenal time. If you’re remotely interested in science, because there’s a huge boon in science, popular science publishing, so almost anything you’re interested in, there’s a book, a well-written book usually, on that subject. So that’s your way in because it’s too big…the subject is too big. Trying to get an overview, that’s all very well, but actually you’re introduced to big ideas in a very cursory way and they sort of float off before you can stick them to your head, almost.
I think you pick something you’re really interested in and find the book about that. Or, if you don’t really know where to start, go and stand in a bookshop, don’t browse online because it’s just not the same. Stand in front of that wall of books in Waterstones or Daunts or wherever – or your local independent bookshop which needs supporting – and, you know, browse. I mean, that’s the best way to find any interest in life isn’t it, browsing? Fundamentally, that’s all we’re doing as creatures. Looking through the world, seeing what interests us.
There’s definitely the problem of small steps. Personally I’ve always felt in my, in anything that I’ve done, it’s getting the beginning stuff out of the way, that’s the tricky bit because if you can persist with the first bit… It’s like an autobiography: I don’t give a shit what anybody’s childhood was like, tell me the gossip. Give me the interesting stories, the stuff behind the stuff that I already know about these people, that’s what I’m interested in in an autobiography. So, for me, you just kind of have to plough through those early chapters. It’s just not my interest.
Similarly, you try and learn a language and you think, ‘Brilliant! I’m gonna go to an Italian class and then within three weeks it’s gonna be amazing. I’m gonna be in Rome, hanging out at the Trevi Fountain, just, you know, chatting, as all Italians do’ and it’s not like that. It takes absolutely ages just to get the basic building blocks. And to an extent that’s true with science as well. If you want to understand string theory it’s probably best to understand some more basic things first. But the point about popular science at the moment is, actually, mostly those books on string theory will bring you up to speed relatively quickly. You can read Brian Cox’s book on why E=MC² if you’re prepared to put the effort in. That actually is the key thing, it’s about putting the effort in. What I often want is almost to be able to hold a book and have the knowledge somehow pass its way into my brain, you know, I want it to be simple and straight forward and require little effort. But, actually, reading a science book isn’t always like reading a…just a story, you actually have to…you might have to go back and rethink it and try and picture the ideas in your head in a way that’s comfortable in your own head so you can go ‘Right, I understand that now, now I can turn the page and move on’. I think you do have to bring a little commitment to it.
On the language of science
[On radio] I wasn’t allowed to use the word ‘inculcated’ but my producer, my wonderful producer, brilliant producer actually, said ‘You can’t use the world ‘inculcated’ – this is on Radio 4 – ‘because people won’t understand’, to which my response is ‘They can look it up! That’s how this works.’ But, I mean, any specialism, scientific or artistic or sporting or anything, has a reserved language, you know, has the language of the practitioner, so you’re always going to have to, to some extent, learn new words and terms and ways of expressing yourself which can sometimes be a little bit confusing, but the basis of a popular science, a good popular science book, which is really what we’re talking about, we’re not talking about a high evolved text book. If you’re looking at a good popular science book, the editor of a good popular science book, if it’s got stuff in it that’s too difficult, should’ve sent that back at some point and said ‘Change that’ and they usually have.
On doing stand up shows about science
So I did one on evolution, one on building a civilisation, so that’s anthropology, and one on the periodic table. So, I did a show about the periodic table and I remember saying…we were filming ‘The Thick of It’ at the time and I was on the dining bus and I was talking to Chris Langham and I was saying ‘Oh God, I’m just getting Edinburgh ready’. And he went ‘Oh yeah, what are you doing, what are you doing?’ And I said ‘I’m gonna do a show on the periodic table.’ And the look on his face, one of my great comedy heroes, the look on his face was ‘You’re screwed’. You’re screwed. And it did feel for a while like maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew with it but fundamentally the way…where science and comedy meet is they’re both trying to explain the world, right, they’re both trying to, they’re both about discovering why something happens and pointing it out. Really. And, so, it’s not that difficult to connect things like carbon and helium to real life things. You can’t talk about, you know, the molecular, the atomic weight of an element, you can’t do that…well you could, if you put some jokes in but, you know, if you connect it to real life stuff, which is what popular science is doing, then you’ll find jokes in that, it’s easy, and fundamentally the job was always nothing in the show is in the show unless there’s a joke attached to it. You can’t, ah, interesting facts are no good, it’s a comedy show so there has to be a joke, you know, and it has to be a good joke as well.
So sometimes you can take what the element does and is and stands for and make a load out of that. Carbon, you can talk about life forms, you can talk about fuel, you can talk about history, you can talk about carbon dating which is that we did, or the fact that they don’t really carbon date dinosaurs but don’t, we know about that, don’t worry about that but, ah, there are other elements like Molybdenum and the only joke we had for that was Molybdenum is the only element to be named by someone when drunk and that’s ‘It’s m-m-molybdenum’. We don’t know what they wanted to call it but that’s what it’s ended up being called so there’s, there is something in all of them.
Gold’s good isn’t it, gold’s great because gold is absolutely full of riches and evil and mystery and greed and H Samuels and, you know, splitting the atom is, ah, how you can get gold by splitting, what do you split to get gold? Oh, I can’t remember, it’s a joke from so many, eight years ago this show, I can’t even remember, but, yeah, I had, there was a whole section on carbon in fact because it gives so much.
On researching for writing
That’s it. That’s all any writer wants, whether they’re a writer of comedy or anything else, all any writer wants is the excuse to continue researching and not actually have to sit down and try and bend some words into shape. I never, I don’t really trust people who say they enjoy the very process of writing. I don’t really believe, I don’t trust them, I don’t like them, so, yeah, there’s definitely an element of sitting there carrying on reading the books.
I do enjoy the process of learning but also the reason…I did those shows for two reasons, I started off with the one about evolution. Actually, when I sat down to write the show about evolution I got a copy of Bronowski’s ‘The Ascent of Man‘ and I wanted to write a show that was about the great moments in human development and, sort of, this is basically because one of the things that formed me, or formed my brain, was my deep love of James Burke’s ‘The Day the Universe Changed‘, which is a TV series he did in 1985 and I had the book of and that was about, you know, the enclosures of the fields and the development of anaesthetic and great moments that have gone on, he was basically doing ‘Connections’ another way, you know, moments that have had a huge impact on human history. So I thought ‘I’ll do that’. Basically, I got stuck on the first chapter. I got stuck on the chapter of how we stopped being monkeys and, because there’s so much in it, almost all of the human story is told in that or can be extrapolated from it so it became the show about evolution and what I wanted to do in doing that show was two things. Firstly, just find something that I was really interested in because if you’re really interested in something it’s funnier. In comedy you know when someone’s talking from their heart, you can tell it. You see people doing political stuff where you think ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you really care about this’ and so it just doesn’t really work. You see people just sort of making observations, one of the reasons that hack observations are so annoying is because it’s not just that you’ve heard them before, but the person who’s saying it doesn’t really believe it, they’re just repeating a trope. It’s far more interesting if someone is actually passionate about what they’re talking about so I wanted to do something that interested me.
I wanted to stand out from all the other middle class white boys who wanted to be stand up comedians at Edinburgh, which is about 40% of the population of Edinburgh during the month of August and just do a different kind of show that I thought might interest an audience as well. Because I really believe that those ideas, the big ideas…if you can be silly with a big idea, that’s really funny. In fact, the bigger the idea the funnier it is when you’re silly with it and I love that. I absolutely love that. I’ve always liked that. That’s one of the best things about Python for me. You know, Python always used to talk about philosophy. Those guys constantly talked about philosophy in their sketches, you know, but [adopting a Terry Jones vox pop woman’s voice like this] ‘They did it like that’, which is actually, you don’t really need to do much more than say ‘Rene Descartes‘ in a voice like that, that to me, that’s already funny.
So yes, I loved the learning, I love those subjects and I knew that I could stand on stage and deliver them in a way that was really passionate.