Dave Gorman is a stand-up comedian, author and presenter with a love of mathematics. Dave shot to fame in 2000 with the stage show ‘Are You Dave Gorman?’ which focused on his quest to find as many people as he could also called Dave Gorman. His shows often take a scientific approach in that he provides painstakingly acquired evidence for his on-stage claims.
And the pleasure for me is in going ‘No, I know I’m not gonna really get it, but I’m gonna bloody try’.
On getting interested in science
My interest is miscellaneous but I guess it starts with a mathematical twist, that sort of is my entry point. I was a maths student as a kid, I sort of did O level a year early and A level a year early in that kind of weird…it was a comprehensive state school but they were really sort of good at teaching that and I found it really exciting and fun and I went to university and studied it and then got bored of it and dropped out, but never quite got bored of it, and would…even when I’d dropped out I would sort of go and buy and read maths books because I find it so weird and fascinating
On how mathematics and science affects your work
I used to think that having sort of studied maths had no effect on what I did for a living and when I first started doing stand-up I was kind of running away from this scientific background. But then, the more I think about it, one of the mantras of the maths student is, always show your working out, and that’s what I do on stage: I tell true stories and I always provide the evidence ‘cause I figure audiences are so immune to the idea that people could tell the truth, they assume everything is a lie or an exaggeration and they’re used to comics saying, ‘A funny thing happened on the way to the theatre’, and they think, ‘Yeah, if it ever happened, it didn’t happen on the way to this theatre, mister’, and so I’m the one who says, ‘No, I was travelling here and look, here’s a picture of me and here’s my boarding card and here’s the evidence’, but that’s me showing my working out, that’s me, I think, being a bit of a maths student still.
I think rational thought and analysis are part of a lot of people’s comedy, but then there’s other people’s comedy that is entirely whimsical. I think there was an Arnold Brown thing, I think it was Arnold Brown, it’s something about how American comics say, ‘I know how it is and I’m gonna tell you how it is’ and British comics sort of go, ‘Er, I dunno, what’s going on’ and sort of could draw these different…actually there’s so many different shades of grey, but whichever one of those you’re doing, if you’re playing dumb, and people are laughing at it, they actually understand that you understand, no one ever buys that you really don’t understand any of that thing you’re claiming to be dumb about ‘cause otherwise you wouldn’t get the joke; you must get the joke cause you’re making people laugh with it. So there’s always a kind of level of understanding and a level of critical analysis of the world around you whether that be…even if it’s observational comedy about how people vacuum their carpets, that is still applying some level of critical thought to the world that you see around you, isn’t it? I think, it doesn’t seem very scientific but I think it’s in there.
On being playful with statistics
Yeah, I think…there’s a weird thing with using statistics in comedy ‘cause it’s done in different ways, and I in no way would want to compare myself to Chris Morris, for example, but he would show graphs and stats that didn’t make sense, that were a satire of the way the news media would incorrectly use graphs and silly graphics instead of just normal bars, so things are fat and tall and exaggerated and you look at them and you’re not meant to go, ‘Ooh, that is bigger than that, that’s important’, you look at that and go, ‘Yeah, that is exactly how the news media misrepresent facts and figures to us’. And I use graphs in completely the opposite way, they are actually there to tell a story. It was never a parody of statistical analysis or whatever, I did it ‘cause it allowed me to shortcut a story and convey a lot of information in one image and that’s useful, that’s exactly what stats are actually for; I’m actually just using legitimate stats. The weird thing that came about is that I now, having dropped out of my maths degree, um, I now have an honorary degree from Staffordshire University which my mum is very proud of and I got it…there’s a certificate that says, for your contribution to mathematics and your work. It came about because a lecturer in mathematics at Keele in Staffordshire University, the Keele campus, had students coming in the day after my show saying, ‘Is that right, is that thing he’s doing correct?’ And it was like a little way of him engaging with some students in mathematics so, weirdly, it all came full circle and I got to wear a silly mortarboard hat.
I think there’s a kind of comedy that I really don’t like, which is taking things too literally. We’re meant to be on the side of the artists, we’re meant to be on the side of art and language and poetry, that’s who…that’s what comics are, they’re performers dealing in the spoken word. So I don’t like that sort of thing, but I think from that there’s a sort of logical leap to understanding where the beauty and the poetry of science is. That when you discover that things are linked, you realise, um, I can’t think of how this reflects on any individual joke but I remember being at school, doing mathematics, I don’t understand Euler’s number, I’m not going to pretend I do, I’m way out of my depth. I sort of understood what i was, the square root of minus one, and I sort of know what pi is, and when you discover an equation that links them all, so ei ? + 1 = 0, wow, like, mind blown, all those things are connected; I’ve been dealing with this one over here and I’ve been dealing with this one over here and I had no idea that there was any kind of correlation between these apparently random things. That’s kind of how a lot of comedy works, the connection between apparently random things making you think we’re dealing with one thing and then discovering that we’re actually dealing with the other or so…so I think there is some kind of pattern, but it’s that old Barry Cryer thing, if you dissect a frog you end up with a non-working frog so it’s probably best not to delve.
On the excitement of science
I think the weird thing with the way science has gone is that we have…we’ve absolutely now pushed it into a realm where the common man is always going to struggle to cope with the latest developments. So everything that comes out now from the Large Hadron Collider, from the latest developments in mathematics, they can try and explain it in a newspaper but the chances are that we can’t really get our heads round it; it’s a real struggle. There was a time where the latest technological advances were things that could be understood by the common man, where the technology in your home was stuff that you could take apart and work with and build, and if you lifted a car bonnet a man could roll up his sleeves and see that that piece moves and it makes that piece move and that makes this happen and have a good go at fixing it with just some basic kind of mechanical understanding. And you could take apart a toaster and rebuild it and make it work and you could…people made a crystal wireless set at home and so it was all stuff you could get your hands on.
Now if your toaster breaks you get it fixed and no one knows what’s going on inside their computer, you know, we are completely…and I think that’s a weird disconnect that goes on that is making…or it’s helping to drive some people to think, ‘Well, it’s all magic, I don’t have to think about this’. And the pleasure for me is in going ‘No, I know I’m not gonna really get it, but I’m gonna bloody try, please try and make this understandable to me’
That’s where the people that you’ll see elsewhere on this periodic table like your Ben Goldacres and your Simon Singhs and your Brian Coxs are so valuable because they’re almost the most important scientists now because they’re the ones who are trying to engage the common man in science still. There’s all this other stuff going on that left us behind a long time ago and you…you’d have to have studied it all your life to really, really get your head round it, but it’s bloody fun trying.
And then, I guess, the one thing from my childhood – and it’s really, I guess, from the tail end of my childhood and probably really into my early adulthood – is, sort of, energy and I think that’s when… maybe that’s just when I became aware of people asking those questions but that idea that the population’s growing, we need to feed everyone, we like to turn our lights on and off and we like to turn things on and have them turn on, um, and I think, kind of, the renewable energy and all those, that whole area, nuclear power and, like, solving that riddle and sort of…when I was a kid it felt like the received wisdom was ‘nuclear power, very bad’ and then in early adulthood it was like, ‘mmm, maybe, actually, that is clean and safe’ and I still don’t know the answers myself; I really don’t know where I fit in all those things and it’s a word that is emotive but it’s also a problem that we genuinely do need to solve and I find that a proper kind of…I have no intention of entering the debate ‘cause I’m an idiot, but I’m very, very interested in how it gets resolved.