Thoughts on Life, Sex, Death (and Food)

Last night’s “Life, Sex, Death (and Food)” was great fun. Having gone through this once before, the people from the Philly Improv Theater and the returning academics had a better idea about how to prepare and set up the show. While it was still a bit hectic and last minute—something tells me such preparation is always hectic—we arrived early enough to have one quick run through and to test the equipment. Speaking just for myself, I will confess that I was a bit nervous until it was too late to worry any longer.

Paul and Patrick setting up.

More than 100 people showed up (I was told the event sold out) to the Chemical Heritage Foundation. The audience seemed to be a nice mix of science-festival goers most interested in science, people looking for some laughs, and at least a handful of historians and historians of science. Judging from the laughs, the applause, and the number of people who stayed around after the show to talk with the historians of science as well as the comedians, the show seems to have been a success.

A recent ad for banana flavored milk.

Karen Reeds and Chip Chantry opened the evening with a funny bit on the banana as the perfect food. Karen explained how Linnaeus was able to grow the first banana in Europe. He enjoyed it so much that he thought it most likely to have been the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Consequently, he named it the Musa paradisiaca. Chip then recounted all the ways the banana was the perfect comedic fruit.

The “Hear Ye” reporter in the village.

I paired with Secret Pants, a sketch comedy group. I talked about how a small village in 16th-century England tried to understand how a woman could give birth to a dead, hairless cat and how they could prevent it from happening again. Secret Pants had put together a brilliant parody of the breaking news programs, sort of a 16th-century version of CNN: Hear Ye.

Michael Yudell and Asteroid! Covered Sex.

Michael Yudell teamed up with Asteroid!, an improv group. Michael spoke about sex—hysteria, sex toys, and Alfred Kinsey’s sex research. Between each topic Asteroid! stepped in to offer a humorous interoperation.

Elly Truitt and Emily & Micah McGraw on Death.

Finally, Elly Truitt paired up with Emily and Micah McGraw to talk about death. Earlier ideas about death make our binary understanding of life and death seem incredibly simple-minded. Elly explained how ideas about death and when somebody was actually dead varied across Europe. Moreover, richer people and saints seemed better able to avoid the inevitable, or at least to prolong a strange period of limbo between life and death.

Such a format is a bit odd for historians of science who are more comfortable in a classroom and with a captive audience of students. It also can feel a little strange giving up control of your material to comedians whose job it is to make fun of things. In the end, however, it provided a forum to reach beyond the walls of the academy and to engage a general audience.