The Seriously Funny Fringe

When Simon Jenkins wrote in The Guardian a couple of months back about science being a new religion we all scoffed. Oh, how we scoffed.

Scoff, scoff, scoff, scoff, scoff.


But having been at the Edinburgh Fringe for a few days now, I’m wondering if he might have had a point. We are here for a week of our holidays, thanks to the demands of our comedy-loving children, who have expertly dictated our program of shows–there’s not a been single dud so far (well, almost*).

However, not wanting to be entirely at the beck and call of my children, I have steered us to a couple of the more science-themed offerings. On Monday we rolled up, at the alarmingly early time of 11:25 am to Your Days are Numbered: the Maths of Death, an entertaining romp through the probability and statistics of mortality by Matt Parker (@standupmaths) and Timandra Harkness. Fact: you are certain to meet death one day but (at least in the UK) this will not involve sharks.

The show was very funny and, in a strange way–by rubbing our noses in the numerology of ephemerality–really quite life-affirming.

Edinburgh Car Park

The Edinburgh Fringe – not entirely what we were expecting.

I had the same feeling yesterday, at the slightly more respectable time of 12:10 pm, during Robin Ince’s Carl Sagan is still my God. Despite the ironic title and his opening poke at Jenkins’ science-bashing journalism, Ince’s show was very much about imparting a sense of the glory of the very existence of the universe and of the ineffable fact of our evolution to consciousness within it.

He read from works by Feynman and Sagan, clearly and rightly enthralled by  the power of their curiosity and the lucidity of their thinking, and very much wanting to share that with the audience. I should add that the readings were linked with plenty of witty banter–this is a comedy festival after all and Ince is a superb comedian (his Laurel and Hardy impressions were particularly impressive)–but there was a certain proselytising energy about the performance.

Which is no bad thing.

Even at Richard Herring’s show, Christ on a Bike, squarely aimed to pull humour out of the contradictions of biblical writing and religious teaching (much of it at the expense of his religious parents), there was an unexpected proselytising twist. Herring had no qualms about shocking his audience with his material (I confess to squirming in my seat beside my kids on one or two occasions) but at the end, after he’d had his fun, his tone became almost reverential. Hilariously and raunchily iconoclastic it may have been, but underlying the performance was a thoughtful, almost respectful, consideration of the charitable precepts of Christianity. Herring’s clearly a bit of a thinker.

Of course there’s nothing in what Jenkins says about science being a religion – his argument was just gratuitous opinion-piece fodder. But science as a way of life, of looking at the world–well, there could be something in that. If our experience of Edinburgh is anything to go by, it seems to be gaining in popularity.


*Sorry to say that Dyslexia, The Musical, while not lacking in energy was a bit too much of a pantomime for my tastes. Other non-scientific hits were Delete the Banjax, The Penny Dreadfuls and the utterly, utterly brilliant Tripod vs The Dragons (warning: extremely nerdy).

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12 Responses to The Seriously Funny Fringe

  1. Heather Etchevers says:

    Wow! Logins work directly! Hooray!
    As for your last remark, all I can say is, thank goodness. 🙂

  2. Ken Doyle says:

    Sounds like a great way to spend a holiday.
    I’ve certainly met a few evangelical scientists, but maybe science as a worldview, rather than a religion, fits the bill.

  3. Mike Fowler says:

    Just missed you – I was in Edinburgh for a couple of weeks, but came back south last weekend.
    Richard Herring has a series of, ummm, eclectic podcasts: As It Occurs To Me that I’m working my way through. I’m sure I would’ve enjoyed his Fringe show as well.
    And if you have time, you might want to check out the Skeptics on the Fringe shows that are being arranged by an old band mate of mine, Keir Liddle (and old band that is, he’s not that old). Do say hello from me if you bump into him.

  4. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I heart the Fringe – sorry to have missed it this year. Although, it’s not too late to invite myself to my friends’ house in Morningside…(hmmm.)

  5. Stephen Curry says:

    Probably too early to get too optimistic about a new enlightenment 😉 but there is certainly a very pleasant, open atmosphere here at Edinburgh.
    Sorry to have missed you Mike. Does your pal go by @endless_psych, by any chance. Think we exchanged tweets last night. May make it to Skeptics on Friday.
    Go for it Jenny. This is my first time and I can’t believe I’ve left it this long!

  6. Cath Ennis says:

    Ah, the Fringe… happy memories of taking the 7am train over from Glasgow, and the last train home (sometimes making it with 30 seconds to spare, running all the faster from the fear of being stuck in Edinburgh overnight during a month when the whole city effectively has a “No Vacancies” sign hanging over it). Good times, even though my choices were limited by my minute student stipend – I managed fewer shows in three years than you did on this trip – but it was fun just to hang out (always avoiding the kind of pub featured in the “First Day of the Edinburgh Festival” part of _Trainspotting_).

  7. Mike Fowler says:

    Yep, Keir = endless_psych. I wanted to see their show, but flight times just didn’t work out. I’ll look forward to a review later in the week 😉
    Even though I grew up in Edinburgh, I’ve been to shamefully few Festival/Fringe shows. Too many bloody tourists for us locals, dontcha know.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    Cath – you make it sound so exciting. Though I guess it was a bit stressful at the time.
    I’ll have to re-watch Trainspotting – don’t remember that bit of the film (one of Danny Boyle’s better efforts).
    Mike – sure ’twas ever thus with stuff on your doorstep. I’m the same with London.

  9. Cath Ennis says:

    Exciting? Well, I suppose so, in an adrenaliney kind of way. But at least now you know that those hordes of people sprinting towards Waverley station at 11pm are just Weegies, _not_ the zombie apocalypse. (Although I appreciate that it can be hard to tell the difference at times).
    I couldn’t find the right clip from _Trainspotting_ on YouTube – it’s just a short scene. I’m sure you’ll remember it well when you see it though!
    Hmm, maybe I’ll watch _Trainspotting_ again soon myself. I’ve never seen the director’s cut (I think it’s called _Trainspotting Green_), which is apparently excellent.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    @Cath – “Weegies” – I presume you mean Glaswegians? That has to be my new word for today – thanks!

  11. Cath Ennis says:

    WARNING: do not use your new word in Glasgow. It is slightly derogatory, although as a Sassenach outsider I felt free to use it to describe it myself while I lived in that fine city[1].
    Edinburgh should be safe. Just don’t tell them that chips and cheese is a superior dish to chips with salt and sauce.
    fn1. After I typed that I realised it sounded sarcastic. It wasn’t meant that way – I _loved_ living in Glasgow! I still get nostalgic for it sometimes… like when I bought tickets this week to see the Big Yin in November (I’ve only seen him once before, and that was in Toronto, but he talked about Glasgow a lot during that show! Also, several of my friends ran into him in pubs and restaurants and said he was really friendly and approachable. And one of the PIs in my department was a schoolfriend of his).

  12. Stephen Curry says:

    Thanks for the tip, Cath. You may very well have just saved my life.

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