James Colley and his stupid brain

February 2013

  • David Knight

Science doesn’t seem like the ideal comedy goldmine but James Colley isn’t your average comedian.

A fourth year science student at the University of Sydney, Colley began his stand up career as a 16-year-old, ending up as a teenage finalist in Triple J’s RAW Comedy NSW competition. Science was part of his repertoire from the beginning.

“When I was younger there were more small opinionated pieces on why creationism is bad and things like that,” Colley explains. “The science communication element has come on a bit stronger as I’ve studied at uni and become more passionate about it.”

Colley’s latest Fringe show, James Colley Vs His Own Stupid Brain, is currently showing at RiAus (the Royal Institution of Australia). The driving force behind Colley’s second Adelaide Fringe season (his first featured the show Welcome to the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Existence) is the science behind how our brain works with particular reference to reading and language.

“It was driven by the idea that our brains aren’t designed to read, it’s something that we pick up along the way. We have adapted three or four different brain systems to do it and it has a lot of interesting consequences. The idea is to find, basically, any point that the brain fails and why that happens.

“The show starts off with the idea that reading is automatic. One of the great things you can do when you know reading is automatic is that you can write anything on the screen and people are forced to read it, no matter how abhorrent an idea is, like I believe one of the slides reads ‘Mr Tony Abbott, Prime Minister’.”

Colley was attracted to fusing science and comedy when he realised that no one else was really doing it.

“I know I’m not doing the same material as the comic that comes on before me. When I have to study research papers to find out exactly why something happens and then explain it, I know the person next to me isn’t going to do the same bit with a better punchline.”

Maybe in response to certain religious groups dismissing science and facts such as the earth is 4.54 billion years old and not 6000; science almost seems to have a cool factor attached to it. Celebrity scientists such as Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Lawrence M Krauss and Brian Schmidt and Facebook pages such as I F**king Love Science and Evolution are hip while celebrating science. Does Colley think it’s part of his job to celebrate science with the general public?

“There’s this thing called the Brian Cox Effect. Science communication, in particularl, has increased the popularity of Brian Cox in the UK and this has led to a marked increase in attendance in physics classes. I think physicists, climate scientists, biologists and so forth are working so hard to do their job that they don’t have time to try and break it down all the time, ‘no, no this is how climate change is actually measured’. I think it’s important to have a few people there that are doing that job, that are distilling science to people who aren’t necessarily scientifically inclined, not necessarily anti-science, but not engaged by it. It’s important to break it down so they don’t get left behind.”

During the Olympics last year Colley was a panelist on BBC’s World Service.

“I had made a couple of jokes about Australia and the Olympics when we were struggling. I got a message asking me to be on the program. I became a regular correspondent whenever Australia did something very silly in the news. I was called on to kind of defend us. I was always by far the least important person on the panel. There was the UK minister for sport, a Kenyan gold medalist and some comedian.”


James Colley
James Colley Vs His Own Stupid Brain
RiAus (Boardroom)
Friday, February 22 to Sunday, February 24
riaus.org.au

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