Comedy Gets Intellectual at Bright Club Belfast

The future of comedy in Belfast is Bright, informed and surprisingly academic

For many, Michael McIntyre’s observations on Live at the Apollo are as cerebral as stand-up comedy gets. However, with Bright Club Belfast at Blick Shared Studios, Graeme Watson and Niamh Scullion prove that stand-up can engage little grey cells as well as split sides.

Watson describes the night as a ‘thinking person’s variety night’ or ‘comedy for the curious’. As well as comedians performing, Bright Club also features talks from various academics. 'It’s for people who not only like to have a bit of a laugh and some merriment, but also enjoy a bit of intellectual stimulation,' explains Watson.

Watson is a stand-up comic himself, who studied politics and the philosophy of happiness before turning his hand to comedy. 'Topics include science, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics and a lot else besides,' he says of Bright Club. 'The performers are a mix of comedians, academic speakers and other experts, and we also add some live music into the mix.'

Scullion, who coompleted an MA in creative writing at Queen’s University, met Watson at a performance by Northern Irish comic Seamus Carabine, and the pair bonded over a shared passion for academia and comedy. 'We decided to set up an event where people could feed their brains in an inclusive, light-hearted, convivial environment. And then Graeme came across Bright Club London.'

After reading about the London comedy club that fuses stand-up with short, funny lectures, Watson was eager to bring the concept to Belfast.

'The Bright Club format began at University College, London, but I’d been toying around with the possibility of combining comedy with exploring ideas for some time before that. It’s something that I would want to go to, and I kind of suspected that other people would enjoy it too.

'When we found out about the London Bright Club, which began in 2008, we contacted them to see if we could forge an alliance with them, and they gave us their blessing. Bright Clubs are now popping up in cities all over the UK, from Glasgow to Cardiff, so it seems we weren’t alone in thinking it was a great idea.'

It may seem far-fetched that talks by criminologists and mathematicians could be all that rib-tickling, but experts in both these fields appeared at the launch of Bright Club Belfast last month (November 2011). Their lectures were well received, raising laughs and eyebrows aplenty. Watson believes that comedy and academia have much in common.

'There’s a greater cross-over than people might imagine. Certainly, a lot of comedians are people who are fascinated by ideas and the world around them – the television show QI being a good example – but it also works the other way. A lot of academics are also very funny and engaging as lecturers.

'It’s true that not all academics have a funny bone of course, but many do. Some can be funnier than comedians. Being engaging, interesting and light-hearted is the main thing.'

'The mathematician we had last time was Ivan Todorov, and he was fantastic,' enthuses Scullion. 'His talk introduced people to new concepts in cryptography. He broke them down into easily understandable terms and he was hilarious along the way.

'The historian Keith Jeffery talked about the funny position his commissioned book on M16 put him in. It's more about the academic's attitude. Even if they are involved in very serious research, they can still deliver it in an entertaining and memorable way.'

Performing at the next Bright Club on Thursday, December 15 is Lauren Kerr, a 20-year old comedian from Belfast who doubles as a press officer for a political party. Having attended a previous Bright Club Belfast night, Kerr was hooked.

'The last Bright Club ran on the theme of secrets. What I Ioved about the night was how everyone took what could easily have been quite a narrow theme and interpreted it so differently. Each of the slots are around ten minutes, and I really enjoyed the speakers and didn't slip off into the coma that used to be triggered by lectures during my student days.

'The theme this time around is ‘The Future’, so I’ll probably use the night to shoehorn in all the terrible Doctor Who jokes I’ve been banking but have never quite found the audience for yet.'

Also performing at this month’s show is sonic arts innovator Eric Lyon, who will be speaking about the future of musical software; Roger Woods on speech recognition technology; biomedical scientist Mary Hannon Fletcher on the future of human healthcare; Michael Davis on the artificial intelligence of a robot floor cleaner; and Matthew Collins from BBC NI’s Great Unanswered Questions, who will be presenting a short lecture entitled 'The Future Is Now: Based On Evidence Presented In Time Travel Films Of The 1980s'.

While this jam-packed line-up contains more brain matter than a year’s supply of hot-dogs, Watson insists that there is plenty of room for some silliness too.

'There’s room for a bit of everything at Bright Club. The high-brow and low-brow working in joyous harmony! I suppose it’s not really a gag-based type of comedy night, but there is a lot of humour through the storytelling.'

Furthermore, anybody can apply to take part, whether they have letters after their name or not. 'We’re looking for interesting people with something to talk about – academic credentials aren’t essential,' Watson concludes, 'but a high level of expertise or interest in a particular subject area is what we’re looking for.

'Although it’s framed as a comedy night, Bright Club is also a public engagement project, for people to share specialist knowledge and interests with the community at large.'

Tickets for the December 15 Bright Club can be reserved via the Bright Club website. To apply for future events, email brightclubbelfast@hotmail.co.uk