Did You Hear the One About the NASA Scientist Who Makes Global Warming Funny?

Joshua Willis developed a stand-up comedy routine to make kids laugh—and learn—about climate change.
'The Lollygaggers.' (Photo: Facebook)
Jul 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Katharine Gammon has written for Nature, Wired, Discover, and Popular Science. A new mom, she lives in Santa Monica.

In his day job, Joshua Willis is a project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, researching the role oceans play in global warming. At night, he puts on a completely different face and tries to make climate change funny at comedy theaters.

The mash-up of comedy and science was a natural fit for Willis. He minored in theater in college and was a practicing magician from an early age. When he started to give public talks about climate change as part of his role at JPL, he tried to make them as entertaining as possible.

But the catalyst for comedy came on a cruise, when he met Matt Craig, director of Second City, at the bar. “I went up to him and said, ‘I’m a climate scientist, and I’m in desperate need of comedic assistance,’ ” Willis recalled.

Craig encouraged him to get in touch when he was back in Los Angeles, and Willis started taking improvisational comedy classes at the theater. “I got hooked, and I kind of went there with a mission to make global warming funny. And what better place to learn to do that than Hollywood?” Willis said.

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The outcome of his training is The Lollygaggers, a 45-minute sketch show about global warming for kids. It ran in March and April and will return in August at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

Willis and cocreator Rani O’Brien said the show was an opportunity to explore global warming and what that future might look like to a child—with a lighthearted spin. “If the polar bears’ home melted, would they migrate?” he said. “What if they migrated to a redwood forest and had a weird roommate situation with a grizzly bear?”

So, Why Should You Care? Comedy allows an audience to have an emotional response without feeling the tragedy of a changing world. “A lot of coverage of climate change is doomsday-ey, and that’s inaccessible for children—it’s all conceptual, or it’s sad,” said O’Brien. “So for a child, you have to access that joy and that humor to understand what it is you’re trying to get across to them.”

For Willis, comedy can enhance scientific pursuits as well. He recently named a grant project Oceans Warming Greenland, or OMG for short (it took a long battle with JPL to keep the name). “I started to realize that the creative side of my brain had gone to sleep after 10 years of doing science, and I started doing science that was more interesting,” he said.

But does science make his comedy better?

Not exactly, he said. “You get so used to speaking your own language in science. We spend five or six years in graduate school learning how to talk to other scientists and forgetting how to talk to everyone else. Part of what learning improv taught me was how to tell a story, convey emotion, and communicate what we’re feeling, as opposed to listing all the facts.”

Training scientists with improvisational comedy is a shtick that’s gaining steam. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University in New York state teaches scientists—from medical students to senior faculty—how to use the tools of comedy to connect with the public.

Just as Willis is bringing back his comedy show to the stage next month, his day job is also heating up. OMG is beginning to fly aircraft missions, dropping sensors and measuring the height of glaciers on Greenland to understand how ice melts at the edges of the continent. He’s also trying to find a way to start doing stand-up about science geared to an adult audience.

“There’s no reason we can’t be scientists and normal human beings at the same time,” he said. “When you look back at people we consider to be great scientists, they actually were great communicators. That’s part of why we remember them as great scientists—because they could tell a story.”

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the organization where Matt Craig worked. It was Second City.