How to save a ‘dead fish' and other strategies for live interviews with scientists

By Emma Penrod

Seven years after he began interviewing scientists on his live comedy show and podcast, "You're the Expert," comedian Chris Duffy has learned to expect the unexpected. He still didn't expect a guest to drink a pint of gin just prior to joining him on the show.

"They were literally blackout drunk on stage," Duffy told attendees at October's ScienceWriters 2018 meeting. "Literally the producer asked if they could spit out the gum in their mouth."

Duffy said he managed to save the show and help his guest come across as an expert worthy of respect, but just barely. After the show, a friend of his — a trained neuroscientist — commented that "it was amazing that woman made such significant discoveries, when she had such obvious brain damage."

Readers aren't privy to the behind-the-scenes conversations that underlie print reporting, allowing writers to present "perfect little gems," that were actually painstakingly crafted and edited, according to longtime science comedian Brian Malow, the moderator of the Oct. 13 panel discussion on the art of the live interview. But when you're in front of a live audience, he said, there's no editing out less-than-engaging interactions.

That puts you at the mercy of potential "dead fish" — interviews that may clam up during a live performance — according to Malow's panelists and subjects of his "meta" live interview. In addition to Duffy, "Dope Science Show" creator Stephany Lowe and Kirsten Sanford, or Dr. Kiki from "Kiki's Science Hour," joined Malow for the Saturday afternoon session.

During a live interview, Malow said, it's the host's job to step back and make the guest shine for the audience. But sometimes, Duffy said, when an interview starts to fizzle, the host has to take a more active role in the performance.

Many guests warm up as they become more comfortable in the live setting, Sanford said, so she often starts out with simple, easy questions — even asking what their favorite movie is — before the show starts. She opens the show by inviting the guest to tell their personal story with a question like "have you always known you wanted to be a scientist?"

Bigger issues, she said, can wait until the end. Even when controversial topics arise, she said, it's important to remain polite and stay focused on putting the subject of the interview in a positive light.

Beginnings and endings are particularly important, Duffy said, so he uses pre-interview research to identify each guests' best stories ahead of time — a tactic shared by other members of the panel as well. And since scientists often don't like to be laughed at, he said, he'll often make himself the butt of the joke.

Sometimes.

He once asked a snake expert if he had a hard time getting dates. It's true, the scientist replied — agitated snakes will release foul-smelling odors, and he went to dinner still reeking of snake-scent all the time.

Oct. 14, 2018

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