Shane Mauss is no stranger to high-concept comedy. The Wisconsin-born standup comedian has been building tours around specific themes since 2013’s “Mating Season” about the evolutionary origins of modern human mating rituals, including “A Good Trip” on the little-known scientific side of psychedelic drugs.
But Mauss’ latest tour, called “Stand Up Science,” is his most ambitious yet. Taking a page from his science-centric podcast “Here We Are,” “Stand Up Science”invites some of the same researchers and university professors Mauss interviews on that show to lecture about their favorite subjects – from human psychology to virtual reality – in between standup sets at comedy venues across the nation. Afterwards, Mauss hosts an onstage Q&A, combining the academics’ insights with the comedians’ wit to tackle any inquiry audience members throw at them.
In December, Mauss was in Jamaica participating as a featured guest in one of MycoMeditations’ psilocybin wellness retreats, performing “A Good Trip” and sitting in on integrative group therapy sessions, before returning to embark on a new string of “Stand Up Science” dates in the new year. In the midst of this, he hopped on a call with DOPE to talk about striking the right balance between comedy and education in his new show, the influence science has had on his stand-up sets and why academics are his heroes.
DOPE MAGAZINE: How’d you first come up with the idea for “Stand Up Science”?
SHANE MAUSS: It’s just a culmination of everything I’m doing already, and have been trying to do. I’ve been trying to do my podcast live more and put more science into my stand-up act. I was thinking a lot about how these academics that I interview are usually writing publications that maybe, like, 40 people are ever going to read, and sometimes it’s really important stuff. Some of these people are really good speakers and are used to speaking in front of crowds, so it just kind of solved a lot of issues for me. When the name “Stand Up Science” popped into my head, it was like, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m trying to do.’ It’s a way of me blending my two worlds together.
What made you feel this was the right time for it? Was there anything in particular?
I don’t know … that’s a really good question, and it would take a long time to run through everything that pops into my head when you ask it. There’s a few things. One, I think things are getting more specialized, and entertainment’s gone from everyone watching three channels with everything made accessible to the largest number of people, to things getting more and more specific with cable TV, streaming, YouTube and everything else. People get to pick exactly what they want to consume, and that opens up doors for an artist. Rather than what can I get paid for,you can really be like, ‘What is it exactly I want to make?’ and then, ‘How do I find an audience for it?’
It just seems like this is something that – you know, TED Talks are obviously a big thing already, and Big Think, and all these various things where people are watching talks from experts about trying to figure out what this complex life is all about. At the same time, comedy is getting more specialized as well – every kind from redneck comedy tour to the alt-comedy scene – but this has been kind of a long time coming. There’s so many indie shows in New York and LA where there’s a themed monthly show, and I just thought, why not tour with a themed show? Why just have it be once a month, and perform to a bunch of LA or New York snobs that have too many things to choose from to appreciate anything, when you could take the same show around to places that don’t normally get a show like this, and really see people come out. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.
And have you had trouble finding the audience? How have you tried to find that niche?
So I’ve only done eight shows of this, and now I’m launching a big tour, so I’m still figuring out how to find an audience for it, and if I’m going to at all. But it seems like so far, as long as I put it out there on social media and my science podcast [word gets around]. I’m looking at working with universities and local organizations to help spread the word and find good guests, but so far, it’s been kind of a catchy name that hopefully conveys what I’m trying to do, and grabs enough people’s attention. I just need enough people to see it the first time – which happened in the eight-city trial run – and I have a good quality product. I trust that word of mouth will spread and the next time I bring it back to that city, there will be a much bigger turnout, once people know what they’re getting into. So far that seems to be the case in cities that I’ve rebooked – it seems like we’re already selling presale tickets ahead of time, so the people are happy.
How has the execution of it been informed by doing your podcast “Here We Are” and having to find the balance between comedy and more informative material?
Well, “Here We Are” I consider a science podcast with comedy sprinkled in it, where the comedy is definitely a bonus, and my standup is definitely the opposite, where it’s a comedy show with science sprinkled in it. So I’m still trying to find that balance with “Stand Up Science.” That’s a big part of why I did this, I could never find that – with the podcast it’s lopsided in the way of science, with stand-up it’s lopsided in the way of comedy. “Stand Up Science” is meant to be the perfect mix of the two. I’m not sure if I’m pulling that off, but that’s what the goal is, ‘cause it’s been an excuse for me to share some of my high-concept ideas without feeling like I’m restricted by needing to have a punchline every 30 seconds or so.
I think I’m finding my balance as it goes, and just doing whatever feels natural and pushing myself to be outside of my comfort zone just a little bit. But yeah, it’s a new undertaking. I think it’ll take me a year to really master hosting the show. It’s going to be a learning experience. So far, at every single one of the eight shows that I’ve done, I learned so many things I had to change, even in terms of the logistics of making sure the venue has four microphones set up, all the way to explaining to academics exactly what it is I’m looking for from them, which is basically just getting them to be themselves. Because academics are my heroes, and it kind of drives me crazy that we live in a world where all our heroes are these actors and reality TV stars. I want to live in a world where scientists and people trying to make the world a better place are the people that get the standing ovations.
You’ve had other themed tours in the past, but how has this one been different, including academics and other voices within your own themed live show?
This is difficult in terms of behind the scenes stuff for me, because I’m producing all of it. That’s just huge and basically never-ending, so I’m having to figure out this whole new way of approaching my work life. Most of the time, my work has just been to think about my set and my act the whole time, and then I show up and I do my act. With this, I have to get all of the guests, research what they do, coordinate everything with them … it’s just way, way, way more work. I’m not sure what I got myself into, but one of the reasons I have more work is because I have so much more control over it. I’m in charge of everything from picking the topics to kind of curating an audience where I get to perform the type of material that I like to perform. But it’s also little stuff like picking the background music for when people are walking in.
I’d imagine it’s hard guiding the Q&A portion afterward too.
I love that part. That’s my favorite part. Part of it is, it’s the part of the show that’s so up in the air and improvised. I think that’s the part of the show where we can really do a lot more exploring of ideas.
Do you feel like the audience brings a lot to it?
Yeah, I think so. I think they really like being involved too and interacting with the show. I think about it like, hopefully, as people realize they’re interacting with this, they’ll also realize that life is this show, and some of the ideas that they hear during “Stand Up Science” will influence their perception and change the way that they see their lives afterwards. That’s what I’m trying to curate, and the Q&A makes people really feel that they’re involved, even if it is just four or five people that end up asking questions.
People always [enjoy] the feeling of spontaneity, whether it’s contrived or not. Often that’s what standup comics are doing, repeating the same thing we’ve done a hundred times that’s seemingly spontaneous to an audience member who’s never seen it before. This is a way of doing something actually spontaneous, which I think raises the bar for everybody, cause the comics and academics gotta be on their toes, and we never know what kind of questions we’re going to get.
What have been the biggest ways learning about science has affected your comedy, or just aspects of your daily life?
I have a hard time going anywhere in life without being struck by something that I’ve learned from science. It’s really influenced the way I look at everything. I’m in Jamaica now, and there’s all these lizards running around. Watching the lizards, I can tell which ones are male lizards because they have this thing under their throat that they display to attract females, and I know the males have two penises. There’s a testicle on each one, and they take turns using one if they’re mating a lot, because they have a refractory period to reproduce the sperm, and like…
Yeah, anything I look at there’s a scientific story behind it. It’s sometimes exhausting, but when I don’t have those things running through my head, I realize I’m just not being curious enough about my particular environment.
And what about your comedy? Obviously, you have a lot of science-related bits, but is there any other way?
I think that every comic, once they get to a certain point – once you’re past feeling safe onstage and understanding joke structure and can reliably make an audience laugh. After you figure out some of those basics, you want to have more meaningful things to say and talk about. For me, that’s just a natural outlet rather than … I think most people tend to flock to politics, when they’re like, ‘I want to comment on important things,’ people assume important things just means politics, because we’re trained to believe that important stuff comes out of the television and news. So for me, it’s just a way of, one, following my natural inquisitive nature, and then two, it makes me stand out and differentiates me from zillions of other comedians, and even from my past self. When I started, I wasn’t talking about science or anything like that, I just went through a phase when I knew I wanted to write something with more depth to it. Those jokes are a lot more rewarding. They’re harder to write – it’s much harder to come up with something funny about a really high concept thing that you’ve learned.
It’s also scary to be onstage as a comic and just be interesting for a minute – just share something you find interesting rather than needing to rely on the twist or the punchline right away. I used to do this with timing a lot when I was a really young comedian; I had really slow delivery and I would make people wait as long as possible until it made them so uncomfortable, and then when the punchline finally came it was this great sense of relief. There’s something with that that can be done with more informed things too, where you can push the content and information so much that people almost forget it’s a comedy show – then you drop the punchline on them. It’s a new way of [catching] people off-guard.
Why do you think stand up comedy and science can go hand in hand, or more broadly, comedy and education?
I think that they’re doing very similar things. I think scientists are trying to test these different models of reality, and comedians are trying to articulate these different models of reality and being like, ‘Here’s how we normally look at things or how we assume things go, but if you look at this the other way…” it reveals this kind of new perception to you. They’re both doing this kind of gestalt shift– like paintings where there’s a vase, but if you look at it another way, it’s two faces looking at one another. There’s this cognitive shift that happens in much of comedy and science, and I think that’s what we’re trying to exploit with “Stand Up Science”– showing the things you already know or perceive in a new way, and showing how both of these things are happening at the same time. You can only see life one way at a time, but often times there’s a whole other way of looking at it.
COMEDIANS + SCIENTISTS + BEERS = STAND UP SCIENCE
Tour dates HERE