Bullshit is funny. At least, that’s what “Skeptic Comedian” Ian Harris is counting on.
Or not. The owner of the Los Angeles “Fight Science” MMA training center doesn’t need comedy to pay the bills anymore, so he’s able to test the premise on both knowing and unsuspecting crowds, to see what works and what sticks.
AiPT! chatted with Harris at this past weekend’s Dragon Con in Atlanta, Ga., to find out what motivates him and if having an influential goal can be detrimental to your art.
AiPT!: You’re kind of known as a skeptical comedian, or a comedian who talks about skepticism. What does that mean?
Ian Harris: I guess I’m a skeptic first; been a skeptic my whole life. But I’ve been a comedian — it’s what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. Two things I’ve wanted to do since I was very young were comedy and martial arts. Those are the two things I do now.
I started doing comedy the first day I was allowed in the club, and I did “regular” comedy for a long time. And I got to a point where I stopped going on the road for a while, I took a couple years off, I had a kid, didn’t want to be on the road. I’d always done jokes about religion, and science and some things, but it wasn’t my whole act. I did “regular” comedy and I would just sprinkle that in there; if I saw something funny, I’d be like, “You guys see this ghost show?” and I would talk about it. But it wasn’t like that was my thing.
Then when I decided to come back to do comedy, full-time, in 2011, I just decided that I didn’t need it. I didn’t have to be on the road 40 weeks out of the year. If I need to I can just do voice-over work, and I have a gym and all this stuff. I do comedy now because I want to.
So I said, “If that’s the case, I’m just going to talk about stuff that I think is funny.” And I think people who believe s--t without evidence [are] absolutely hysterical. So I just started going, “All right, Bigfoot, let’s look at this. Okay astrology, let’s look at this. Okay religion, let’s look at this.” And I did a lot of jokes about religion, but it was really just like, all these claims, that we as skeptics talk about, it’s absolutely insane and hilarious to me that people believe these things. So I’m like, “I’m just gonna talk about it and hopefully make it, kind of, educational but also funny.”
So do you ever get pushback? Does somebody ever show up to one of your gigs and not realize what you’re all about, and then get offended by what you’re saying?
Yes and — most of my shows, I do a lot of cons. I do a lot my own self-produced theater shows, or even some comedy clubs. But I’m also trying to get back into doing comedy clubs more, too, because I want to build my audience, and I also want to not just preach to the choir. So I’m doing a lot of shows that are, like, my shows, at comedy clubs, which means they’re still going to have to market and get their own crowd in, which means there’s a good chance that half the people there are just going to be there, and not do any research.
We were just in Birmingham, Alabama, and there was, like, 20 people there that were for me, but I had never been there, so I didn’t have an audience there. So 20 people found me and came to the show, while the other 30 or 40 people, they just gave away cheap tickets or marketed.
But you know what, what I do when I do those shows, is I set it up very heavily that I poke holes in things. I’m just gonna talk about what I think’s funny, and people believe dumb s--t, and I’m gonna talk about it. And I might talk about some dumb stuff that you believe in, and I might talk about some dumb stuff you think is dumb.
And then I start out with really easy, mundane things, that everyone pretty much agrees with. And then I start taking the turn. “Oh, by the way — climate change. I know some of you out there are Republicans, but climate change, let’s talk about this.” So when I do that I find that not everyone’s dying laughing on some of those, but I don’t get the walkouts, whereas if I just walk right up on stage and go, “So Jesus isn’t real” — there goes half the crowd, and comedy clubs don’t like that. And I want to work comedy clubs, so I’ve been finding a way to do two different sets, a set that brings them to skepticism, and a set that starts at skepticism.
You said, at this point, you just talk about what you want to talk about. Would it be fair to say that you then have an actual goal with what you’re doing? [With] skepticism and comedy?
You know, it’s funny, because … yes and no? The last special that I did, that I released just in January [called ExtraOrdinary], I did these interviews beforehand. So I went around and I interviewed, like, Penn Jillette, Cara Santa Maria, Aron Ra, Lawrence Krauss — and I talked about this exact question. I talked about science and art, and skepticism and art, and do we have an agenda? Do we not have an agenda? Are we pushing an agenda, or does that dirty the waters of what’s art?
And it’s a really hard situation. Penn Jillette railed on me. He was like, “As soon as you have an agenda you’re a pig; go kill yourself.” But then later on he was like, “Well, I think that people do their art, and their agenda comes through their art, or their beliefs come through their art, and that’s cool, but as long as you’re not setting out to change people or convince people to do something, then you’re cool.”
And I’m not sure how I feel about that; I think I’m kind of on the fence. I think on one level there’s no reason why I can’t promote science and skepticism while I do comedy, and there’s no reason I can’t go, “You know what, I do want people to change, I do want people to think critically.” But I do agree it’s also my job to be funny. And it’s my job to do comedy.
So I don’t want to be preachy. There are times when I get preachy, there’s no doubt about it, and that turns people off. And sometimes that makes people stand and cheer with me, ’cause they’re on my side. So it’s a fine balance, but I think you have to — at the very bare minimum, if you’re not saying anything, in my opinion, you’re not worth listening to.
Ian Harris: ExtraOrdinary is available now on Amazon and most streaming platforms. Come back tomorrow for a report on Harris’ “Myths in Martial Arts” lecture from Dragon Con!