UW News

August 16, 2007

Economics: The funny science

Didja hear the one about the economist who became a stand-up comic? His dad fretted that there wasn’t a demand for comics, but the economist said, “Don’t worry, I’m a supply side economist. I’ll just stand up and watch the jokes trickle down.”

OK, so it isn’t Yoram Bauman’s funniest joke. But the fact that he can make jokes at all about what has been called the “dismal science” is an accomplishment in itself. Bauman, who earned his doctorate in environmental economics at the UW, is an instructor for the Program on the Environment, but just about every Tuesday night he can be found performing at the Comedy Underground in Pioneer Square. And one of the things he jokes about is economics.

The joke above is, he says, the first one he ever told to a comedy club audience, but he’s better known for a whole routine based on an economics textbook. The preeminent economics textbook, in fact. It’s called Principles of Economics, and it was written by N. Gregory Mankiw, a professor of economics at Harvard University who served for two years as chair of President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Bauman parodied the book in an article that appeared in the Annals of Improbable Research, a “geeky science humor journal,” in 2003. He was in graduate school at the time and says he wrote the piece to blow off steam. The following year he was invited to present the paper during the humor session at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference.

Thus was born his first comedy routine. Bauman prepared a PowerPoint that purported to explain Mankiw’s 10 principles of economics. How does one make humor out of that? Well, start with the fact that Bauman explains Mankiw’s last three principles — principles of macroeconomics — as “blah, blah, blah.”

That was partly because he couldn’t think of a funny translation for them, Bauman says. But he adds, “On the other hand, there’s a battle between micro and macroeconomists, so as a microeconomist, it was a chance I couldn’t pass up to make fun of macroeconomists.”

His handling of the other principles is more specific. One of them, for example, says “Trade can make everyone better off.” Bauman’s translation: “Trade can make everyone worse off.” When he says it in the routine, it sounds as if he’s just joking, saying black is white and up is down, but Bauman says there’s a more serious purpose behind it.

“It’s theoretically possible that trade can make everyone worse off,” he says, “especially when you consider environmental issues. For example, you could have lots of global trade and the gross domestic product could be going up, but carbon emissions would be going up too, so the trade makes things worse as well as better. One of the things I’m proud of in that parody is that there is a fair amount of intellectual content in it.”

Intellectual or not, people do find it funny. He was invited to return to AAAS this year with the routine, which he taped and placed on YouTube. Within a few days, Mankiw himself had posted the YouTube URL for the routine on his blog and was receiving comments from his readers, including this one: “I think that video should be included in the instructor’s CD in the next edition of your texts. It would save everyone a lot of time.”

So Mankiw apparently does have a sense of humor. When Bauman performed in a Boston club recently, Mankiw was in the audience, and he agreed to meet Bauman for coffee the next day. He wasn’t the only economist who’s enjoyed Bauman’s routine. The head of the antitrust department of the U.S. Department of Justice attended his show in Washington, D.C., and 30 members of an economics consulting firm came to a gig in New York City.

“Apparently there’s a market for economics jokes, especially at corporate events,” Bauman says. “Being an economist and being able to do comedy about economics seems to have some traction.”

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, Bauman has branched out from economics jokes and is performing a routine about political bumper stickers, among other things. But like his free trade joke, his Tuesday night gigs at the Comedy Underground have a larger purpose. Bauman produces a series called Nonprofit Comedy. A different nonprofit receives half the ticket revenues for each show, and the comics work for free. It’s a win-win proposition for everyone involved: The club gets a better audience than they otherwise would on a Tuesday night, the nonprofit gets some much-needed cash and the comics get to work on their material with an appreciative audience. Last year, Nonprofit Comedy raised $20,000 for its beneficiaries.

Bauman generally serves as master of ceremonies for Nonprofit Comedy, and performs as well. He says that on a typical evening there are eight or nine comics performing 10 to 15 minutes each. The schedule is available at http://www.nonprofitcomedy.com/seattle.

In the midst of his comedy success, Bauman isn’t giving up his day job. He teaches Introduction to Environmental Studies and Introduction to Environmental Economics, and says he’s been known to crack a few jokes in the classroom. But mostly he keeps his two lines of work separate.

Of comedy, he says, “It’s a challenge — to get people to laugh about something they’ve never laughed about before. When it works it’s satisfying. When you have a big crowd and your material is going well, it’s a tremendous rush. Compared to teaching, you get immediate feedback. You don’t have to wait for the end of the quarter to get your teaching evaluations. You know right away whether people are enjoying you.”

Learn more about Bauman at http://www.standupeconomist.com.