Stand-up comedian and environmental scientist Matt Winning tells jokes about climate catastrophe. How hard is it to make the end of the world funny – and why even try?
In the tiny basement of an old North London pub, Dr Matt Winning cracks gags about the impending climate catastrophe.
“Enjoying the warm weather?,” he grins, in his hypnotic west-of-Scotland brogue.
“Just you wait…”
The following week, wildfires raged across Europe, and Britain recorded temperatures above 40°C for the first time since records began with a rudimentary thermoscope back in 1659.
“I’m the kind of doctor who would rush to your side if you had a heart attack on a plane,” he continues, “but only to berate you for flying”.
The impending end of humankind does not initially seem like fertile soil for comedy, but then Winning’s background is not typical of a stand-up comedian. In his main job, he spends four days a week as senior research fellow at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources.
And this pub gig is a work-in-progress for a bigger, upcoming run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the second-biggest comedy festival in the world, after Montreal’s Just For Laughs. The show shifts from the practised patter of lines honed over several years on stage, to the admirable honesty of a performer perfecting his hour (“I’ll put more jokes in this bit”), and comedic PowerPoint slides that help him raise laughs while emphasising how terrifying the future may be.
Speaking over Zoom a week later, he explains how the seemingly unlikely interests of comedy and climate change came together.
“I remember spending a lot of time watching standup comedy while I was supposed to be writing my dissertation”
In the summer of 2008, Winning was living in an Edinburgh basement flat, writing a dissertation on the EU emissions trading scheme while the Fringe, with its hundreds of comedians, thousands of shows, and visitors from across the world, went on all around him, and often right outside his front door. It seemed a lot more fun than the dissertation.
“I remember spending a lot of that time looking at comedians on YouTube, watching standup comedy while I was supposed to be writing my dissertation,” he says. “I guess I was procrastinating. And I saw that they did an evening course at Strathclyde [University] in standup.”
So he took up a very serious PhD (“Modelling freshwater resources use and the economic impacts of demand-driven water scarcity”), while doing evening classes in how to make strangers giggle.
“I was living with my parents and had split up with my girlfriend at the time and was like, ‘I need to get out of the house and do something in the evenings’. It sort of just snowballed.”
From one-liners to ‘comedy lectures’
Winning reckons that it then took him about six months to get any good, and like most stand-ups his early outings were terrible, but that was made easier to endure because on the course and open mic slots, “you’re often surrounded by other acts that are also terrible”.
His early forays edged towards the absurdist, including punning one-liners and one popular bit where he pretended to be the illegitimate son of Robert Mugabe (sample: “some say Robert Mugabe uses fear to retain power, but I saw him set up an electric circuit and he used a capacitor”).
“It just seemed like
a mad idea”
All was progressing well down this route, until a single negative review in a four-week run at the Fringe. “Most of the reviews were fine. There were a couple of good ones, and then this specific one went: ‘it was funny, but he didn’t say anything.’ For most people that would be fine for comedy, but at the Edinburgh Fringe everybody’s pretentious, and the review said I didn’t talk about anything of any substance.”
His slightly willful reaction was to charge in the opposite direction. “My response was, ‘well, if you want a show about something serious, I’ll just write an hour comedy lecture about climate’. I decided I’d do just heavy for an hour.”
What about the jokes?
That is a tough pitch to crowds out for a few drinks and some light entertainment, and early results were mixed. “There was a sort of amusement within pockets of any audience who found it funny that I was definitely doing this and committing to it. It just seemed like a mad idea. Then other people were angry that they were being subjected to it and that it didn’t have that many jokes. It was almost like I’d made the decision to go back to the beginning and being terrible at comedy again”.
“I don’t find that many other comedians have people lining up to ask them loads of questions after their shows”
Fortunately he did mix in enough jokes for it to take off and develop a successful niche, but he admits he was making life hard for himself. “It took me a year of working it out to get something that was consistently funny that would work equally to any other comedy show,” he says. But that year has paid off. Winning now co-hosts a BBC radio show, Seriously, Though, The Planet and has done regular slots as an ‘environmental correspondent’ on UK comedy channel Dave.
The concept can still be a tough sell, and there is an element of scepticism from new audiences, as with any comedian. And, of course, mastering the material is trickier. Fossil fuels are harder to joke about than the traditional fare of failed relationships or bodily functions.
“There are things that are difficult to talk about because they’re too complicated. And so the setup requires too much time to discuss,” says Winning. “Discussing carbon budgets is quite difficult. Stuff around tipping points I’ve not done as much on. I tend to have to place things in different parts of the show and spread the darker bits out a little bit.”
Queuing for questions
But the flip side is that when things land, audiences linger to chat after shows, ask climate questions, and seem more engaged than they might be with a typical joke-pusher. “I don’t find that many other comedians have lots of people lining up to ask them loads of questions after their shows, but that happens to me pretty much every time,” he says. He also knows of people who have changed their energy provider or car after seeing one of his shows.
“We need to make people more afraid of flying. We need glass floors on planes. Actual snakes on a plane. Babies crying the entire time”
In response to that one review all those years ago, it seems he really has found something to say. “You get quicker feedback from doing comedy. You actually get people wanting to speak to you about it. Being an academic is great, but you end up taking two years to publish an academic paper that then gets eventually cited somewhere.”
More more laughs, more impact
And while he insists that raising laughs is the first priority in these shows, he admits that sometimes it seems like he’s making more of an impact on climate issues by convincing small groups of friends on a night out than an academic world that largely knows what the issues are already.
“The audience that’s being neglected is the wider public,” he says, suggesting that, “the marginal benefit of doing the comedy work actually is probably a lot higher,” than his academic work because it reaches new people.
His favourite part of his new show is a bit around curtailing air travel. “It’s not a joke, as such,” he says, “but a bit about flying. Some people are afraid of flying and I say we need to make people more afraid of flying. We need glass floors on planes. Actual snakes on a plane. Babies crying the entire time.”
Having recently become a father for the first time himself, Winning admits to feeling “more connected” to the future, and likens our current climate efforts to cramming for a big exam.
“We could have revised properly and it wouldn’t be too stressful,” he says. “But we’ve not done that and it’s just before the exam and we’re cramming and we’re not gonna do anywhere near as well as we could. But we’ve not failed it yet”.
So while some faint hope remains, he still feels compelled to try and open eyes while raising laughs.