Learning by Laughing with Chris Duffy’s ‘You’re The Expert’

2015_09_19_EMCF_13

The subject of science is not for the feeble minded.

If handed out a book on, say, “comparative lactation,” it’s unlikely the average person would be able to retain much information. Yet former fifth-grade teacher-turned-comedian Chris Duffy has unearthed the secret to learning about such dense — but important — subjects: laughter.

“I’m not sure [laughter] makes it easier or harder to learn,” Duffy said to me over the phone. “But it does make you more willing.”

At its core, You’re The Expert is paradoxically simple. Duffy selects an expert in a random field of science and taps a panel of three comedians to guess — through a barrage of gut-busting games — what the expert studies all day.

And even though Duffy long knew comedy, not teaching at an inner city Boston school, was his true passion, he felt his initial material lacked the gravitas to sustain a meaningful career.

“It had gotten to the point where people came to see me at [Improv Boston]. But [I also said to myself], ‘I have this platform, but what am I talking about?’,” said Duffy. “Best case scenario, people left my show thinking, ‘Man, that guy has some great stories about babysitting,’ — but it didn’t feel important.”

Realizing the throngs of brilliant people in his backyard at MIT and Harvard, Duffy capitalized on his surroundings.

“Everyday, I was meeting people who were post-docs and graduate students and professors doing this really interesting, amazing work that no one was hearing about,” effused Duffy. “No one was reading peer-review journals except people in their fields. I would always talk to these people and say, ‘How is it possible that [the masses] don’t know this stuff?’ It felt like these people had really important things to say, but no platform—and I had a platform but not really important things to say.”

On September 4, 2012, Duffy launched the You’re The Expert podcast. The first show recorded live in front of a 30-person room comprised of “pathetically-begged friends and family.” But much to his surprise, the show actually went pretty well. People laughed.

“People enjoyed it and [then] invited their friends [to the next show],” said Duffy, glowing. “The next show was in that same 30-person room, but we sold out and I didn’t even have to beg people.  And then — the third show — there was a wait-list of 60 people to get into the 30-person room.”

You’re The Expert’s success only continued. Three months later, Duffy was selling out 200-seat venues — a feat the show achieved every month for a year.

Duffy yearned for a broader audience, however — but didn’t quite know how to go about it.

“Luckily, someone from a public radio station saw the show and was like, ‘Hey, this should be a public radio show — have you ever thought about that?’” said Duffy, lightly chuckling at his fortune. “That had sort of been the dream for me from the start.”

While those conversations fell through, Duffy identified public radio as a tangible goal and sent a cold email to WBUR, NPR’s local Boston affiliate. WBUR returned his email with marked interest, and on June 3, 2015, You’re The Expert made its radio air debut (though the show had been airing digitally with NPR for more than a year).

Over the years, Duffy has encountered and interviewed an impressive list of scientists and comedians. When asked to share his favorite moments, a noticeably flustered Duffy sighed. After almost 75 shows, it’s not an easy question.

“Probably my favorite episode is still ‘robot-human teamwork’ with Julie Shah, a computer scientist at MIT,” said Duffy, attempting to squeeze three years of fond memories into a single answer. “Comedian John Hodgman was on that show. And he just had a field day with robot-human teamwork. He accused Shah of training robots to kill the human race. And it was absolutely hilarious.”

Duffy has also learned a lot while moderating You’re The Expert.

“I have the best dinner party fodder now,” said Duffy. “We just had a bat scientist on the show and apparently, during World War II, there was a plan [developed by the United States] to strap bombs to bats and have them, like, roost under houses and then detonate the bombs. And that is just absolutely insane! The morality of having bats decide who dies is just so abhorrent.”

Luckily, America never deployed the bats.

“It turns out the only reason [the United States] didn’t do it is because they couldn’t make the backpacks small enough for the bombs to fit.”

Even though Duffy hopes his show will eventually be a nationally syndicated program like Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, Radiolab, and This American Life, the comedian finally feels at ease; You’re The Expert has achieved his stringent goal of creating something meaningful.

“I didn’t quit teaching because I hated it,” said Duffy. “I have to work as hard now as I did when I was a teacher. I have to make this [show] matter. Because teaching inner city kids matters. Really matters. So I consciously think that if I’m not working hard, then why am I doing this instead of helping kids? I hold myself to that standard.”

Duffy paused for a moment to reflect and then concluded, on a lighter note.

“Though, in a way, I am still teaching now; I just do it with inebriated adults instead of 10-year-old children.”

Photo by David Andrako.

Make sure to visit http://theexpertshow.com/ to listen to past shows and to find out where the show is touring next.

From Our Partners