The science of comedy
1 August 2011
From physics PhD student to TV funny man, Ben Miller's career path has been far from conventional. Now best known for comedy duo Armstrong and Miller, Ben talks to us about science and satire, his visit to the Met Office and the release of his first film.
Ben was studying for a PhD in the Semiconductor Physics Group at the University of Cambridge when he first got interested in comedy. At the time he was looking for an effect known as quantum capacitance - based on the idea that if you build a capacitor small enough to store only a few electrons, you start to see them exhibit unusual quantum-type behaviour.
But, quantum physics aside, it was Ben's involvement in the university's amateur dramatic club, playing Cassio in Othello, that he discovered an unintentional knack for comedy.
"I played Othello's lieutenant and despite trying to give the part tragic weight, people just started laughing every time I came on. So I thought: go with the flow."
Ben got his first comedy break in a Smith and Jones sketch while still at university. Ben explains; "I remember stepping onto a film set for the first time and thinking it was the perfect place for me, like a mixture of acting and the army." It was then that Ben decided to leave his PhD behind for his newfound love of comedy - despite his parents' objections and friends' dismay.
Science and satire
With a successful TV career in hand, Ben still manages to include his scientific interests in his work. A genuine interest in climate change and meteorology led him to poke fun at climate change doubters last year in a sketch that highlighted the differences between weather and global warming. "The kernel of most of the sketches on 'The Armstrong and Miller Show' is someone's beef with some madness-inducing aspect of day-to-day life," he says.
After seeing this sketch on TV, the Met Office invited Ben to their headquarters. Although Ben understood the work of the organisation, he still found the day surprising. He says, "It was a shock to see the teams at work with real weather maps, working on the basic unfolding story of the world's weather, right in front of me. I thought somehow it was all done by magic, not by real people with half-full cups of tea and photos of their kids by the monitor."
In January, Ben returned to his physicist roots to present the BBC 2 Horizon documentary 'What is One Degree?' exploring the concept of temperature. Ben says, "I think it's hard to get anywhere with the science of climate change until you get the hang of temperature. So I wanted to explore the fundamental science of how we measure temperature and what it is." It was on this show that Ben installed a Met Office weather station at his home - so he can now monitor the weather in his own back yard every day.
One of Ben's earliest primary school memories was taking measurements from the school's own weather station. "It's astonishing to think that early records - and even a sizeable chunk of today's records - are taken by amateur weather stations. I am thrilled to have made my own contribution, however small," says Ben.
The final word
This year is shaping up to be an exciting one for Ben as he turns director on his first ever film. 'Huge' hits the cinemas on 7 July and stars Noel Clarke, Johnny Harris and Thandie Newton. But don't expect laughs Ben warns, as 'Huge' is not a comedy. "It's a drama about a struggling comedy double act on the effortlessly brutal London stand-up circuit." Few comedians are better placed than Ben to deal with this kind of subject matter who's made a career out of seeing the funny side of serious issues. It makes perfect sense for Ben to now turn the tables and observe the serious side of comedy.