Arts & Culture

In conversation: Chris Duffy ’09

For Starla and Sons founder, ‘Expert’ podcasts offer a new outlet for comedy

By
Contributing Writer
Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chris Duffy ’09 returned to campus this weekend to live-tape a podcast for his show, “You’re the Expert,” which pits comedians against researchers. The Thanksgiving-themed episode featured Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Tom Roberts, who studies turkeys running on treadmills.

Comedy was always a favorite hobby for Chris Duffy ’09, a co-founder of the campus comedy group Starla and Sons, which specializes in long-form improvisation. A former Herald writer, Duffy initially aspired to be a journalist. When that fell through, he pursued teaching.

Today he lives and breathes to crack jokes at stand-up and improv shows across the country. Duffy brought his humor back to campus Sunday in Salomon 101, where he hosted a live taping of “You’re the Expert,” a podcast he created that pits professional comedians against leading scientific researchers.

Prior to the show, Duffy talked to The Herald about the origins of his comedy career and the sea urchin sex that launched the idea for his popular podcast.

 

Herald: You’re the founder of Starla and Sons. Describe how it all began.

Duffy: At the time, there was just Improvidence doing improv. And this guy, Will Guzzardi — who was in my year, and interestingly enough, is now a professional politician — before he was a politician, he was making things up for a long time, playing make-believe. He put all these cryptic ads up around campus that said things like “Interested in long-form improvisation?”

It ended up being literally the best thing that happened to me in college. It was life-changing. We did our first show in a tiny little lecture room in Wilson and just packed it completely full with our friends. And it was really fun. Eventually it became a real thing. The whole thing is really bizarre — that I got together with five of my friends, and played make-believe for four years, and now people continue to do that. It’s a classic Brown twist: I was studying to be a serious journalist. This was just a silly thing where I would pretend to be a talking dog, or Satan on the moon, or an astronaut whose head is a foot, and all of these stupid characters.

How did you come up with the idea for “You’re the Expert?” How did it all begin?

I was teaching fifth grade in inner-city Boston, and while I was teaching, I would do improv, and it was really fun. But I kept feeling like there’s 100 people hearing me talk, and what are they going to leave with? They were going to be like, oh man, that guy has some great stories about being a babysitter, and nothing much else.

And at the same time, I was always meeting these people who were grad students at Harvard or MIT. And they were doing this amazing work that no one knew about. I went to a barbecue and met someone whose whole life, he’s studied the way sea urchins mate. So this guys spends his whole life, all day every day, watching two spiky balls have sex with each other. It’s crazy, people should know about that. So it kind of perfectly meshed — here were these people who had all of these things that people don’t often know about, and I have an audience but I don’t think I am really talking about something that is worth talking about.

So I came up with the idea to have comedians try and guess what a professor or scientist studies, and then interview them about their work and why it’s important. And we have talked to people about the craziest, most amazing things because of this. We interviewed the head of Harvard’s comparative lactation lab, who milks all different mammals, and then compares their breast milk. He’s so crazy and actually comes up with all of these really important findings that are helping babies and the way that we think about medical care. And he’s done that by literally milking zebras and cows, monkeys, bats.

 

What is the most difficult part about stand-up comedy? What is your least favorite part, or the most challenging aspect?

I think the hardest part about stand-up comedy is that there is no other art form where when it goes badly, people go, “That’s not even an art form.” If you go to a movie, and people don’t like the movie, people don’t say, “That was so bad, that wasn’t even a movie.” So comedy is subjective in a way where people feel it personally, and you can tell because it’s a group experience. So if you don’t get laughs, that’s it — it didn’t go well. Comedy is so binary — there are either laughs or no laughs, good or bad. And that’s part of what I love about it, is that it’s so honest.

 

What is your favorite part of comedy? What is most exciting or thrilling?

Definitely getting to travel and meet new people all over the country. Getting to go to a new place that you’ve never been to, and to make someone laugh with something you say — that is just magic. That is crazy, insane magic. It shouldn’t exist in the world, and I’m so glad that it does. I did a show in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, and people were so (appreciative), saying, “Thank you for coming to Hattiesburg. Thank you for even coming to Mississippi at all.”

 

Which do you prefer, stand-up comedy or improv?

It’s hard to answer that, because a thing that I love about stand-up is that if my mom is going to come, I know it won’t embarrass me. I’ll plan to say things that I’ll be fine saying in front of her. But the thing that I love about improv is that I never know what is going to happen. So the downside to that is that sometimes my mom will come, and I think, “Oh no, I will never be able to look you in the eye again.” But also, I think, “Wow, I didn’t even know that there was that side of me.” And it’s awesome that I can discover something new every time. I love that stand-up is polished, and I love that with improv, I am constantly surprised by myself.

 

What can you tell me about the live show at Brown?

It was a Thanksgiving-themed episode, and this expert is so unreal. The professor’s name is Tom Roberts, and he has studied the way turkeys run. He has a lab at Brown where he has a treadmill that he has taught turkeys to run on, and he videotapes them in high definition while running, and then studies how their bodies move as they run. It is so awesome. If you have never seen a video of a turkey running on a treadmill, your life is not complete. I didn’t realize my life had a hole in it until I saw this video, and I needed this. It was something I always needed and never knew.

 

How has Brown prepared you for the world of comedy?

Here’s the thing that I think is true about Brown that as I’ve gone into the real world I’ve found is really applicable. At Brown, you really have to fake your way and create everything. It’s like, what do you want your classes to be? Make up a curriculum. Make up a concentration. You can invent all of this stuff. And at the time, I was thinking that this does not seem like how the real world works. But I’ve realized in the real world that this is what everyone does every day. Brown really prepared me for that. The sheer amount of characters on campus is unbelievable.

 

What if you hadn’t gone to Brown? Do you believe you would have still chosen comedy? Is it something you were destined for?

Oh, it definitely would have gone differently. I probably would’ve been hit by a bus.

 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.