Tapeworms and other festering parasites aren’t the average fodder for stand-up comedy routines, but Melbourne-based comedian and public health worker Alanta Colley has a knack for making the irksome realms of science funny, as well as fascinating.
Colley will bring her warmly informative show Parasites Lost to the Sydney Science Festival this year. But comedy isn’t her only gig, she’s worked in public health education, giving her gruesome first-hand material to work with, as well as working with the United Nations and grassroots NGOs in remote areas of Africa and Asia, where she learned about the world’s most clever hitchhikers – parasites.
Speaking to Time Out ahead of her trip to Sydney, she said, “It’s very much for that audience who are interested in the space on the Venn diagram between laughing and learning.”
Over four evenings in August – two at the Factory Theatre and two at the Museum of Human Diseases – Colley will weave science with self-deprecating tales of ignorance and illness. One of the more “entertaining” and less harmful parasite encounters she’ll share is her journey in Uganda with a jigger (a type of sand flea).
“If you walk around barefoot like an idiot, like I did, they latch onto the bottom of your foot. The female sticks her reproductive organs out of the hole she’s created and releases eggs into the ground as you walk along. So you’ve become a mobile vending machine for her progeny, and when she’s done she just dies in your foot.”
The show is ultimately about sharing the health challenges faced in developing nations with a broader audience, and while Colley says it’s often a difficult task to “produce laughs from tears” this is nothing new in stand-up.
“I think comedy is us responding to some of the incredible injustices in the world,” she says. “We laugh for a lot of reasons, and one of them is just the sheer absurdity of things.”
Comedy is also a great vehicle for hashing out some confusing or disputed scientific ideas. This is what Colley’s been doing with her Sci Fight Science Comedy Debate; an evening where scientists and comedians make unlikely debate teammates.
“We set them a deep topic and they explore it in the shallowest of ways. We’ve covered topics like love is a chemical, seeing is believing and if scientists should rule the world. It’s an enormous amount of fun because the scientists think they’re not funny enough and the comedians worry they’re not scientific enough, so everyone comes with a degree of imposter syndrome.”
See her from 7pm August 9-10 at the UNSW Museum of Human Diseases, or at the Factory Theatre August 11-12.
Looking for more enlightenment? Head to the best art exhibitions in Sydney this month.