STEM + Stand-Up Comedy = Peer Revue!

Colorado Springs, Colorado, is a pretty interesting place. Sometimes, this city makes the news for some not-so-great events, but there’s also this innovative side. It’s this creative, inspired side that takes great ideas and makes them work.

An example of this is the Peer Revue program, which was born in Colorado Springs in 2016 and is now slowly-but-surely growing legs around the United States. Peer Revue bills itself as a STEM outreach program, taking advantage of the entertainment value of stand-up comedy to bring science education to audiences.

STEM professionals are invited to apply for the 3-week training workshop, where scientists are connected with professional stand-up comics to turn a science lesson into hilarious anecdotes that will help audiences remember some key lessons. The events here in Colorado Springs sell out nearly every time, with several dozen regulars who so far haven’t missed a single show! Since the start of the program, similar versions have popped up in Denver and Little Rock, Arkansas, with plans to start it up in the Washington, D.C. area soon.

Enjoy this journal of my journey to becoming a stand-up sensation… well, at least a sensation in my mind.

The Workshops

I received an invitation from a friend and colleague to apply for the Colorado Springs Peer Revue program in spring 2017, and over the summer I received a call that a training program would be starting up in the fall. I almost tried to beg out of this iteration of the workshops and performance, due to my new job and my sons’ insane schedules. However, the individual who called me was quite persuasive and convinced me that I could find 6 hours of my time over the next month to make this work. I agreed to give it a shot and received information about the first workshop at the beginning of October.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to make clear that I’m not necessarily afraid to speak in front of large groups. It’s part of what I have been doing in my 22-year career for the Air Force: presenting weather information tailored to my audience. But this experience–  incorporating my science into a stand-up comedy show–was well outside of my comfort zone and introduced a whole new set of jitters.

I was very surprised at the number of familiar faces I saw at the training. The first workshop happened to be at my son’s high school in one of the classrooms. The assistant principal was there, as was a fellow Air Force Academy professor. Those two were “veterans” who were on hand to mentor us noobs, but it definitely gave me a sense of what a tight-knit community this group has become in its short lifetime.

There were six of us at the first workshop. This is where we met Mark, who would be serving as the emcee for the event at the end of October. We worked with Mark, the producer Sonya, and several veterans on coming up with a theme for a 6-7 minute stand up routine. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, and we soon learned that our variety of backgrounds would make for a really fun show. There was a former hacker (who happens to be of Russian descent), an IT technician for AAA, a local high school physics teacher, a biology graduate student, a science-fiction-writer-turned-software-engineer, and me, a non-practicing meteorologist.

We concluded our first workshop with a brainstorming session, coming up with a few jokes about our field. We learned techniques on how to turn STEM geekiness into something humorous, thread jokes throughout a routine, and generally learn to see the humor in what we do. It’s important to the showrunners that we can instill some education into our routines and I had no problem incorporating two big lessons: that climate change is real and that there’s a new weather satellite over the country that’s bringing incredible new images to the world of weather and climate.

By the time we got to the second workshop about a week later, which was at the performance venue itself (I’ll speak more to the venue later), we were expected to have the framework of a routine completed. For most of us, this had taken some “homework”; I had taken one evening during the week and typed out everything I would want to say. Large print, double-spaced, much like how you might want to write out a speech.

We got to know the stage setup, the lightning, and the overall scope of the location where we would be performing. It wasn’t a huge space, but large enough for about 200 guests.

After we practiced what we had so far, the veterans, as well as we classmates, offered feedback. There was a lot of commentary about how “clean” my routine was, and I received many suggestions for some more edgy presentations for some of my jokes. I’m normally not super edgy, especially among strangers, but I decided to try to migrate my routine in that direction.

Also, I went long. Way long. Nearly ten minutes long, when six to seven was the goal. So I had received some feedback on which parts of the routine were “extraneous” and could be omitted. We were sent on our way to continue to refine our acts.

The third and final workshop was just a few days before our performance. Consider this like a “dress rehearsal.” By this point, I had converted my script into “bullet points” so I wasn’t inclined to read from a sheet of paper during my performance.

The Venue

The Colorado Springs Peer Revue performances occur in a variety of locations, but my first performance was held at the event center at the Ivywild School near downtown Colorado Springs. This is one of my favorite places in the city, an elementary school from 1916 that, in 2013, was repurposed into a really awesome hangout: there’s a restaurant, the home of Colorado Spring’s own (and my personal favorite) Bristol Brewing Company, a brand-new whiskey distillery, gift shops, and an auditorium that can be rented out for special events, such as wedding receptions and stand-up comedy shows.

So we were in the auditorium. I had to laugh when I was first standing on the stage. I attended a similarly-aged school in Virginia when I was growing up. I’m fairly certain my auditorium was about the same size, but when I was 8 years old that space seemed huge! Now, it seems really cozy.

This auditorium has some nifty modifications, including professional-caliber lighting and sound, and a taproom in the back where guests can take advantage of Bristol Brewing’s cash bar.

Peer Revue also performs at the iconic Stargazer’s Theater and at the Space Foundation Discovery Center, both of which are in Colorado Springs. The Denver troupe performs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Oriental Theater.

The Main Event

The night of the event snuck up in no time. We had guidance to “dress comfortably,” so I wore my They Might Be Giants “Science is Real” t-shirt, with plans to point to it during my talk. Ultimately, I forgot to do that (point at my shirt), but I think the message was loud and clear. It was standing-room-only by the time the show started.

Not only were there the four “survivors” of our 3-week workshop, but we also had two guest STEM-geeks-turned-comics from the Denver program who gave encore performances with us. I was tickled to see a former colleague of mine who had finished his time in the Air Force and then headed up to the University of Colorado and was working on his PhD in mathematics. His routine was about supercomputing and it was very funny!

I had the honor of sharing the stage with a variety of other STEM professionals, as well as a local artist who proudly proclaimed how STEAM-y she made the event.

In between our comedy sets, there was a local group called the Seven One Liners performing improv. If you’ve ever seen the show Whose Line Is It Anyway? on Comedy Central, this group’s performances were in that style. They would pull guests from the audience to participate, solicit ideas from the audience, and then send the comics on their way.

I was second in the lineup of standups, and I ended up having so much fun! My full performance ended up about 9 minutes, but the producer told me to accommodate for the audience’s laughter. And they did laugh–I’m so relieved I didn’t suck!

Folks wondered if I was nervous. To be honest, I wasn’t really. The audience that comes to a Peer Revue show is not the same as one that goes to a classic standup comedy show: Peer Revue audiences are a combination of fellow STEM professionals and college students who understand that this was our first time in a setting such as this one.

What’s next for me? Well, I might do an encore performance in Denver, but I don’t know when. I feel like the stakes are much higher in our nation’s 19th largest city, but our Denver colleagues told me it wasn’t bad at all. One thing’s for sure, Colorado Springs won’t see my routine again–but they don’t have to fret! My husband signed up to do the training workshop series in 2018!

Where and When Can I See Peer Revue?

For now, the shows occur 3-4 times per year in Colorado Springs, Denver, and, most recently, Little Rock, Arkansas. There are rumors of a group starting up in the Washington, D.C. area, but I haven’t seen any information about performances yet. Follow Science Riot (Peer Revue’s non-profit foundation) on Facebook, Twitter, and if you would like to be contacted about upcoming comic workshops, you can fill out this handy-dandy Google Form.

Finally, I will leave you with my full Peer Revue comedy routine (NSFW)! Enjoy!

Patricia Vollmer is the proud mother of two emerging geek sons, ages 12 & 15. She is a meteorologist with the Air Force Reserve and is currently assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy. Patricia blogs about her family's nomadic military life at Ground Control to Major Mom. Home is always where the Air Force sends her family, which is currently in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Hobbies include running, despite no one chasing her, sharing her love for Disney and Star Wars, and exploring the world with her boys. Ask her why the sky is blue at your own risk.