05 January 2010

Now THIS guy's funny!

January 3, 2010

An Economist Stands Up for a Less Dismal Science

Daniel Sheehan for The ChronicleAn economist who works the comedy clubs thinks his audiences deserve an explanation.

So as soon as Yoram Bauman gets to the microphone, he tells a couple of dozen patrons gathered in the Comedy Underground: "I spent five years in graduate school getting a Ph.D. in economics and then decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy.

"You can imagine how proud my father is.

"He was a German Jew who never watched television. He said, 'Give me the name of a single Jew who's ever made it in stand-up comedy.'"

Mr. Bauman delivers the line flat; the patrons chuckle.

The self-styled "world's first and only stand-up economist," a lanky, bespectacled economics instructor by day in the Program on the Environment at the University of Washington, seems confident that he's on a roll.

"My dad said, 'Yoram, you'll never make it as a stand-up economist. There's no demand.'

"I said, 'Don't worry, Dad; I'm a supply-side economist. I just stand up and let the jokes trickle down.'"

"Auwgkh!" the audience moans.

"I believe in the Laffer curve."


People don't always get Mr. Bauman's economics jokes.

Who, apart from the odd audience member with at least a minor in economics, would know that the Laffer curve plots out the tax that governments should levy to achieve an optimal balance of revenue and economic activity?

Or something like that.

Still, at this club, where Mr. Bauman runs a weekly showcase that raises money for local charities, audiences light up when he goes to his fail-safe gags.

With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy, originator of the "You might be a redneck if …" routine, Mr. Bauman says: "You might be an economist if …

"… you've ever tried to pick up somebody in a bank."

"… you think that demand and supply is a good answer to the question, Where do babies come from?"

"… you adamantly refuse to sell your children if you think they could be worth more later."

Now they're cracking up. Mr. Bauman dares to go deeper into economics argot, which can get a laugh whether understood or not:

"… you plan to have your children born in December rather than January so you can maximize the discounted present value of the child tax credit."

Comics in Classrooms

Maybe stand-up comedy is not such a leap from teaching. Mr. Bauman is not the only academic-turned comedian.

Tim Lee earned a doctorate at the University of California at Davis but quit academe and discovered a passion for stand-up comedy about his specialty, biology. Norm Goldbatt, a former academic physicist who now works in private industry, performs science stand-up in the San Francisco area and has written gags for Jay Leno.

This month Mr. Bauman will appear at a humor session at the American Economic Association convention, in Atlanta, with, among others, Hugo M. Mialon, an assistant professor at Emory University, and Jodi N. Beggs, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, who runs the Web site Economists Do It With Models.

Stand-up comedy "is a little bit like academe," Mr. Bauman acknowledges. "It's like when you're teaching about, say, marginal cost, and you know what the questions are going to be about. In comedy you're telling jokes you've told a hundred times before, and you know what the signposts are. You know, Well, if they don't laugh at this joke, I'm in trouble."

When the San Francisco-raised Mr. Bauman completed the University of Washington's doctoral program in economics, in 2003, and went to teach for a year at Whitman College, in Washington's wheat-growing southeast, he had become more involved in the Seattle comedy scene and had begun to feel greater confidence in his stand-up routine. But he was still searching for a repertoire of jokes that would work for him.

It then occurred to him to build on the few economics gags he had.

The most successful was "Mankiw's 10 Principles of Economics, Translated." In it, he riffs on a list of economics essentials devised by the prominent Harvard economist N. Gregory Mankiw, who wrote a best-selling textbook.

"Let's begin," the routine goes, "by separating them into the seven first principles, which are microeconomics, and the last three, which are macroeconomics—the difference being, of course, that microeconomists are wrong about specific things, while macroeconomists are wrong about things in general."

You have to see it (it's on YouTube), but the gist is that Mr. Mankiw's principles boil down to little more than "choices are bad," "people are stupid," "people are not that stupid," and "blah, blah, blah."

Mr. Bauman gets his best responses from the very audiences you might expect to be offended: other economists. They laugh like crazy.

That was clear during his appearance at the 2008 American Economic Association convention (also available on YouTube) and at a gig at the New York comedy club Caroline's, which turned out to be a staff party for a large economics-consulting firm upstairs. "No one told me about it, and they went crazy," says Mr. Bauman, whose astonishment and delight are evident (again on YouTube).

To diversify the routine, he throws in political jokes. He tells his Comedy Underground audience that when he went out to rural eastern Washington to teach, he had a bumper sticker: "Bring the Troops Home."

"After getting my ass kicked several times outside Barnaby's Pub, in Walla Walla, I decided I needed something different, to fit in. So I traded in that bumper sticker and I got a new one."

He holds it up: "Leave the Troops There."

That sticker didn't go down so well, either. "So then I got another one," he says, holding up a third: "I Don't Know About the Troops."

Mr. Bauman says he is still torn about whether to go fully pro with comedy, but he makes "a good chunk" of his living from stand-up now. Last year he appeared on what is now the PBS NewsHour. "For comedians, it doesn't get any bigger than the PBS NewsHour," he tells his audiences.

He also takes heart from the approval of Mr. Mankiw, who noted the "10 Principles" routine on his popular economics blog and invited Mr. Bauman to address his Introduction to Economics class in 2008.

Mr. Mankiw has contributed a blurb to Mr. Bauman's latest project, an instructive book, The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics (Hill and Wang), with drawings by a Prince­ton, N.J.-based illustrator, Grady Klein. "Learning economics should be fun," Mr. Mankiw writes. "Klein and Bauman make sure that it is."

The team will produce a second volume, Mr. Bauman writes at the end, on macroeconomics—"just as soon as we work it out ourselves."

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