Longtime science lover Adam Ruben spends his days in a lab coat, peering down a microscope in search for a malaria vaccine. But by night, the Sanaria Inc researcher takes to the stage, cracking up crowds as a professional comedian in Washington, DC. Ruben performs at Capital Fringe Festival and the Kennedy Center, co-hosts the Science Channel’s Outrageous Acts of Science and teaches a stand-up comedy course at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the author of Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School.
Ruben’s comedy often draws on his Jewish upbringing, and he is the second-place winner of the Funniest Jewish Comic Contest at the Laugh Factory in Times Square. Moment asks him about his how his upbringing influences his comedy, and what science and stand-up have in common.—Maggie Miller
Q: You’re a full-time molecular biologist, but you also have a full career as a stand-up comic who often riffs on science. How do you combine these two passions?
A: In many ways they’re combined—some of my stand-up is about science, and some of my articles about science are meant to be humorous—but in many ways, they’re also not combined. I’ve performed stand-up that had nothing to do with science, and I do science every day in which I do not involve comedy, simply because it would be kind of inappropriate to do so given the gravity of what I’m working on. I think every scientist, no matter what they’re working on, malaria, AIDS, or the age of the universe, they have to be a little bit lighthearted and have fun in the lab. But at the same time, if you were to replace what is a scientific presentation showing your actual serious data with a comedy routine about the same thing, you are not going to be seen as a serious scientist.
Q: Does your Jewish upbringing come up often in your performances?
A: It does. As a regular stand-up comedian, I’ve got standard topics that a lot of comedians talk about, things like grocery shopping and driving. But then I’ve also got a bunch of material about being Jewish, and sometimes I just work a little of that in. However, if I’m performing for a Jewish organization, I’ll try to bring out as much of that as possible. I performed stand-up at a bat mitzvah once, which was a very strange and possibly not very good idea, because 13-year-olds don’t want to sit and listen to anything, even a stand-up comedy routine. I once performed at the Center for Jewish Life, and each time they did it on a Friday night, so there’s no microphone, and we were told we weren’t allowed to write anything down, and all the standard established restrictions. So of course my cell phone went off in the middle of the show.
Q: Do you draw much inspiration for your routines from family and childhood, as compared to other comics?
A: A lot of stand-up comedians get a lot of great material because they had these really terrible upbringings, and comedy is a great escape from that. Mine was really very normal and very happy and so I actually don’t talk about my family all that much. But a couple years ago I put together a one-man show that was primarily a comedy show called “Please Don’t Beat Me Up” and I premiered that at the Capital Fringe Festival. Even though my family life was good, I had a lot of problems at school with bullying, as I think a lot of kids do. This show was focused on telling true stories of things that happened during adolescence.
Q: Some of the specific incidents you relate are a bit embarrassing. Have you ever been tempted to hold back from sharing some of these more personal moments on stage?
A. When you start telling a new story for the first time and it’s about something embarrassing, you’re a little embarrassed, just because you’re telling a whole large audience about something that legitimately embarrassed you. But after a while, when you get to the point when you tell a story on stage, and you rehearse it 20-30 times, that kind of helps you be able to deal with the embarrassment. You take a few steps away from the original pain and betrayal. I told a story about something that was horrific, this class election in fourth grade, where I ran for office and I thought I wouldn’t get that many votes, but then kids agreed to vote for me if I gave them my dessert, and so I did, I gave it all away, and then no one voted for me anyway. And there was another election a few weeks later, and I lost that one too by more, I want to say by 22 votes to two votes. At the time, it was confirmation that I didn’t have friends the way these other kids had friends, and that I didn’t have support at all.
But, telling that story on stage—I’ve now told it several times as part of my show—it becomes less embarrassing and more a neutral fact. Because it happened 25 years ago, there’s a lens to look back on it and say, yes that was 25 years ago, yes, that was a kid, and that’s not me anymore. A very strange thing happened when I performed that story as part of my show at the Fringe Wilmington Festival. I grew up in Wilmington, and my fourth grade teacher, who had been involved with that election, actually came to see the show. She said that she remembered that election, that she remembered everything about it, and that she even had a photograph of the blackboard with the results on it, and I asked her send it to me. She never has, but it was very interesting having her able to hear that.
Q: Your book, Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, does not give the impression that graduate school was a good experience. Were there any bright spots of grad school that weren’t horrifyingly awful?
A: One of the misconceptions of the book is that I hated grad school and wouldn’t do it again if given the opportunity, and the fact is I did enjoy grad school and there was more that I liked than I didn’t like. I really liked the teaching part of grad school, I was really interested in the research I was doing to an extent, even though sometimes it felt tedious. I even liked grading exams. The reason the book is negative was because there are also a lot of aspects of grad school, pulling from both my experience and everyone else’s I’ve heard, that are really worthy of complaint.
Graduate stipends are tiny. They expect you to live on anything from $15,000-$20,000 a year for what could be 5-10 years. You start thinking, wait a minute, I thought I was the smart one, I’m the one getting the advanced degree, and here my friends are with jobs that they get to go home from at 5 pm and they’re making double or triple what I’m making. Why am I here, why did I make this choice? The other main aspect of grad school that needs to be fixed is the length of the programs. You end up with programs that don’t last five years or ten years but are of indeterminate lengths. There are a lot of Ph.D. programs you go into, like mine, that tell you you’re done when your advisor says you’re done.
Q: You’ll be performing at the Kennedy Center on December 7. Can you tell us a little about what the theme of the performance?
A. It’s a storytelling show with a group called Story League, which is one of the two or three big storytelling groups in D.C. The theme of that show is “Story League Presents Presents.” It’s a show about holiday presents, and in that show I’m going to be telling a true story about an ex-girlfriend for whom I demonstrated that I was not very good at buying Christmas presents. Not to give away the whole story, but part of it is that she very explicitly told me she wanted jewelry and I interpreted that to mean that I should buy her a pocket watch. I thought, it’s not what other girls like, it’s special, it’s a pocket watch. It never occurred to me that women don’t carry pocket watches, and it was just a very perplexing gift. So, it was just a story about all the terrible gifts I got her and then when I met the woman who is now my wife, how I was suddenly faced with this problem of trying to overcome being a terrible gift-giver.
Get more details about Ruben’s free comedy show on Dec. 7 here.