Natalia Reagan is an anthropologist and comedian based in the Los Angeles area. She’s written science comedy for National Geographic, and has appeared as a science consultant for shows on The History Channel, Travel Channel, and Nat Geo Wild. She’s been a regular host on shows for Discovery Digital Network, and even hosted a show called 10 Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty for Spike TV (rest in peace). Most recently, though…she’s the newest member of the Hello SciCom team!
You do a lot, Natalia: your website has you as anthropologist, comedian, writer, host, and self-described “weirdo”. How do you describe what you do?
N: I make science funny! At least that’s the goal. Humor can be great for breaking down complex or foreign concepts to a broad audience– even controversial or heavily nuanced subjects can benefit from a little humor. I’m not necessarily suggesting adding slapstick comedy to heavy topics, but adding some levity can help us break the ice while tackling tough subjects.
Before I became a scientist, I was an actor, comedian, and writer. In fact, I got my SAG card playing a dancing chicken McNugget in a McDonald’s commercial (and I was vegetarian). Currently I develop and pitch science comedy shows, make science vids on IG and TikTok, audition for film, TV, and commercials, do stand-up and corporate comedy, and help punch up other scientists’ work. Every day is different!
That’s a lot! With that kind of breadth, your work touches on a lot of different aspects of science, but it seems to me that you definitely have a bent for primates. What’s the origin of your interest in monkeys, apes, and their simian cousins?
N: Funny enough, I’ve had recurring King Kong nightmares since I was little. The first one happened when I was about two or three. Essentially, I would hear King Kong’s footsteps in the distance and would immediately know I was doomed. He would come to my house and eat my entire family one-by-one and then eat me.
When I was eight, I finally figured out how to lucid dream. In the dream, I was in the house from Silver Spoons and I heard Kong’s boomin’ footsteps, but by the time he reached the house I opened the door and there was an orangutan standing there. He gave me a hug and, from then on, I was enamored with primates.
At 25 I was hit by a truck as a pedestrian & had to learn how to walk again. This near death experience was the catalyst for me to go back to school– but this time to study anthropology! I studied spider monkeys on the Azuero peninsula of Panama! I was carrying out a survey of a critically endangered species so conservation tactics could be implemented. It was an intense experience. Every day in the field was equally invigorating, painful, educational, disheartening, and absolutely magical. The forest, the people I worked with, AND the monkeys changed me. I don’t think I’d ever been so happy in my life.
It seems to me that you’re right smack in the middle of the more traditional world of anthropology and the highly irreverent world of comedy. What are the special challenges with walking a line between two different worlds? What are the special opportunities?
N: Great question! Since anthropology is the study of humans and humans are the chief executors of comedy (although cat videos make me question this daily), I think there is some wiggle room when walking that line between anthro and comedy. However, I always try to be sensitive to the sensibilities of others and think how my words may be interpreted.
One thing I would challenge is that anthropology is “traditional”. One of the most interesting things I learned in a grad seminar was that traditions may stem from older customs, but since tradition has to be re-chosen or abandoned or altered with each new generation, it’s a mix of old and new. So anthropology, for as old as it seems, is constantly changing. Science is a process. It’s a pursuit of truth. So change is non-negotiable. Anthropology adapts and changes as the times and people doing the science do. And if it didn’t, it would be failing as a science.
Similarly, comedy is constantly changing! What was funny 50 years ago, might not be even elicit even the slightest giggle today. Because times change. Audiences evolve. And lately there has been pushback from some older comedians accusing folks of being too sensitive, but perhaps it’s time those comedians re-evaluate their jokes? Like the old adage, ‘know your audience’. Comics don’t have to agree with their audience, but don’t act surprised or blame the audience for not finding their jokes funny.
In your eyes, then, what can scientists learn from comedians? What can comedians learn from scientists?
N: Scientists can learn to not take themselves too seriously. Their work? Absolutely. Yourself? Eh, maybe loosen up a little!
And science and comedy are not so different- they are constantly changing and adapting. They both have some universals/laws (i.e. gravity is a jerk and farts are always funny), but for the most part science and comedy are ever evolving. Both scientists and comedians are masochists. And they are well-acquainted with failure. Bombing onstage isn’t so different from a science experiment going off the rails. It sucks. But you dust yourself off, make some tweaks, get back on the horse and try again. And again. And again.
J: With so much of your public-facing work focusing on sex-related content, have you ever faced difficulty being “taken seriously” in the anthropology world?
N: Since anthropology is the study of humans, and humans–whether they admit it or not–enjoy getting busy, I think it is silly for anthropologists to discredit or judge my work because it touches on sex & sexuality. But some do. And that’s OK. A recurring lesson throughout my life is that not everybody is going to like you. And that is OK. In fact, that is good. That means you stand for something. Like talking freely about monkey sex. Or misconceptions about sexuality and gender. Or the evolution of boobs. The most important thing is that you like yourself, and that you are authentic, genuine, and proud of the work that you do.
AND sex-related content can be a gateway into science! The first video I made that got any traction was “The Story of Boobs: The Breast Tale Ever Told”. Come for the boobs, and stay for science!
What’s your hope for the future of science comedy?
Years ago, right before I presented at my very first conference, I was told by an academic senior that “this is a scientific talk, not stand-up comedy”. Basically, they told me to dial down the funny. While I 100% agree scientific talks should lead with the science, why shouldn’t it be as entertaining as stand-up comedy? Heck, laughter is immediate feedback that your audience is still paying attention.
In the decade since that conference, I have since led multiple panels, talks, and created posters for anthropology conferences about the importance of comedy in biological anthropology. It’s a humerus field, dammit!
As for the entertainment industry, I would love to see networks taking chances on female/gender queer led adventure shows. I’d love to see diverse casts and production teams. I would LOVE to see non-science networks open to producing science content. We’ve seen political news shows like Daily Show and Colbert Report thrive on Comedy Central. Honestly, I think Comedy Central is READY for a late night science comedy variety show.
What advice would you give to people just starting their careers who are also interested in science and comedy?
Oooo! First of all, hello new friend! And there are so many ways to do science comedy! Writing blog posts, fine arts, comic strips, videos, stand-up comedy, animation, songs, etc. I would find your favorite artists and hopefully they’ll serve as an inspiration.
A helpful practice is to read a scientific article and come up with as many jokes as you can. Dad jokes. Bad puns. Funny anecdotes. Also, maybe find an angle or niche that you really like. Is there a field of science you want to focus on? A certain artistic medium? A specific message you want to get across? You don’t have to stay in a niche, but it’s sometimes helpful if there’s something people can associate you with.
How did you get involved with Hello SciCom?
So, I started working with your hilarious founder Sarah Rose Siskind on StarTalk in spring 2017. We immediately hit it off and I have always been impressed by her quick wit and ability to find the humor in anything scientific! A couple months ago she asked if I’d be interested in helping out and it was a natural fit!
Lastly, you know I have to ask: what’s your favorite animal or anthro fun fact to talk about?
Over 1500 species have been documented engaging in homosexual behavior, but only one species is guilty of propagating homophobia. Ironically that species belongs in the genus Homo…