Scientist-Turned-Comedian Ben Miller Kicks Ash With His Volcano-Themed Standup Act | Comedy | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Scientist-Turned-Comedian Ben Miller Kicks Ash With His Volcano-Themed Standup Act


Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Ben Miller performing at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Ben Miller performing at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park

When Ben Miller submitted an application to become the 2023 artist-in-residence at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, he never expected to get the gig. After all, the National Parks Arts Foundation, which funds the monthlong residencies, had previously selected painters, sculptors, poets and Grammy Award-winning musicians. "Actual artists," Miller pointed out, "not some guy making silly jokes."

Plus, the 28-year-old Chicago-area native admitted that he'd never built a volcano for a school science project, which seemed like a prerequisite.

A few months later, however, the New York City-based comedian was living on Hawaii's Big Island and figuring out how to incorporate geology terms such as "fissure," "eruption" and "pyroclastic flow" into a comedy routine — and keep it G-rated for a national park audience.

The result is Miller's latest hourlong comedy show, "Stand-Up Science Presents: Volcano," which he performs on Friday, June 14, at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington and Saturday, June 15, at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury. In the show, Miller, a trained scientist with no background in geology, draws from the knowledge he gleaned interviewing the national park's vulcanologists, entomologists and archaeologists, as well as from gazing anxiously into the fiery lava lake of Halema'uma'u Crater.

As the first-ever comedian chosen as an artist-in-residence at a national park, Miller said his artistic duties were a departure from his previous stints performing at big-city comedy clubs and festivals.

"They wanted me to put on a one-hour show with jokes about volcanoes and then present it at 11 a.m.," Miller said. "It felt less like an artistic residency and more like a Food Network challenge."

Miller grew up in Highland Park, Ill., and tried his hand on a comedy stage for the first time at 16. When his father took him to an open mic, the pair became the butt of jokes by the older comedians, who riffed about the teen being a sex-trafficking victim. Adding insult to injury, he said, "Then I had to awkwardly bomb in front of whoever was left."

Miller didn't return to a comedy stage again until his sophomore year at Columbia University. There, he earned a bachelor's degree in materials science and engineering while doing open mics in his spare time.

But after a few years of working in laboratories, conducting experiments with lasers and biopolymers, and teaching an afterschool science program in New York City, Miller made the full-time career leap from STEM to standup.

Miller's comedic accolades include twice being ranked as New York's top roast battler in the Comedy Fight Club championship at the Stand comedy club in New York City. A roast battle, he explained, essentially involves two comedians saying mean things to each other for laughs. His secret was using his research skills to do deep dives on his opponents beforehand.

During the COVID-19 lockdown, Miller started writing science-themed jokes for a web series he created called "Stand-Up Science." He eventually turned it into an hourlong show, which had a sold-out run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2022.

In one bit, Miller riffed about his love of homework as a child, which went awry one day when he tried to do some extra-credit work for his fifth-grade sex education class.

"Since there wasn't a textbook, I decided to read ahead on the internet. I stumbled upon dirty videos online but didn't realize that's what they were because I was 9 years old," he said. "I thought it was an online educational database like Wikipedia. I was like, 'Oh, wow! These videos have been viewed by 4 million other scholars!'"

In the show, Miller also riffs about being diagnosed as a child with pectus excavatum — "a medical condition, not a Harry Potter spell." The congenital condition gave Miller a concave chest, reducing his lung capacity to 70 percent, "just barely a passing grade in breathing," he joked. "Sort of like honorary asthma."

Since finishing his residency in Hawaii, Miller has spent the past year honing his magma-themed gags at shows throughout the United States and Europe.

"It's a much better show now than it was a year ago at 11 a.m.," he told Seven Days during a recent interview from Rotterdam. Miller was just coming off an eight-show run in the Netherlands, Finland, Germany, Spain and the UK, where, he said, the humor played "surprisingly better than you'd expect" with an international audience. Because it's science-based, he explained, "All I really had to do was change Fahrenheit to Celsius to make things work."

While Miller's shows are both entertaining and educational, he insisted that they don't require a deep understanding of science to get the jokes.

"There's definitely a higher percentage of nerds than at the average comedy show, but all sorts of people without STEM backgrounds come and have a good time," he said. "And it's not like there's going to be a pop quiz at the end."

"Stand-Up Science Presents: Volcano," Friday, June 14, 7 p.m., at Off Center for the Dramatic Arts in Burlington. $12. Saturday, June 15, 7 p.m. (sold out) and 9 p.m., at Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St. Johnsbury. $15.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Labor of Lava | Scientist-turned-comedian Ben Miller kicks ash with his volcano-themed standup act"

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