In September 2014 CPAS academics Rod Lamberts and Will Grant launched KindaThinky, an innovative live talk show that takes place in Canberra's Civic Pub. Every one of their shows has sold out, and KindaThinky has been the talk of social media. In April 2015 Lindy Orthia interviewed Will and Rod about KindaThinky and found out what it's for, why it's successful and what the heck a brony is.
LINDY: What is this KindaThinky thing for those of us who’ve never been and haven’t watched the video?
ROD: Well you should go. And watch the video.
WILL: It’s a pub show. It’s a theme-driven talk show that is in a pub.
ROD: It’s slathered with irreverence. We’re not completely reverential about all the things. But we do have some reverence. We’re semi-reverent.
WILL: I don’t know if this is honest or facetious, but it’s a way where we’ve got people to pay to watch us drink. Which is a really horrible thing to say but it’s true.
ROD: Nooo. They don’t pay a lot.
WILL: No they don’t pay a lot.
ROD: But the idea is basically we wanted to talk about big themes. And we wanted to get different opinions - not just science, not just history, not just eggheads. Also normal people who have jobs or experience, whatever, doing things or experiencing things themselves. And bring them all together and have a yap about it in a convivial environment that can take the piss out of stuff but also cover some things seriously if necessary.
WILL: Yeah, one of the things we bang on about in sci com a lot is that everyday experience and perspectives can be really valuable.
WILL: And so if we’re talking about any particular topic there’s going to be an abstract view, an eggheady view that will be really useful, but there’ll also be people that might have lived through it and can tell you what it was like for them. So, in our last episode we were looking at heresy, and there’s people that are speaking about it from a free speech point of view and the laws and journalism, stuff like that. But then you get people who lived in a cult and know what it’s like to escape from a cult. So it’s very personal stories and they can bring that personal perspective to bear.
ROD: It’s also funny though too. We’re more interested in... if it’s not entertaining first, then fuck it basically. It’s not code for a lecture. It’s not kind of sneaky ‘you’re going to learn but hey we’ll sneak some fun in at the end’. If it’s not entertaining then... That’s the priority. Entertainment with purpose, but entertainment first.
LINDY: You’ve said on the website that this is no ‘smart folks bark facts at the masses schtick’.
LINDY: Is that how it’s different from that? In that, it’s entertaining first, and it’s not just the book experts, but experiential experts too?
WILL: I think the impression you get from a lot of sci com events is they feel very lecturey. You know, the stuff we hold here at ANU. Not CPAS stuff, but ANU public lectures. And the aesthetic of the lecture and how we feel about lectures is, ‘is this gonna be on the test?’ You know - you’re in high school, you’re in university and you listen to a lecture and--
ROD: It appeals to people who like lectures.
WILL: Yeah, but it feels like you might be tested on this knowledge one day, at the end of the lecture or later. We’re trying to go the other way and say ‘you’ll never be tested on this knowledge’. If you learn nothing, that’s okay. If you have a good time, that’s what we want. But if you have a good time and you hear something that’s a little bit deeper and a little bit interesting - it blows your mind - and you can tell your friends about it the next day, then that would be much better than ‘you’ve gotta learn these ten facts about black holes’.
ROD: We were saying last time that, when everyone’s talking about something they heard, they say, ‘I’ve heard they said blah’. We decided that we’re ‘they’. Or at least we’re the facilitators of ‘them’. I want it such that when someone says ‘they say’, they’re accidentally or deliberately referring to something we did. Or someone we spoke with. So I think we should become ‘they’.
ROD: We are ‘them’. [Evil laugh.]
LINDY: Do you see KindaThinky as a contribution to the push in academic and policy circles for more dialogue around science-related stuff?
ROD: Not only science. But more around research and egghead stuff. I see it more as a contribution to public intellectualism, honestly.
WILL: Yep.ROD: It’s actually just getting human faces on people who traditionally write in journals or hide in universities, hide so to speak.
WILL: I don’t think we’d ever do a topic that didn’t have...
ROD: Science relevance?
WILL: Well not science relevance, but research and learned relevance. So it might be historians, might be biologists, might be criminologists, might be economists. Whatever it is. But we’ll always have some of those in there. And I think instead of making their expertise - you know, saying that they’re a professor or that they’ve published a Nature paper - the front and centre thing, rather, let’s talk about the topic, and they’ll bring really interesting things to bear, because they’ve been reading on that topic for, you know, twenty or thirty years.
LINDY: Each of your shows is based on a single word theme. Where do you get your ideas from?
ROD: Fevered imaginations. Bug bears. Bees in bonnets.
WILL: Also, I think news stories actually. When something interesting happens in the news, and it’s the kind of thing that you think, ooh, what’s the right...? One of the ones we’re talking about for next semester, there was a great story about - well it’s not a great story, it’s a horrible story.
ROD: So it’s a shit story.
WILL: One of Australia’s leading Aboriginal artists, who’s won the best prize in Aboriginal art a couple of times over the last few years, his work was in the front of the National Gallery. And I remember it - it’s this big brass crocodile with a sort of mermaidish person with a spear on top of it. A lot of his other work as well. Anyway, he was convicted at the end of last year for child sex abuse twenty years earlier. And then all of his art works have been removed. And so that’s the interesting thing to me - was his art ever really good? Or does it now acquire this taint that we can’t look at it? The parallel - I was watching a documentary on Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland last night. And the big question running through the whole thing is - so they’re talking about how he came to write the books, who he was, that kind of thing - was he a paedophile? And what was his actual relationship with the actual Alice? And they can’t answer this question conclusively, but there’s lots of things going on.
ROD: So that’s why we could potentially call a topic ‘Taint’.
WILL: Taint. If we were to prove that he was a paedophile, would his work become beyond the pale? Or do we kind of accept that about some artists if they’re from a different time? Okay, um, I don’t know, famous pederasts through the Greeks and the Renaissance, there must be heaps.
ROD: At least ten. Maybe eleven.
WILL: And we kind of accept it about that period but maybe Lewis Carroll - would we ever get rid of Alice in Wonderland? Would we stop reading it because he was proved as...? I don’t know. But because this more recent one has been proved, and it’s convicted in a court of law, and because he’s living, it’s got that taint.
ROD: So we gather four people, four kinds of people, from as diverse as possible points of view - scholarly, non-scholarly, experiential, whatever it may be. And then have them on and have a yak about it.
ROD: The last one we did was Heresy. Our very first one was called Limits. So we had you know, the limits of human endurance with a free diver. We had the head of ACT police traffic operations. We had an economist guy. And we had a casualty nurse. So anything to do with this notion of a limitation. We had one called Wrong - we had the head of the Scarlet Alliance. We had Father Rod Bower, who’s the guy who writes all those really inflammatory but I think very morally appropriate billboards outside his church in Gosford. He was awesome. We had a dude who, what’s it? A brony - men who are grown ups into My Little Pony. Under the context of wrong, because you know, they’re sanctioned as wrong.
WILL: Which, looking back now, we only half asked the right questions with him. We raised some of them - like there was weird sexual undertones a little bit. But you know, the stuff that I found out more recently, there’s some incredibly bizarre--
ROD: Not enough research, that was our problem.
WILL: No, I knew a bit about it, but I didn’t know enough of the underground lingo to now ask him about, to say ‘so what’s clopping?’
ROD: We forgot to say, yeah, ‘do you bonk stuffed toys?’
LINDY: What’s clopping?
WILL: Oh, clopping is their term for masturbation to My Little Pony pictures.
LINDY: Oh right.
WILL: And there was this great article where it was all about masculinity and, hierarchical masculinity in subcultures. So all across the world, think about, okay there’s the alpha male who’s you know, the weight lifter who’s rich and all that kind of stuff. But even within a very obscure subculture - bronies - there’s still hierarchicalisation. And there was some guy who was kicked out of the community cos he’d had sex with a woman. And it was like...
WILL: Yeah, it was like ‘go be normal somewhere else, faggot!’ cos he admitted to not maintaining his purity for My Little Pony.
LINDY: Wow. Interesting.
WILL: ‘Go be normal somewhere else!’
ROD: ‘We don’t like your kind around here.’
LINDY: That segues nicely into my next question, which is, who is the most thought-provoking speaker you’ve had on a panel so far?
ROD: Oh, there’s heaps actually.
LINDY: Which was the most challenging for you, each of you?
WILL: Challenging is very different to thought-provoking. Rod Bower was incredibly easy to talk to. He’s a priest and he’s used to being in front of an audience, both as a parish--
ROD: And he’s used to poking people and getting them noisy about things.
WILL: And incredibly interesting. He’s the kind of ultimate danger for an atheist. He’s utterly, utterly reasonable. And really connecting on issues of social justice, he’s all about social justice. So he was no challenge at all to talk to because he was really interesting, really reasonable.
ROD: I found the most challenging was, we had one on Denial, and we had a climate person, and it was the first time I’ve ever had a conversation with a climate-related person - I’ve had many from different walks of life - who had no horrible stories. Like, she had no horrible stories. Every other one I’ve ever spoken to has had some kind of death threat or public shaming or horrible comments or, you know, something. And she had none. And I’m sitting there going [splutter-stammer noises]. I just didn’t expect that. So that was pretty challenging, there was nothing to kind of like fire off. That surprised me. That was probably the most challenging.
WILL: Yeah, challenging in a very different way, like it was hard to draw out the - what you want to try and do is draw out a good story.
ROD: We had Robin Ince at the last one, who works with Brian Cox, and he’s supported Ricky Gervais doing his comedy stand-up and all that. We had him in the last one as the last guest. And I admit, when he was about to come on, I thought, is this just gonna be us watching him do stand up? How’s this going to play out? But luckily he was quite happy to interact.
WILL: But by the same token, it was kind of challenging cos he was so funny, and he broke me a couple of times and I forgot what I was even talking about I was laughing so hard. And so I think the challenges are different. Another one we had was Cheryl [Renouf].
ROD: Cheryl, yeah.
WILL: Who is a prisoner advocate.
ROD: Plus she’s an Aboriginal woman. She’s been working with prisoners for twenty odd years.
WILL: Both of her sons have been in and out of jail for a lot of time, and so she’s very close to the prisoners.
ROD: And she was nervous too, and she said so. Like, she was really nervous about getting up on stage.
WILL: Oh yeah, which is --
ROD: So we had to help her along.
WILL: So five minutes of it was quite, help her through. And then she was a crack-up, she was really... you’d hear the audience going ‘oooh, wow!’, and just hearing things that they hadn’t heard before. And so getting a chance to listen to someone like that that you don’t get from most sorts of things was really good.
ROD: Mm. You’ve gotta walk that line - know when to kind of make a joke out of something and know when to respectfully let the story come out. And not be a dick basically. It’s a good learning experience for me, probably for Will too, but definitely for me. I’ve grown as a person.
LINDY: Well one of my questions is, what’s the best thing to come out of this for you personally?
ROD: It’s the extra work and having to pay for part of the bar tab.
WILL: Look, it is a lot of fun. And it is interesting. The conversations are actually, at their high point, are really fascinating. They’re good conversations because they’re like normal people talking around you - you have fun and you can make jokes, and if you’ve got friends around or something like that, you laugh. But also you talk about things that are important to people. And I think trying to always talk about the important only is really boring. And trying to only make people laugh is also somehow a bit boring.
ROD: Scary as all hell too.
ROD: The idea for me of trying to be a comedian would scare the shit out of me. But to be someone who can come from an insightful background, talk to people of interest, and keep it light-hearted as well, is much less confronting. I actually feel like it’s a contribution. I mean that sounds all very, maybe over the top. But I feel like doing this is making a small contribution to getting more interesting and relevant stuff out in the real world.
LINDY: Mm. Well I was going to ask what’s the best thing to come out of it for science communication?
WILL: Who knows?
LINDY: Recognising that it’s not always about science.
WILL: Yeah, I think that would be one thing. And avoiding front-loading the word ‘science’ or even front-loading the expertise--
ROD: Or ‘learning’, ‘edutainment’ - you don’t have to say anything like that for people to come away with more stuff in their heads than they had before.
ROD: I think privileging this notion of learning - and you see it all the time in more formal and old school stuff, where you go, ‘you’re gonna learn a bunch of stuff and have a little bit of fun along the way’. And I kinda go, [sigh].
WILL: But the thing is, because you never know who your audience is - even if you know demographics, you never know what that person is thinking about - you don’t actually know what they’re going to take away. And so you still get people in the days afterwards saying, ‘oh, what was that thing that person said?’ Or ‘I used that example from someone’. And it’s never something I would guess in advance because who knows what it would be? Because what’s going to be useful to them? And it shows the diversity of what people can learn from something is enormous.
ROD: I think part of it is also, in terms of contribution - if we’re talking about sci com and related stuff - is the kind of, it sounds a bit dramatic, but having the courage to let the format go. And so not to have this pre-existing assumption or explicit assertion that people will come away having heard this much about an issue, or that angle on a topic. We just kind of go, look, we know something useful and interesting’s going to come out of it, let’s just trust that’s enough. And I think that is useful. I think that kind of works so far. I mean, we’re very small still, it’s a pretty modest enterprise.
WILL: I think it’d be interesting to see if people are coming along and enjoying it because it’s at a pub and they see their friends. So there’s all of those sorts of other reasons to do it. Right now we’re trying to convert them into podcasts, and to get an inkling and a hope that people will want to listen to it, but it’s a different format. But it could be a really nice, enjoyable, you know - someone gets on their bus in the morning and there’s an hour of KindaThinky and they’ll laugh along and they’ll actually hear some interesting stuff. So, I don’t know, we’ll see how it goes in a bigger world.
LINDY: So we’re barely nine months into it now. What have you got planned for the future? Are you going to run out of ideas?
ROD: I don’t think we’ll run out of ideas, I’m pretty confident. Finding guests, because it’s so - I won’t say low budget, I’ll say, you know, snugly budgeted - we’ve gotta call either people who are going to be in town or people who are in town, around the area. So the bigger difficulty might be finding enough people to come on to represent an issue. Although so far, being in Canberra’s good for that. Universities, government departments...
WILL: It’s certainly better than if we were in an equivalently sized city, you know, Townsville or something like that.
ROD: Yes. So I don’t think we’re gonna run out of ideas. Our plan is we’re going to run this year. There’s two producers, it’s not just us, there’s Kali Madden, who’s the EO for the Australian Science Communicators among other things, and her partner Adrian King. And they are behind the scenes, full-on producers and tech people, and they do heaps of work behind the scenes. And so the four of us have agreed that we’ll play out this year and see how it’ll grow or not grow or what modifications and that. And then we’ll sort of take stock at the end of the year. So yeah, we’ll do two sets of four shows and then see how it looks. That’s the theory.
LINDY: Are there any other questions you’d like to answer?
ROD: Why, yes, it is worth coming along. You’re right. Yes, I agree more people should come.
WILL: Incredible value for the tickets.
ROD: I can’t believe how cheap it is. I also agree we should charge more.
WILL: But I’ll never accept that. I’ll never do that to our audience.
ROD: I would.
ROD: If pushed by other people.
WILL: Yeah, so get in now rather than later.
ROD: We are getting pushed. Every time we talk to people about it, people go ‘you should charge more’ and we’re like ‘ah...’ [conflicted sound].
ROD: Should we? Really? Ah...
ROD: Cos it’s a tough line to draw. I don’t know.
WILL: It’s a squeaky budget.
WILL: And it’s one of those things that, you know, to try and make these things sustainable, it requires a lot of volunteer effort at the beginning.
WILL: And then, even then it squeaks through on the skin of its teeth.
ROD: It takes a lot of work to make it look like it didn’t take much work. There’s a lot of effort behind the scenes. We break even on the event...just. Like there’s twenty bucks each time, it just breaks even on ticket sales. So no money made, no, like, producers don’t get paid.
WILL: And that’s only for selling out. And we’re not guaranteed to sell out, we’ve got to work on this.
LINDY: But you have sold out every time.
WILL: Sold out every time.
ROD: So far.
WILL: But there’s always... Some people will come originally and they don’t like it. But I think it’s not that, I think you get people that go ‘okay, it’s a permanent fixture now, so I won’t go to this one I’ll go to the next one’. So you’ve still got to continue to re-market all the time. So it’s not a guarantee, not ‘once it’s done five it’ll just guarantee to sell out’.
ROD: No, we are not complacent about that at all. There is no level of complacency on that in any way, shape or form. Constant anxiety. But good. You know, fuelling anxiety.