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Between the Stacks: Yoram Bauman, stand-up economist

Economics may be the dismal science, but economist/comedian Yoram Bauman is anything but.

On October 27, Bauman, an environmental economist at the University of Washington and the co-author of The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume 1: Microeconomics, will bring his new show “Return to the Gold Standard” to The Bookworm.

Here Bauman explains how he became the world’s first and only stand-up economist, why the Federal Reserve tells terrible jokes and offers a sneak peek at his new routine about the metric system.

Mengfei Chen: Are you really the world’s first and only stand-up economist? How did that come about?

Yoram Bauman: Oh yes… it even says so on the Internet!

How it came about: In graduate school (at the University of Washington, in Seattle, about 10 years ago) I blew off some steam by writing a parody of the “ten principles” of economics in a popular textbook. That parody ended up getting published in a science humor journal called the Annals of Improbable Research (AIR). AIR hosts a humor session every year at the big AAAS science convention in the US, and in 2003 it just happened to be in Seattle. So I presented my paper there and had so much fun I started going down to open-mic nights at the Comedy Underground. A few years later I had a full economics comedy routine (plus a few jokes about subjects other than economics).

MC: Do economists and comedians have anything in common?

YB: I dunno… they both have a reputation for being arrogant and self-centered?

MC: Why do we need a graphic novel about the prisoner’s dilemma and marginal analysis?

YB: Sometimes it seems like economics textbooks have been designed to take away all the interesting stuff in economics, leaving only a heap of dry bones and graphs. The graphic novel tries to put the fun stuff back in: the stories, the personalities, the jokes. I hope the book helps people connect with economics and see what’s neat about it.

MC: What was your pitch to the publisher? The reaction?

YB: I had perhaps the easiest introduction to publishing ever: my publisher saw my YouTube video and wrote me to ask if I’d be interested in working on a cartoon economics book. He knew what he was doing (he focuses on graphic non-fiction) and so it was an easy decision to say yes, especially after he introduced me to my co-author and illustrator, Grady Klein. We’ve had a fantastic collaborative relation.

MC: Have you ever seen the comic books that the Federal Reserve puts out about monetary policy?

YB: Yes… and I think they send them for free to teachers, and perhaps to anybody else too! To be honest I found them to be a little lacking in creativity and humor: a lot of “The Japanese sure have a yen for trade” kind of jokes. But it’s hard to argue with the price (although I’m sure Ron Paul would).

MC: What was the biggest challenge in writing a cartoon introduction to economics? What was easy?

YB: The biggest challenge for me was adjusting to the constraints of the graphic novel format: thinking in terms of spreads (the single visual image formed by a left-page/right-page combination); ensuring that every chapter had either 10, 12, or 14 pages; and of course keeping the word count down (ack!).

The easiest part was working with Grady: he’s a great artist and a smart fellow, but he’s not an economist, which was good because he brought beginner’s mind to the project. I think we’ve only met in person three times, and talked on the phone twice – the rest has all been by email – but we know each other really well now. And the distance was good for those inevitable occasions when you want to kill each other.

(Actually, our publisher only had to intervene once to settle a disagreement. Grady and I got a free meal out of it, so we should have disagreed more!)

MC: Who do you try out your jokes on first? How do they feel about that?

YB: Now that I have a full-length routine I usually just slip new jokes into the routine to see how it goes; as long as the rest of the routine is funny nobody cares if a few jokes are bombs. But while I’m still crafting the jokes, I’ll tend to obsess about them and talk about them with whoever is around. Usually that’s my wife, and since she picked me up at a comedy club she has no right to complain.

MC: Got any new jokes?

YB: I’ve got some jokes about the metric system that I may have finally gotten into decent shape. (We’ll find out at the show!) And I’ve just started brainstorming a scenario in which Jesus Christ comes down to earth and tries to convince Rick Perry that global warming is for real. (When I do serious economics I work on climate change and carbon taxes, so that routine will hopefully be a nice blend of business and pleasure.)


MC:The subtitle of your book is Volume One: Microeconomics. Should we expect Volume Two: Macroeconomics?

YB: Yes, it’s already available for pre-order and will be in bookstores in January 2012! I’ll try to get an excerpt on my website,

MC: Team Stewart or Team Colbert?

YB: I find Stewart to be funnier and more informative, so he’s got my vote.

 Return to the Gold Standard with Yoram Bauman, The Bookworm, October 27, 7:30pm. Tickets 20rmb (members) 30 rmb (non-members).



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