Stephen Hawking, the TV star
Comedy lies in the timing. Professor Stephen Hawking knew this, and, over the years, became incredibly proficient at the art of the comedic pause
Famed physicist, cosmologist and writer Stephen Hawking passed away on Wednesday morning. He was born on 8 January 1942, exactly 300 years after Galileo died, and today is 14 March, which happens to be his old rival Albert Einstein’s birthday. It is likely Professor Hawking is having a laugh at our expense, based on our preposterous love for coincidences.
Comedy lies in the timing. Professor Hawking knew this, and, over the years, became incredibly proficient at the art of the comedic pause. It is a tough art to master: either indefinitely stretching the pause before a line to elevate the tension and uncertainty before laying down the coup de grace, or getting an answer out quick like a rapid jab. Professor Hawking deployed his pauses with terrific unpredictability, and even began to use the monotone of his speech synthesiser to his advantage. His sarcasm, wit and insight were all amplified by that unwavering yet unmistakable voice. It became the ultimate in deadpan delivery.
This served Professor Hawking tremendously well on The Simpsons, a show on which he appeared four times, voicing himself. We first met him in the 1999 episode They Saved Lisa’s Brain, where the professor voices his disdain of the Springfield Mensa association and tells Lisa Simpson that “sometimes the smartest of us can be the most childish”. “Even you?” she asks, brimming with hope. “No,” he says, markedly without pause. “Not me. Never.”
“Your theory of a donut shaped universe is intriguing, Homer,” he later told Homer Simpson over a beer. “I may have to steal it.” It’s a nice gag hinging on Homer’s love for that particular dessert, but it is also a stealthy allusion to the toroidal theory which posits that the universe could indeed be shaped like a donut. Even when he made us laugh, he made us a little smarter.
He clearly liked television, appearing in three episodes of Futurama, seven episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and one rather unforgettable episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he, as a hologram, plays poker—not dice, alas—with Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Data, the show’s android. “Not the apple story again,” Professor Hawking groans, cutting Newton off mid-sentence at one point. Finally, when Einstein calls his hand, he grins and says, “Wrong again, Albert”, as he displays the winning cards.
Television host John Oliver interviewed him for his show, Last Week Tonight, and the professor maimed him with wit. “You once stated that there could be an infinite number of parallel universes, so theoretically there could be a universe where I’m smarter than you,” asks Oliver. “Yes,” replies Hawking, taking that critical pause right after. “And also a universe where you’re funny.” It is at the end of the interview, though, that Hawking winks at us most wickedly:
“Who is talking to me right now?” Oliver asks. “You or the sentient computer pretending to talk on your behalf?”
“It’s me,” Hawking replies.
“Who’s saying that, Stephen? You or the machine?”
“Both of us.”
Ah, classic Stephen.
One of my all-time favourite Stephen Hawking moments came when the professor sang Monty Python’s Galaxy Song for charity a few years ago, correcting the technicalities in the song’s words and numbers as he went along. It is an unbelievable treat, and these lyrics sound suitably profound when coming from the smartest human in the universe: “Pray that there’s intelligent life somewhere up in space, cause there’s bugger-all down here on Earth.”
“Life would be tragic if it wasn’t funny,” Stephen Hawking had once said, and clearly enjoyed not only observing the humour in the world, but also pointing it out. His appearances on popular and irreverent mainstream television made us, the viewers, feel included. For a brief moment we shared a laugh and got to be in the same orbit as him. We felt that this massively brilliant man watches the same television we do, and that’s a genuinely comforting thought. Professor Hawking was an extraordinary man who loved ordinary things.