Kilkenomics: A Festival Where the ‘Dismal Science’ Meets Comedy

British historian Thomas Carlyle in 1849 described economics as the “dismal science.” Most economists have helped maintain that reputation over the past century by being a generally humorless bunch. For the past three years, though, an unusual event in Ireland has been trying in its own way to prove Carlyle wrong. Kilkenomics is an economics festival — and if that term sounds like the mother of all oxymorons, consider this: Kilkenomics puts economists, businessmen and finance executives on a stage together with stand-up comedians, where they engage one another in intense and highly irreverent debates.

Every November for the last three years, Irish citizens of all ages — and from a broad income and professional spectrum — have gathered from around the country in the small but beautiful riverside town of Kilkenny, located at the center of the Emerald Isle. There they pay not-insignificant amounts of money to enter small theaters where economists interact with stand-up comedians and the audience.

Why do these folks come, pay, listen, ask questions and applaud — and then return for more the following year? Why do they do this in a country mired in a prolonged and disastrous recession, where the aftermath of a real-estate boom and bust cycle makes the American experience seem almost mild by comparison? And why, for that matter, do some of the world’s most famous economists (Jeffrey Sachs), most accomplished fund managers (Peter Schiff) and most scathing commentators (Max Keiser) agree to participate in small-scale events held in a small town previously unknown to most of them — for no fee and only minimal expenses paid? What makes Ireland’s top comics forsake the TV shows and the big theatres in Dublin to take on these global stars and purport to be mavens on economics and finance? And just who thought up this extraordinary idea and put it on the stage?

For answers to these questions, Knowledge@Wharton turned to Kilkenomics co-creators Richard Cook and David McWilliams. “In early 2009, as the financial crisis got worse, I was saying to myself: ‘I’m a bright guy, but I don’t understand what’s going on. Yet I want and need to understand,'” says Cook. “I went to see David McWilliams’s one-man show about the economic crisis, which was then playing at the Abbey Theatre (Ireland’s national theater) in Dublin. It seemed to me to be part stand-up, part theatre and part lecture. That’s where I got the idea.”

Cook is a 46-year-old entrepreneur and impresario who, inter alia, invented a comedy festival called “The Cat Laughs” back in 1995. Despite — or perhaps because of — its location in the backwater of Kilkenny, this show has developed into one of the most highly rated events of its kind. Cook, in other words, is an individual with the imagination to conceive of something totally out of the box, as well as the business sense to know that it could work — and to make it succeed.

McWilliams, also 46, has crammed being a central banker, an investment banker, a media personality — including presenting a radio breakfast program and TV quiz show — as well as the author of four bestsellers about contemporary Ireland and a TV documentary presenter into his career to date. “In May 2009, Richard — we had known each other since university — came to me and said, ‘I have this notion of a show that brings economists and stand-up comedians together,'” McWilliams recalls.

In Riso Veritas

In Cook’s vision, the object of the exercise was to create clarity in a situation in which everyone was floundering in fog. To achieve that ambitious goal, he knew he needed not economists — left to themselves, they just obfuscate even the obvious — but funny guys. “A comedian can clarify things for his audience. The best stand-up artists have the ability to make complex ideas accessible,” he notes and, armed with this insight, he went to work. It’s the same idea Chaucer had when he wrote, “Many a true word is spoken in jest.” And famous Irishman James Joyce said, “In riso veritas — nothing so reveals us as our laughter.”

If one needed further evidence that comedians can add clarity to economic debate, the proof landed this week with a huge bang. In a shock to Europe, the 5-Star Movement party of candidate Beppe Grillo, a former comedian, won a majority of votes in Italy’s lower house, though not enough to gain power. (No party did, and a coalition government or a second election looks necessary, though Grillo is unlikely to become the prime minister.) But Grillo’s group won far more votes than that of Prime Minister Mario Monti, who had the support of President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. One might conclude that Italians have a big sense of humor and think the other leaders are a bit of a joke, but Grillo ran on a dead-serious platform to reject completely the severe economic austerity policies Monti favored.

For the purposes of Kilkenomics, Cook told the comedians that he did not want them to be funny all the time. “‘Sure, do gags whenever an opportunity arises, but I want you to represent the ordinary person,'” he recalls telling them. “‘You will be the conduit to bring sanity to the crazy situation unfolding in Ireland.’ The stand-ups were nervous initially, because they were being asked to do shows not on their terms — so I said to them, ‘You take control. If the economists use jargon you don’t understand, nail them and demand explanations.'”

McWilliams — who, unlike Cook, is a trained economist and has a deep understanding of the issues at stake — is far more scathing about his professional peers. “Economics is far too important to be left to economists,” he says. “But it has been hijacked by mathematicians and rarified theorists who cannot explain their ideas to ordinary people. Thus, the watchword for Kilkenomics is that ‘what is important is rarely complicated, and what is complicated is rarely important.’ The stand-up comedians deliver this message through their roles in the shows and thereby give the average citizen the permission to ask the questions and engage with the economists. This, in turn, brings out a different side of the economists, who have to speak directly to average citizens in terms that they understand.” In an effort to strip economic conversations of their arcane jargon, McWilliams and his associates have also produced a series of short videos that they call, “Punk Economics” (see video links at the end of this article).

Putting the stand-up comics in effective control and making them the true representatives of the people was probably the key to the festival’s success. This abstract idea was concretized in a stroke of theatrical inspiration: Cook requires all the comedians to dress formally, while all the economists and businessmen, no matter how prestigious they are in “real life,” must don casual gear in Kilkenny.

One of the empowered stand-ups was Colm O’Regan, who succinctly summarizes the ambivalent feelings he and his colleagues had when Cook approached them. “When I first heard the concept, I thought, ‘This is a crazy idea that might work.’ But I wondered who would buy tickets. After all, it’s hard enough selling tickets to make people laugh — but selling tickets to a show that reminds them how screwed they are seemed to me a little like masochism.” Still, O’Regan liked the people behind the idea. “The more it was explained to me, the more I thought, ‘If this fails, it will at least fail funnily and informatively,'” he notes. “So I was willing to give it a go.”

Cook’s task of lining up the comics and persuading them to take him seriously was easier than McWilliams’s parallel job. He had to tap into the large band of academics, businessmen and financiers across the world whom he had worked with or for or around — people like Paul McCulley, the former chief economist of PIMCO, a fund management firm that oversees assets of $1.6 trillion, and Martin Lousteau, former economics minister of Argentina — and get them to do something unheard of, in a place they had never heard of, just for the heck of it. Their generally positive response is a testimony to McWilliams’s brand of charm, flattery and chutzpah — as well as to the importance of having friends like Bono, surely the world’s best-known living Irishman, and someone whose requests very few people will turn down.

Irrational Rationale

Nevertheless, for practitioners of a profession supposedly built on rationality, the economists who have participated in Kilkenomics — especially the first festival, in 2010 — were behaving distinctly irrationally, not least from a pecuniary point of view. Bill Black, a former U.S. banking regulator with hands-on experience investigating a mortgage-sector collapse, is now a professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. His rationale for participating is hardly the kind of incisive analysis he presents in his lectures — but perhaps none the less powerful or convincing.

“The invitation was a bolt out of the blue, but when they confirmed that I was the person they intended to invite, I immediately emailed back saying it was the weirdest invitation I had ever received — and that I wished to accept immediately. My heritage includes partial Irish descent, and I had never been to Ireland, so the invitation was particularly intriguing. I was already following the Irish crisis and eager to help.”

Black’s version of “helping” has been to attend two festivals and, in session after session, repeatedly and impassionedly to urge his audiences — and by extension the Irish people — to fight against the policies being followed by their government, which he views as disastrous for Ireland and its people and beneficial only to Germany and the European Union.

This strong anti-establishment theme — with its espousal of radical policy options that view the banks as the villains responsible for the slump in Ireland, successive Irish governments as the pliant tools of the bankers and the Irish people as their victims — has been a consistent refrain in all the festivals. Black is one of its most articulate and persuasive exponents because of his experience and academic credentials, but he is by no means the only one.

Indeed, after one session in November 2012, in which all four participants in a panel explained in detail why the policies currently being followed in Ireland and throughout Europe were disastrous and would lead to a long depression, one audience member complained that “whenever economists all agree about something, they are inevitably proven wrong.” A rebuttal from one of the speakers, that the positions espoused by himself and his colleagues would, in a normal setting, be considered extreme and far outside the consensus — and that only at Kilkenomics could four such “extremists” find like-minded interlocutors, to the point of having an entire panel comprised of their own ilk — failed to assuage the questioner’s suspicions. Nothing could better illustrate the unique format of interaction between expert invitees and their knowledgeable audiences, which has become the hallmark of Kilkenomics.

Black’s goal of coming to help the Irish people is a sentiment shared by many, if not most, of the foreign invitees. Cook also sees Kilkenomics as “a public service. I’ve done several festivals, but I never felt with Kilkenomics the sense of elation I had with the others. Instead, I had the sense that what we were doing was germane to people’s lives and offered them a way to [come] to grips with the big issues affecting them.”

Ironically, therefore, the justification for an economics festival is decidedly uneconomic. This is reflected in the commercial side of the event: Formally, a festival is a commercial undertaking, but Cook and McWilliams never expected to make money from it — and they haven’t been disappointed. In a country in deep recession and with a show that lambasts the financial sector, finding sponsors was never going to be easy and has proven to be nigh impossible.

Remarkably, though, Kilkenomics has not lost money, either; even the first one more or less broke even. Under the circumstances, that is a significant achievement and a tribute to Cook’s managerial ability — and the readiness of his small team of professionals and larger team of volunteer local assistants to go the extra mile in making sure the events take place on time and run smoothly.

Jargon Busting

Despite its very Irish flavor — the warm welcome of the town and its people, the friendly and knowledgeable audiences, the sharp tongues and talents of the stand-up comedians — there is general agreement that Kilkenomics could and should “go global.”

“Take one of our regular and most popular shows”, says McWilliams of the aptly named “Jargon-busting.” “An economic term or concept is presented to two teams, each of which comprises a comedian and an economist, with a comedian chairing the show. The economist explains what the term means to him and then the comedian gives his understanding of it. Faced with the concept of ‘real and nominal interest rates,’ Karl Spain — one of Ireland’s top comics and a Kilkenomics fixture — shot back with, ‘The girls were checking me out in the bar before the show, and it’s fair to say that their interest in me was nominal.’ The audience gets to laugh and learn at the same time. This would work anywhere.”

Cook sees a clear opportunity, based on his view of the festival as a service to the public. “We think there is a market for this kind of festival, because its central premise is universal — the need to reclaim the language and terminology mangled by economists and governments and bring them back to the ordinary people.” O’Regan is much more focused on how it could work — and what “background music” helps generate the right atmosphere. “It can definitely transfer — you just need a place with a selection of nice, intimate venues, such as old pubs and theatres. Also, the festival needs to be timed to coincide with some sort of global financial cataclysm. We’ve been very lucky at Kilkenomics that late October/early November appears to be a sort of ‘Full Moon’ for economies, so there’s always something going a bit mad at the time.”

Black is prepared to be more daring even than the Irish, to the point of even jettisoning the economists. “I don’t believe the festival needs to be limited to economics — a combination of sociologists and comedians could also work,” he suggests. Furthermore, as a foreign participant in and observer of Kilkenomics, he is definite about how much “domestic content” the product must have. “The economists or sociologists do not need to be from the host nation, but they must know that nation. Indeed, having economists and other experts from a range of nations is desirable. The comedians, however, need to be overwhelmingly local and also very high quality.”

Why is that? Black’s answer serves as a description of the festival and catches why it is so enthralling. “Their gig is inherently a high wire act without a net.”

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