The funny physicist

Physicist Norm Goldblatt performs stand-up about science

It's not every day that you find a physicist who likes to do stand-up comedy about science. Somehow Mountain View resident Norm Goldblatt makes it work.

Goldblatt is one of only a handful of professional science comedians in the whole country. He holds a doctorate in physics and spends his days developing laser eye surgery equipment for Optimedica in Santa Clara. At least once a week he performs at comedy clubs, bars, schools, fundraisers and corporate events the Bay Area. He's been performing stand up since the 1980s and has been called an "elder statesman" among local comedians.

Last Wednesday, at Rooster T. Feathers comedy club in Sunnyvale, he introduced himself as a former physics teacher -- he taught physics at the Rochester Institute of Technology for 10 years until 1979.

"That's right, I taught the "F-word." He says that he wants everyone to understand what he's talking about so "if you come to a joke and you are unsure of a joke, skip over the joke and go to the next joke."

During the routine he covers subjects like Pi, the theory of relativity and nerd culture in general. Unlike the other, younger comedians, not one joke is about sex, which he says is too easy. He presents a graph illustrating how many licks it takes the average person to lick a Tootsie pop. Then one showing how many licks it takes him. "I have no self control."

Goldblatt said comedians are often like anthropologists or sociologists, or "at least the good ones are." At his day job he is able to make plenty of comical observations about "nerds" such as their accurate speech. "If you put their sentences into a computer program, it would work."

But he doesn't just aim to make fun of the social awkwardness of scientists, he also aims to educate. In his one-man performance at the Marsh Theater in San Francisco last year, the audience got to learn, with humor, about radio astronomy and the world's largest radio telescope at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. The massive dish in the mountains is featured in the movies "Contact" and "Goldeneye." He worked there once during a summer sabbatical.

People are often skeptical that science can be funny, Goldblatt said, perhaps because it seems to lack emotion. Goldblatt disagrees. "I can get emotional about a hypotenuse," he said.

Goldblatt's quips have been used by San Francisco Chronicle columnists, including the late Herb Caen. More recently, Goldblatt has taken to broadcasting those quips on Twitter, like this one from Monday: "Working on Excel spreadsheet -- spans two 24-inch monitors. Outta hand, I tell ya. Using binoculars to see all the way to the toolbar."

A long career

One of Goldblatt's first gigs was touring the country and even Carnegie Hall in the 1980s with the "Kaminski Quartet" a group of men with kazoos, an instrument he says is more annoying than the vuvuzela. The act opened for musical satirist Peter Shickele, who plays a fictional member of Bach's family.

At one point, Goldblatt's wife encouraged him to spend less time telling jokes in grungy bars and more time writing jokes for television and publications like Reader's Digest. In 1986 he became one of the Tonight Show' off-site writers. If Jay Leno liked one of his jokes, he would get $75, which was relatively good pay, he said.

He recalled his first joke that Leno told on his show: "The California State Bar is now prohibiting attorneys from sleeping with their clients ... because the last thing we want is for lawyers to procreate."

He fondly remembers the positive comments he got about that one, including one by a guest on the show that night.

Despite those successes, fellow comedian Tim Lee has said that Goldblatt has been in comedy more for personal gratification than professional success, although he wouldn't be adverse to it. Goldblatt says his wife thinks he just does it for the attention.

Goldblatt has never been invited to perform at Google, but he would certainly be interested. He told the Voice a joke about Google, which has to do with the search engine's "did you mean?" feature. He said it was too dirty for this newspaper article.

Goldblatt has raised three children and lives on Central Avenue with his wife. He grew up in Washington, D.C. and he likes to say that his wife followed him to the Bay Area from the East Coast in the late 1970s to go to Stanford, after which he pauses and adds, "shopping center." She came home one day to exclaim that this shopping center was so "amazing" that it had a hospital and university attached to it. "It's her favorite joke," he said.

For more information about Goldblatt, including a list of upcoming events, go to


Like this comment
Posted by Mike Zelinski
a resident of North Whisman
on Jul 30, 2010 at 11:10 am

This sounds like a fantastic way to share science with the public.

The article doesn't say, but I wonder if he develops his material on the back of envelopes?

My only concern would be if he skips too many steps in telling the jokes, and then simply says "from here the punchline easily follows".

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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