After he sat with a counselor and talked it through with his family, Yoram Bauman stopped teaching and went on tour.
That’s what brought Bauman, the professor-turned-comedian, to Leadership Auditorium on Wednesday, facing of a sea of seats scattered with students and professors.
Economics professor Jeff Milyo personally invited Bauman to perform during the University of Missouri’s 2013 Economics Undergraduate Open House last week.
After an introduction, Bauman springs from the front row and faces the crowd. Dark denim jeans, an obscured red shirt and a short-sleeve plaid button-up cover his long, wiry frame. He looks to the audience behind his thin rectangular glasses, and starts with a quick joke about the similarities between teaching and stand-up. He stands near his PowerPoint presentation screened on the wall.
Bauman gestures and shifts his weight while transitioning to the first topic of the night: politics.
Bauman can gauge when he’ll have a killer night or when he’ll bomb. He serves up basic economics jokes at the start of his routine to assess his audience. He also involves the audience with the jokes early in the show.
In one of Bauman’s usual bits on politics, he splits up the audience into three sectors of the political spectrum. He knows what kind of a night it’ll be about five minutes in.
“That’s really how the political spectrum breaks down,” Bauman says. “You’ve got the left wing, spineless; the right wing, heartless; the center, clueless. Clueless and apathetic. You’re so clueless, you don’t even know what apathetic means!”
He draws a boom of laughter.
Bauman doesn’t know when he’s going back to school, if he ever does.
Currently, he’s on a leave of absence to go on tour — something he calls “comedy hiatus.” And as a comedian, he’s actually earning more than he was before.
When Bauman taught at the University of Washington, he would teach for a quarter and go on tour for awhile, or vice-versa, balancing the two jobs. Recently, he noticed he’d have a better outlet for his comedy and vision if all he did was tell jokes. So he does.
In Washington, Bauman is paid to conduct research and not much to teach, but as a comedian, things are different. As one of very few comedians who crack jokes about supply and demand and free trade, Bauman is in a lucrative position.
He says he knows a thing or two about monopolistic pricing, and without much competition, he can corner the market for economics comedians — universities and businesses — and charge whatever he pleases. That means thousands of dollars for a few hours’ work, and a much bigger payday.
Bauman works through the introduction of his routine, working up to the apex.
After he finishes his political jokes, he rips open his flannel, revealing the wrinkled red shirt that reads, “Enjoy Capitalism” in a Coke-style font. Bauman goes on to talk about the time he spent in China for a few minutes until he clicks to the next slide titled, “Hyperinflation in Hell,” a new bit about Joss paper, fake money burned in China to send actual money and eternal prosperity to loved ones in the afterlife.
As in teaching, Bauman uses PowerPoint for help. He knows the material verbatim, as in teaching, but the slides are there as a tool for the audience.
When he was a beleaguered graduate student, Bauman discovered the unique combination of economics and comedy.
Bauman’s eyes grew tired of the material he studied, so he parodied his textbook “Principles of Economics,” written by Greg Mankiw, an economics professor at Harvard.
Then he wrote more.
In his collection lie two cartoon textbooks devoted to explaining economics in simpler ways. Bauman says they’re channels to deliver information in a more accessible medium to people since they’re understandable.
The books contain doodles of exaggerated figures in black and white, characters who deliver cheesy puns. In the first cartoon book, “The Cartoon Introduction to Economics, Volume One: Microeconomics,” there’s a part when a band of pirates rallies to maximize profits.
“THAT’S RIGHT, MAARRHGINAL ANALYSIS!” says the book’s narrator, wiry like Bauman.
The lights are back on, and the slide reads, “The 10 Principles of Economics, Translated.” This is the bit that earned Bauman his relative fame, the meat of his performance.
In 2007, Bauman filmed his performance of mocking the principles (numbers eight through 10 are “BLAH BLAH BLAH”) and posted it online. He didn’t expect the video to collect more than 138 thousand views in two months, or to boast more than 1.1 million views today.
Bauman hums through the material, seemingly knowing it as well as he knows economics itself. He garners a favorable heath of laughter, and continues by marketing his website, www.standupecnomist.com.
He makes different types of jokes: ones that appeal to the entire audience. Those who have a thorough understanding of the subject will get the higher-level economics jokes, while those who don’t will learn new facts and still understand the basic jokes.
Bauman, who’s incredibly self-aware on stage, shows a collage of bitter comments about the video as he stands beside the screen and holds his right wrist with his left hand, smiling and nodding. He has the comments memorized, too.
Once he finishes poking fun at himself and YouTube commenters, Bauman describes how decisions hurt both people and the environment, tossing in the definition of negative externality. It’s the beginning of a 10-minute stretch that has no punch lines or guffaws, just serious facts.
Bauman informs about his emphasis on environmental economics and his theory that by increasing taxes on carbon emissions, the government can use the money to lower taxes on jobs and anything else that can benefit citizens. That way, Bauman says, both the planet and its people can benefit.
When he explains economics, the animated face changes to a sympathetic face, one that aims to reach a different understanding.
Bauman brings up a slide with the example of British Columbia in Canada, a province that’s enacted this idea effectively, decreasing spending and emissions.
This part of Bauman’s show may be the most important one.
He says that his routine is akin to his economics class, in which people learn information they might not have expected to learn. Bauman’s carbon tax activism benefits from the performances when speaking to high-ranking universities and businesses, a platform he never would have had in his classroom.
“Now I’ll go back to telling jokes,” he says.
Bauman, who’s been successful through his journey in comedy, finished his routine with “You might be an economist if…” jokes. In this last bit, he’s casual and natural, as if he’s speaking to a group of close friends back home rather than a room of strangers in Missouri.
He concludes the set of jokes and the show, fielding a round of applause. After the room clears, Bauman autographs his book for a student. A bearded man beside the girl mentions a joke Bauman made during the show about quinoa, an ancient grain.
“It’s kind of a meta joke,” Bauman says.
And then he explains.