By Michel Tanguay
Boucar Diouf came to Canada from Senegal as an oceanography student. Today, he’s one of Quebec’s best-known comedians — because science is funny, right?
No one ever said science was easy. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a few laughs when you dig in to it. Just ask Boucar Diouf, host of Radio-Canada One’s “La nature selon Boucar” (“Nature According to Boucar”), who’s become a household name in Quebec as a science popularizer who delivers insights about the natural world with the wit and timing of a stand-up comic.
Some might compare Diouf’s style to David Suzuki’s, albeit with a strong comedy bias. There’s always a point up for discussion — biodiversity, climate, sustainability — but getting to the conclusion includes a generous helping of funny, sometimes absurd, digressions about the human condition.
It’s engaging and entertaining, but this is about more than laughs.
Beyond the humour, one of Diouf’s key themes — both in “La nature selon Boucar” and in his other work — is a serious point: by observing nature we also learn about ourselves. Thus, a talk on wolf packs evolves into a discussion of authority. A chat about bees reveals the nature of teamwork. A look at migration raises the importance of immigration in building stronger human communities. “What is original in the type of popularization I practise is the extended hand to the social sciences,” Diouf says.
Originally from Senegal, Diouf came to Canada in 1991 as a PhD candidate in oceanography at the Université du Québec in Rimouski. From there, he went on to teach biology to undergraduate students in wildlife and habitat management. “Outdoor-type people. Not so interested in molecules and the rest,” Diouf says. “So instead of classic biochemistry, proteins and lipids, I had explanations about shampoo and honey, daily life stuff. Where does Jell-O come from? Why does starch give body to a sauce?”
His students loved it and enrolled him in local auditions for Quebec’s Just For Laughs comedy festival. Diouf won the Rimouski competition and came to Montreal as a contestant for his region, wearing a traditional boubou and brandishing his signature African wit. He then wrote and toured his first comedy show, and had his television debut as co-host of a food and gardening daily show called “Of Kiwis and Men,” which ran for eight years, broadcast live from Montreal’s Jean-Talon farmers’ market.
For the past two years, Diouf has also been touring a show called “For an X or Y Reason.” “It’s a science class,” he says. “I talk about seduction, love from the point of view of biology, spermatozoids, impregnation, pregnancy, parental investment… all science concepts.” It’s important stuff, Diouf adds. “We needed that, I think, to show the links with the courtship rituals of birds, talk about testosterone…. ‘The first spermatozoid to reach the ovule fertilizes it.’ That is such a rude myth. So simplistic, masculine, phallocratic, in line with the competition ideology. We have to undo all this.”
“La nature selon Boucar,” where Diouf reaches his largest audience, builds on these themes, featuring guests representing diverse fields including the hard sciences, the social sciences, public health, business and land management. The show also dives into the history of science, examining how the scientific discourse connects to ideologies, from racism in the 19th century, for example, to social Darwinism today.
That may not sound especially funny on first read. But in Diouf’s hands, the subjects and themes surprise and delight. That’s a good thing for listeners. After all, there’s nothing like wit to make the wisdom stick.