“You probably think you’re here to hear a bunch of talks from a bunch of experts in their field,” said Joseph Verage at the PHIL* Talks event in Phoenix on Friday night.
With a straight face, Verage read the definition of “expert” as defined by Wikipedia.com, which was greeted by a few hushed chuckles in the crowd seated at Space 55 Theater on E Pierce St.
“Okay, what? Did you get any of that?” said Verage, to roaring laughter. “It sounds to me like Wikipedia just wants to use big words to confuse the general population into accepting their authority, or, ‘expertise.’”
With these words, all illusion of the PHIL* Talks (Phoenicians Have Ideas Live), which was widely advertised as a local spin-off of the world-renowned TEDx series, fell away. In truth, “Joseph Verage” is head writer and performer, BJ Garrett of the comedic sketch, “I’m No Expert: Why expertise is overrated.”
The title of Garrett’s speech alone set the tone of rest of the evening’s presentations.
In the small, dark theater a crowd was entertained by 10 presentations about “stuff worth saying”, ranging from topics of global impact such as re-inflating the economy, all the way to commentary on this generation’s mental health. The idea to mimic serious, thought provoking lectures given by topic experts only added to the show’s humor.
“Niels Bohr, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said ‘An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field,’” Garrett said of experts, to bated breath. “See? Even experts admit they’re screw-ups! If Niels Bohr was so great, he would have said something along the lines of, ‘I’ve never been wrong ever.’”
“Let’s be honest,” said Garrett with a hint of a smile, “That’s somebody I would listen to.”
The tongue-in-cheek humor of the PHIL* Talks was enough to live up to the event’s description as an interactive series in the spirit of TEDx with an emphasis on presenting local thinkers with global solutions.
In the sketch, “A Simple Idea to Double the Economy,” Robert Peters handed out bright yellow stickers with the words, ‘Buy Two’ printed in large, black ink. This, he said, was the perfect solution to the global-economy crisis. Target the consumers already buying a product to buy another.
“Buying a car?” Peters asked the audience, “Why not buy two? A car with this sticker on it immediately catches your eye; you’d think, heck, why not buy more than one? You’d be helping the economy!”
Kevin Patterson approached the stage as Don Schonn, a man with a list of five rules called, “The Rules of Mental Well Being.” Staring out at the crowd in silence, he ran his fingers through his hair before turning to a screen behind him with a child-like drawing of stick figures.
“Number one: Help people,” said Patterson in a simple monotone. “Rule two: Don’t ignore people.”
Approaching a member of the audience, Patterson asked for bus fare money, weaving a story like one often heard on the streets of Phoenix by vagabonds. The audience member shook her head in declination and the slightly dazed, humorous presentation continued on.
However, comedy was a means to an end. Patterson made people laugh, but he was relaying a legitimate message: help someone.
“Every opportunity you have, help someone,” said Patterson. “It’s not easy always to find someone who needs help because we go around in our bubbles, in our cars with our windows and our doors. And we don’t see people who need help.”
While the PHIL* Talks event was hosted as a comedic variety show, the most amusing aspect was its uncanny ability to provoke thought on serious issues like those of lectures, but with laughter, not formality.
“It’s innovative, adventurous, experimental theater,” said Ron Folingo, the event organizer. “This is what Space 55 does. This is what PHIL* Talks is. It’s very creative and it’s always innovative and unconventional.”