After performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the well-acclaimed comedy trio, Festival of the Spoken Nerd, are embarking on their first ever tour. Described as ‘for the sci-curious’, their show is a combination of science and comedy and includes Matt’s ludicrous obsession with Rubik’s cubes, a song sang by Helen dressed as the sun and Steve setting fire to himself. Most of you are probably wondering how on earth you can make maths, physics and science in general funny and I had a few questions of my own too. So I caught up with Helen (science songstress), Steve (“experiments guy”) and Matt (stand-up mathematician) to get a real idea for what their show is all about.
What are your backgrounds in science and why did you combine this with comedy?
Steve: Well, I studied physics at Oxford University. I have always loved science – I just love figuring out how the world works. Whilst I was at uni I got into stand-up comedy, and then in 2007 I started doing science communication and I was able to merge two things that I loved.
Matt: I went to university and after failed attempts at… well not failed: basically I got bored of engineering and then physics in that order. I ended up doing a maths degree, became a maths teacher and started doing stand-up part time. Then a bit like Steve, I gradually realised I could merge the two. I started doing outreach work with Queen Mary University in London. I am their ‘Public engagement in maths fellow’, which is a fancy way of saying I help train the students and academics in how to communicate maths. So now I have a very split career where I still get to go into schools and teach kids, and at the same time I get to do nerdy comedy shows for adults.
Helen: I studied physics at Imperial College, then worked for a BBC Radio classical music station. I started doing stand-up as a kind-of quarter-life crisis. You’ve got to do something haven’t you, and for me it was a toss up between that or buying a scooter… After joking around about the relationships between men and women like every other comedian, I started thinking about biological relationships. I thought: DNA, that’s cool! And so I began rediscovering my love for science.
How did you come together to form FOTSN?
Helen: Well… when my nan died… No, you don’t want the X-Factor version.
Matt: A beacon shone on to a cloud somewhere and we just sort of assembled on the earth.
Helen: Yeah, we set off a bat signal.
Steve: The three of us were all doing nerdy comedy gigs, sometimes on the same bill, so we knew each other a bit from doing the same things. We were all doing nerdy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2010 and people kept recommending each other’s shows to us.
Helen: The Fringe is very competitive and so it was a case of take each other out or work together. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer!
Steve: We wanted an opportunity to try out new material, so we decided to put on a monthly night in London. It seemed to be a really successful formula (pun intended).
Helen: It was selling out months in advance. So we moved to a bigger venue and that was selling out. So we moved again. We did the Royal Haymarket and Shakespeare’s Globe. And that was all within about a year and a bit of meeting each other. And now we’re on tour and it’s very, very exciting.
I’ve got to ask though – how do you make maths funny?
Matt: How come you didn’t ask Steve how he makes physics funny?! Because physics is hilarious. Equations of motion and all that. No I’m kidding, that’s actually a good question because maths jokes are traditionally and deliberately terrible. I don’t go around telling jokes about numbers. I’ve taken what you’d normally do in stand-up and removed all the gags and cheesy puns and replaced it with maths. So the content is maths, but the jokes are like any other comedy show.
Steve: I guess the point is that we set up the context for jokes. Half our show is spent explaining really cool ideas and once you’ve got the ‘cool thing’ you have the context for the joke.
Helen: It’s not all pi jokes (although there are one or two). But Steve sets fire to himself too.
So what else does your show consist of?
Helen: Well, we combine what we do together. So I’ll do one of my songs and then Steve will back it with the flame tube…
Steve: The flame tube is a way of visualising sound in fire – when you play music into it the flames sort of dance around. Then Matt comes along and sprays metallic salts into it which changes the flames different colours like fireworks. It’s really cool
Helen: One of the things we try to do in the show is we try to sing a google, which is a ludicrously big number and it’s this idea of trying to get the audience to do something completely idiotic, and that’s just funny.
Do you have to be a scientist to appreciate it?
Steve: No, not at all. We get a lot of people saying “I’m not from a science background but I loved it!”
Helen: Yeah, things like “I wasn’t a nerd before I came – I’m not even sure what one is – but I want to be one!” Our target audience ranges from people who do programming as a hobby (extreme nerd) to anyone who watches the Big Bang Theory (entry level nerd).
Matt: We make sure it is a comedy show that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you’re not that nerdy to start with.
Steve: But if you’re thinking of having your stag do here, don’t bother!
After talking to Helen, Steve and Matt, I can admit I have become slightly ‘sci-curious’. They’ll be performing at The Playhouse in Nottingham on 4th November, where I’ll be heading to check it out. For more information about the comedy trio you can catch them on twitter (@FOTSN) or log on to their website (www.festivalofthespokennerd.com).
Look out for a review of the show on the Impact website next week.