Caro Meets Comedy Interview

Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker: Festival Of The Spoken Nerd

By | Published on Monday 2 January 2017

We love Festival Of The Spoken Nerd, and have done for some time now, because we really, really appreciate this recent fashion for scientific comedy, and their work in particular. So we were thrilled to hear they’d be setting up for a run of dates at the Soho Theatre this January.
Keen to catch up with the trio – Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker – I arranged to have a chat ahead of the London run.

CM: Tell us all about Festival Of The Spoken Nerd. What can audiences expect?
H, S & M: It’s a live science comedy extravaganza with experiments guy Steve Mould, geek songstress Helen Arney and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker. It’s not comedy *about* science and maths (though we are partial to the odd Venn diagram gag) it’s actual scientific experiments and mathematical demonstrations live on stage, plus statistically significant levels of laughter. If you’ve seen us nearly setting fire to Alan Davies’ hair and electrifying Sandi Toksvig on the latest series of QI on BBC Two, or heard the DIY experiments in our Radio 4 series ‘Domestic Science’, it’s basically a lot like that – but in 3D.

CM: You’ve been doing shows for about five years, haven’t you? Are they all different? If people have seen you perform before will the January show offer something new?
H, S & M: We go through the same cycle that most comedians go through: getting excited about new material, turning it into a show, taking it to the Edinburgh Fringe, touring it around the UK, getting sick of the material before getting briefly re-excited enough to record it for DVD and download. We’re just finishing the lap on our third major show, and have realised that we’ve now have the distance to look back fondly on our previous tours.

So the Soho nights will be a ‘best of’, drawing heavily from our most recent two shows: “Full Frontal Nerdity” and “Just For Graphs”. It’s perfect for a first-time Spoken Nerd audient, or for bringing along friends and colleagues who haven’t seen us before.

And for nerd comedy connoisseurs, we’ve added a few bits from our first show “Are You Sci-curious?” which not many people have seen, so there’s something special for our regulars too.

CM: How did you three meet and what made you decide to work together like this?
H, S & M: We were all working on the stand-up circuit and knew of each other as fellow nerd comedians, doing material about science and maths. This was back when material about science and maths wasn’t cool – now it’s a staple part of the live comedy scene.

It was at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010 that we realised we were passing pretty much the same audience between our three shows. People kept recommending each other’s shows to us, so we decided that rather than attempting to destroy each other for being on the same turf, we should work together. So, we started Festival of the Spoken Nerd as a new material night in London and it has grown from there.

CM: How do you go about creating a show? Do you all sit in a room together and decide what you will do, or do you gather together with ideas you’ve come up with individually…?
H, S & M: It’s a lot of both. We try out individual stuff that has caught our imagination at new material nights, which we now call ‘An Evening Of Unnecessary Detail’ and do once a month at the Backyard Comedy Club in Bethnal Green. The bits that we like, and the audience likes too, get developed into chunks of a new Nerd tour.

We always finish every show with a big interactive musical extravaganza that involves little bits of everything that’s gone before. It’s impossible to write until everything else in the show is pretty much finished. So, just before we start a new tour, we lock ourselves in a rehearsal room with all our experiments for a week until the grand finale is ready. It’s a mad panic, but it’s always worked. So far…

CM: What’s been the highlight of the last few years?
H, S & M: Matt was the first person to use an overhead projector in front of 3,500 people at the Hammersmith Apollo since Pink Floyd played there. But he definitely had more equations.

CM: Helen, can you tell us a bit about the time you smashed a wine glass with your voice live on ‘Blue Peter’
HA: Ah yes, my childhood dream of Blue Peter fame finally came true! It’s an experiment we did about 100 times in our “Full Frontal Nerdity” tour, where I set up a crystal wine glass over a speaker, and sing into a microphone to make it smash. Obviously it’s not as simple as just that … I have to sing exactly the same note that the glass makes when you ping it – that’s the resonant frequency – to within about a quarter of a semitone. There’s also a little extra help: a massive amplifier from Maplin under the desk, to help get the 125 decibels needed. Not even my honking singing voice is that loud on its own.

On stage I usually get two or three goes at singing the right note before I get it right, but Blue Peter is famous for being “Live At Five” so there was no time to get it wrong and no second goes. Unfortunately, it had absolutely refused to work in rehearsals all afternoon before the live show, so tensions were high in the studio… If you go find the footage on YouTube, you’ll see that when it did happen, the joyful surprise on my face (and the faces of the presenters) is absolutely genuine.

And yes, I did get a badge. My parents are very proud.

CM: Steve, Is it true that you have a scientific effect named after you? Can you explain what it is?
SM: I do! The Mould Effect. It’s an odd one… If you collect a few meters of beaded chain (the type attached to a bath plug) in a jar, then let the end fall out, the whole chain will follow until the pot is empty. That’s pretty cool but had been demonstrated before with plastic beads. I discovered that if you use metal beads, something even more remarkable happens. The chain rises about half a meter into the air above the rim of the pot. The video I made about it was viewed by some academics in Cambridge who were interested in trying to explain the phenomenon. They called in the Mould Effect in passing but I’ve been dining out on it ever since.

CM: Matt, can you tell us a bit about your book ‘Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension’?
MP: It does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a maths book which has 4D shapes you can build at home. It actually covers a wide range of areas of maths which I find interesting: everything from the numerical patterns hidden in credit card numbers to how to build a computer out of 10,000 dominoes.

It was great to be able to write a book about all the interesting maths concepts which took too long to cover during a comedy show (I’ve found audiences very rarely do the recommended background reading) but which worked perfectly in a book. And after many, many pleading emails, Penguin let me start the book with page number zero, even though it threw their layout system into disarray.

CM: What drew you all to the study of sciency stuff in the first place? Did you ever anticipate touring the country with shows?
H, S & M: Possibly the same thing that inspires us all to write comedy is the same thing that inspired us to study science and maths and take degrees in it: wanting to pick away at the surface of something we all know a bit about, find out what’s really going on underneath, and reveal something that we never looked hard enough to notice before. Our favourite comedians do that, and our favourite scientists too.

CM: Do you think you’ll keep this going indefinitely?
H, S & M: There is no limit to human curiosity and seemingly no limit to what we can discover about the universe around us. So we’ll keep doing science comedy shows as long as some people don’t want to live in a post-fact world.

CM: Do you have anything else you’d like to do as a trio?
H, S & M: Lots! We’re about to record ‘Just For Graphs’ for DVD, headline the Big Bang Fair at Birmingham NEC, write another series of ‘Domestic Science’ for Radio 4, and create a completely new show to tour in Autumn 2017. Now, if we can just land that sweet TV deal, we can all retire and watch the next generation of nerd comedians take up the mantle.

CM: What individual plans do you have for the future?
H, S & M: Steve has a new book out call ‘How To Be A Scientist’ full of science experiments kids can do at home. He’s basically training that generation of new scientists to put us out of a job. Matt is still slaving away, putting equal effort into making YouTube videos and trying to convince people it’s a legitimate career. Helen has created a new human life, but yet still had time to film a new series of ‘Outrageous Acts of Science’ for Discovery Channel, and write a Radio 4 show about the Victorians.

OK, forget retiring. There’s too much still to do.

‘Festival Of The Spoken Nerd’ is on at Soho Theatre from 11-21 Jan, see the venue website here for more information and to book.

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Photo: Idil Sukan