Festival of the Spoken Nerd in Norwich to experiment with the science of comedy
PUBLISHED: 10:33 24 October 2017
A geeky songstress, a stand-up mathematician and experiments maestro make up Festival of the Spoken Nerd, a trio who find the funny side of science. As they bring their latest show, You Can’t Polish A Nerd, to Norwich Science Festival, we find out more.
Since their last tour, experiments guy Steve Mould, geek songstress Helen Arney and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker have featured on BBC2’s QI, created a genuinely “experimental” comedy show for BBC Radio 4 and played the Hammersmith Apollo with Professor Brian Cox.
Now the trio – collectively known as Festival of the Spoken Nerd — are back as part of Norwich Science Festival with their new show, You Can’t Polish A Nerd, another rib-tickling, experiment-fuelled and irreverent adventure. In short, it’s comedy for the insatiably science curious.
For anyone who hasn’t seen Festival of the Spoken Nerd before – what can we expect?
HELEN: It’s a live science comedy extravaganza. We tour a new show every few years, and this is our third. STEVE: But it’s not comedy ‘about’ science and maths, hough we are partial to the odd Venn diagram gag. Its actual scientific experiments and mathematical demonstrations live on stage, plus statistically significant levels of laughter.
MATT: If you’ve seen us nearly setting fire to Alan Davies’ hair and electrifying Sandi Toksvig on QI, or heard the DIY experiments in our Radio 4 series Domestic Science, it’s basically a lot like that – but in 3D.
What does this show involve?
MATT: In one part of the show I use a combination of mathematics, computer programming and geometry to high-five myself in another dimension. It’s pretty mind-blowing.
STEVE: I’ve got a bunch of experiments made out of stuff I found at home. One of them is a genuinely profound visual way to understand the almost ungraspable concept of black holes and gravitational waves: the discovery that was recently awarded a Nobel Prize. But instead of a lab full of equipment, I use an electric drill, some rollerskates and a sheet of latex. Don’t ask why I had those things just lying around at home...
HELEN: I sing all 118 elements of the periodic table in under two minutes. And I have a very funny song about bananas.
Is it just for nerds?
STEVE: It’s definitely not just for nerds! You don’t need a science or maths degree, and you don’t even need to have enjoyed those subjects at school. Anyone who has a bit of curiosity about the world around them, and enjoys watching a microwave being used inappropriately, is going to have a great time.
MATT: It’s true. Our audience range across the full spectrum of nerdiness, from hardcore programmers who are fluent in binary, to people who just like watching the Big Bang Theory – and everyone in between.
HELEN: My favourite thing is when someone only came to see the show to keep a nerdy friend company, but they finish the night saying “I’m still not sure I know what a nerd is, but I think I want to be one”. That’s when we know we’ve got it right.
Why do you think science-comedy has become so popular?
STEVE: I think that people have always been interested in comedy that makes them think and also makes them laugh. The audience is out there but it doesn’t often get its teeth into shows like ours, especially outside London.
HELEN: A lot of my favourite comedians think like scientists. They’re not the ones who deal with stereotypes or make the jokes about the same topics as everyone else. They take a different path, picking away at what’s under the surface to find out why things are as they are, and why people do what they do. To me, that’s a very “science-y” way of looking at the world.
How do you go create your shows? Is it a team effort or do you work individually and then bring it together?
MATT: 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 like too, get developed into chunks of a new “Nerd” tour.
HELEN: 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.
What are your highlights of performing together?
MATT: I was the first person to use an overhead projector at the Hammersmith Apollo since Pink Floyd in the 1960s. It’s hard to top that. Although, they were using theirs for lighting effects. I was using ours for maths.
HELEN: My childhood dream of Blue Peter fame finally came true when I was asked to smash a wine glass with the power of my voice live on the programme. The glass absolutely refused to smash all afternoon in rehearsals, so tensions were high in the studio just before we started broadcasting to the nation. If you go find the footage on YouTube, you’ll see that when it actually happens, the look of surprise on my face is absolutely genuine. And yes, I did get a badge. My parents are very proud.
STEVE: An experiment that I did in our live shows and on YouTube led to me having a scientific phenomenon named after me: 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.
What’s next for Festival of the Spoken Nerd?
STEVE: Our Radio 4 show got recommissioned so we’re diving straight into recording another four episodes of Domestic Science after the tour. Expect more funny science you can try at home.
MATT: And we’ll keep doing You Can’t Polish A Nerd here and there of course, until we eventually commit it to DVD some time in 2018. That’s the end of the life cycle of a show.
HELEN: It’s dead to us after that. Or perhaps it just hibernates away in its dark plastic crysalis-like case, only to emerge into your DVD player one springtime as a beautiful, nerdy butterfly. Yeah. That’s a better image.
• Festival of the Spoken Nerd, Norwich Playhouse, October 26-27, 7.30pm, £16 (£14 cons), 01603 598598, norwichplayhouse.co.uk