Festival of the Spoken Nerd

We find out why science can be a laughing matter.
17 January 2017

Interview with 

Helen Arney, Festival of the Spoken Nerd


Obviously science is no laughing matter, or is it? Comedy troup Festival of the Spoken Nerd are running a best-of show at Soho Theatre in London, and all of their comedy is about ... science. Kat Arney has been hearing all about it...

It’s our wedding anniversary next week.
My gift for you is carefully chosen
It’s perfect for the couple who have everything.
I’m getting us both cryogenically frozen…

Helen - Hello. I’m Helen Arney. I’m one third of Festival of the Spoken Nerd. We are three comedians who all have a background in science and have decided that what the world needs more than anything else is a comedy show that is not taking the ‘mick’ out of science. That is not the same old science gags about two atoms walking into a bar.... and all of that stuff, and this is a comedy show that is science. We do experiments, I do songs that have been peer reviewed. Steve does crazy things that he’s been around the world investigating. Matt does stand up maths - Matt Parker that is, the UKs premier/only stand-up mathematician.

Matt - Alright. Give me a cheer if you are ready to plot some parabolic functions?

Audience - Woooh!

Helen - And between the the three of us we’ve created this thing that we did for our own pleasure really to start with, that was trying to make comedy that felt like real science...

Steve - Ladies and Gentlemen - 230 volts and a pickle!

Kat - Is there any science that you apply to your gigs? Are there any scientific experiments or thinking about things scientifically when it comes to trying to make people laugh?

Helen - I do think there are some parallels between science and comedy. Because when you’re a scientist you have a hypothesis, you think that an experiment is going to produce a certain result, and you have to be open to the idea that that result isn’t going to go the way you think it is. When you’re a comedian, your hypothesis is: I think this joke is funny, therefore this audience will laugh at this joke. And you take it out there, you say it on stage, they don’t laugh. You have to accept that your hypothesis was wrong. The evidence says this audience does not find that joke funny.

Kat - Null laughter hypothesis?

Helen - You have to accept that. And you iterate, you change how you do it. Maybe there was something wrong with your method - maybe how you delivered it was wrong. Maybe you forgot one of the variables.

Kat - And of course, the secret of comedy is.... Timing.

Helen - Oh yes, timing. And science as well.


And you’re my man
And I want you to understand
How it feels when I hold your hand
So I’ll draw a venn diagram...

We’re doing a song that I wrote years ago - it’s called “Statistically I Love You” and it’s a mathematically accurate love song. I try and do this song very beautifully. Very seriously for the audience, and Matt and Steve decide that it’s not interesting enough on it’s own, so Steve decides to do powerpoint slides to go with it. Matt decides that that’s not good enough and he brings out an overhead projector... to do slides on as well. And the whole thing becomes this like improvised comedy jazz with slides.

I’ve always wanted to be in a band right. I never thought that band would contain me, a ukulele, powerpoint, and a slide projector. But it does… and it works!


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