Musical Science Comedy with Helen Arney

Jessamyn Fairfield
The spoken nerd

If you read the phrase ‘musical science comedy’ and didn’t think it was an oxymoron, then you’ve probably heard of Helen Arney, the geek songstress of Festival of the Spoken Nerd. Here she is, singing as the Sun in a live show:

Many of Helen’s songs, like her tribute to the Philae comet lander, are featured in Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s current tour, which still has tickets available. But we were curious about how she got from a physics degree to performing comedic songs on stage, and she kindly agreed to do an interview for the City of Physics blog! If you love science but other things too, read on.

How did you get started in science or math? Was it in school or somewhere else that you got into things like graphs?

I was addicted to TV when I was little. I would lap up anything like “Tomorrow’s World” or “Take Nobody’s Word For It” with Carol Vorderman, “Countdown” (also Carol Vorderman, there is a theme here, she was my pre-teen idol), Jonny Ball and all the fantastic kids science programmes on all channels. I obviously loved all the sciencey stuff and would do “experiments” with anything I could get my hands on at home, all encouraged by my parents and teachers with trips to Science Museums and after school clubs. But then again I was also interested in music and theatre, so like all good middle class parents my mum and dad helped me pursue that too, and I ended up playing a couple of instruments to grade 8 level, wrote for school plays, toured with students orchestras. For all those subjects, it was stuff outside school that fired up my excitement, but it was also down to having great teachers in school whose lessons didn’t put me off but encouraged me and pushed me forward.

In the end, I had to choose between music, theatre & physics as there was no way to do all three at university. For months and months while I was supposed to be filling in application forms I just couldn’t decide and kept putting off the decision. But just before all the forms had to be in, I read Richard Feynman’s “The Pleasure Of Finding Things Out” and “Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman” and that settled things for me. That me realise that music and theatre weren’t the only creative subjects, Physics and Maths could be just as creative, so I headed to Imperial College London and studied Physics.

How was Festival of the Spoken Nerd started? Were you involved in other performing arts separately first, and were you doing science/math-based material already?

We were all doing comedy shows at the Edinburgh Fringe back in 2010: I was doing a solo show of quirky, slightly sciencey love songs; Matt was doing “Your Days Are Numbered” – a show about the maths of death; and Steve was doing nerdy double-act sketch comedy as “Mould & Arrowsmith”. People would come to my show, then at the end tell me to go see Steve and Matt’s shows because I would love them, and I did. Catching up with Matt and Steve halfway through the Fringe, they told me they’d had the same experience and had come to see my show because people at their own shows had suggested it. So in a way, our audience put us together. And it didn’t hurt that we made each other laugh like drains in real life, as well as on stage.

But we had something else in common: the unique experience of studying a science or maths degree, then moving away from the lab into acting, teaching, radio production, science explaining, TV presenting… and of course stand-up. We worked out one time that we have a combined total of 12 years of just straight comedy experience between the three of us.

Image credit: Kitty Walker.

Image credit: Kitty Walker.

And we met at a time when we’d all independently found ourselves coming full circle and were starting to do comedy about science and maths. We weren’t fresh noobs straight out of uni without stage experience, or practicing scientists tied to a department, so we were totally free to draw on all our diverse experiences to create a new type of show from scratch. I already ran a small new material night in London, so we tried out our first night of unashamedly nerdy science comedy in October 2010 under the name “Festival of the Spoken Nerd”. It was the first show I’d ever sold out in that tiny venue. The audience was so overjoyed to finally find a gig where they could nerd out with impunity. We’ve never looked back.

I’ve seen the show you’re touring right now and it’s hilarious. I love the combination of demos, music, and graphs (some of which are literally on fire). How did you develop the material, was there a lot of revision or did it progress naturally from your previous shows?

We all come from the stand-up world, rather than theatre, so a lot of our funnies are only really developed on stage in front of a live audience, and honed over dozens of previews in front of test audiences before we can say we have a finished “show”. It’s quite different from more traditional theatre shows that rely more on scripts and rehearsals, and less on the trial-and-error attitude of stand-up comedy.

This show “Just For Graphs” is 100% different from our last show, which we only just finished touring earlier in 2014 when we recorded it onto DVD (available now on our website, Amazon, and all good DVD retailers) So it was a huge task to get a totally new show ready in time, and involved a lot of parallel processing. Some of the bits in the new show were first trialled about 18 months ago in our 2014 new material nights, then squirrelled away for another time. Other bits were written just before we headed up to the Fringe and honed over the first of those 25 shows instead.

When it comes to developing a new show we throw away as much as we create: anything that turns out not to be robust enough to get a laugh in front of an actual, real-life audience is rejected. It’s terribly inefficient, but the show you end up with is more consistently funny, and better for it. I guess the process of writing stand-up has a few parallels with the development of a scientific theory… you come up with a hypothesis (a joke), you test it out experimentally (at a gig), but if your theory (that it’s funny) doesn’t match observation (ie no-one laughs) then you have to start again with another hypothesis. And so it continues, until we have a show.


Image credit: Mihaela Bodlovic.

What sorts of people do you tend to get in your audiences?

Our audiences are a real mix, and that’s all for the better. There are hardcore nerds who are pretty familiar with all the concepts we talk about to the stage, but absolutely love nerding out about all the funnies that we’ve found hidden inside the things they already know.

But they’re by no means the only ones though, we get a lot of what I call “sci-curious” audiences, who go to a lot of theatre, comedy, music gigs and art galleries, but not science events. They’re culturally aware and usually love comedy, but are for whatever reason taking a punt on our show, perhaps encouraged by a nerdy friend, child or parent. They’re the people who like a bit of Brian Cox on the telly or will “like” a great science video on Facebook, but don’t identify as being a “science person”. The best shows are the ones where we have a pretty even mix of those two groups together. They both get swept along by each others’ enthusiasm and laughter.

One thing I really love to see is multiple generations of nerds and non-nerds in one group: parents, their teenage kids (who normally HATE anything their parents make them go to) and also grandparents who remember punchcard computers when they were new, all in one group having a brilliant time together.

I feel like I’m seeing more and more science entertainment events around the UK and Ireland now, which aren’t just ‘a lecture, but interesting’. People like you are really pushing the envelope and making nerdy laughs popular, which is a huge step toward taking science and math out of the ivory tower and showing that they’re part of everyday life too. Do you see that scene continuing to grow, and have you got big plans for what’s coming next?

I think there’s always been a thirst for comedy that feeds the brain as well as tickles the ribs, whether it’s Tom Lehrer or Tim Minchin with clever musical comedy, Yes Minister or Spitting Image mixing politics and comedy, Monty Python with philosophy and history, or any other combination. No-one seems surprised when comedians touch on politics, music, history or philosophy, yet all of those subject can be framed as esoteric academic pursuits that – arguably – appear even more unrelated to everyday human experience than science, maths or medicine.

What seems to be different now is that science has truly joined our cultural constellation. It’s a subject that is becoming so accepted as a fundamental part of who we are, and how we live now, that it’s ripe for comedy. If you asked me how that has come about, I don’t know. It might be because of TV and radio media, pop science books, and the internet, allowing previously niche subjects to become mainstream, or because museums, universities and institutions are finally seeing the fruits of their labours from 20 years of Public Engagement projects, or because there are simply more people doing what we do and making it really good and commercially viable. Or it could be all three and few other things besides.

Image credit: Kitty Walker.

Image credit: Kitty Walker.

So I think science and comedy will be around for a while, and there’ll be more than just us doing it – in fact, there already is, with Bright Club, Infinite Monkey Cage, School of Hard Sums, Project Two and more.

As for us, once this mammoth 40-date tour is over we’re taking a few months off the road to work on TV and radio broadcast projects. With the odd show at the British Library, Brighton Science Festival and Science Museum London in between… and I’m recording another series of Outrageous Acts of Science for Discovery Channel and working on a few new songs for my “In Her Element” project. All I can say, like stargazers through the centuries, is “watch this space”.