The rise of the nerds

Hard science + stand-up = pure laughter. Holly Williams meets the biggest brains in the comedy laboratory

Hypothesis: science has become funny. The evidence? There are swathes of comedy shows at this year's Edinburgh Festival with a factual angle, while learn-as-you-laugh TV and radio shows continue to grow in popularity, from QI with Stephen Fry to The Infinite Monkey Cage with Brian Cox to Dara O'Briain's School of Hard Sums. The nerds are rising.

And not before time. School left many of us scared and scarred by equations and diagrams. But to write off science is to write off understanding how everything works. Science stand-up risks smug know-it-all-ness; in-jokes about neutrinos are a swift turn-off. But many on the sci-com scene really want to connect with a wide audience, desperate to share their love of brain-melting concepts by making us laugh. We speak to five star acts about why they've swapped microscopes for microphones …

Helen Keen

You may know her from Radio 4's It is Rocket Science!, based on a previous Edinburgh set on the invention of rockets, with jokes. This year's show, Robot Woman of Tomorrow, is, she says, "about technology, and wonderful sci-fi ideas of the future, and also more personal stuff about what science fiction has meant to me".

With her gorgeously goony enthusiasm for all things space age, Keen recognises that this blending of facts and funnies is "becoming more and more popular … but when I started doing it, in 2008, I wasn't really thinking 'Oh, this will be a niche' ".

Keen is on a mission to blend pop culture and science: "I grew up in a working-class family, we didn't have many books in the house, we didn't go to museums every Saturday, so a big way of finding things out for me was from pop culture."

Be warned: her show may spark an unexpected interest in mechanical ducks from the 1700s, or induce comic shudders by introducing you to Roxxxy, the futuristic sex robot – but there is a serious point, too.

"It's in so many people's interest for us to not have an educated, informed population. If, in a really tiny way, you can inspire people to go and find out about things, that's a really big deal."

Helen Keen's "Robot Woman of Tomorrow" is at Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh, till 26 Aug (helenkeen.com)

Festival of the Spoken Nerd

Putting on shows for the "insatiably sci-curious" is this trio of comedians with science and maths backgrounds: Helen Arney, Matt Parker and Steve Mould. They were all performing sci-stand-up alone when they realised they could have more fun together. FOTSN was born and, within a year, was selling out the Globe theatre.

"We do what we love doing, and we're continually surprised how big the audience is," says Arney. But it isn't only those partial to quadratic equations who come to hear R'*'B songs about biologically accurate animal mating habits ("do it like a hedgehog … carefully"), liquid fireworks, games of marshmallow Russian roulette (with mathematical explanations), or ice-cream being made with a fire extinguisher. "This stuff is too good to just let the nerds enjoy it," insists Arney. Mould points out that though "there's a very important social movement of sceptics having a dig at pseudo-science, we avoid that … we're celebrating the things we think are amazing". Arney adds that "everyone feels safe" with FOTSN – but Mould objects: "They're not safe. There's a lot of fire."

FOTSN's UK tour begins at the British Science Festival, Aberdeen, 4 Sep (fotsn.com); Helen Arney's "Voice of an Angel" is at Underbelly, Edinburgh, till 26 Aug (edfringe.com)

Robin Ince

Along with everyone's favourite astronomer, Professor Brian Cox, stand-up Robin Ince is widely credited with giving the comedy-science trend its initial rocket launch, with the Radio 4 show The Infinite Monkey Cage.

"Some scientific people will see it as light, but that doesn't mean it won't still involve people and excite them," says Ince. "There's a lot of anti-science out there, a lot of bullshit ... we try to examine things in a rational way. There's a serious intent, amid the nonsense.

"Television and pop culture had become increasingly banal," he suggests. "There was this presumption that people were idiots. I thought, 'No, I'm certain people have higher aspirations; if you offer them things, they will bite'. "

His stand-up might take a scientific theme, or he'll get scientists in to talk, too, and Ince considers himself to be "basically the low fool" – the comedy glue for the clever concepts. "Comedy is a potent form for exciting people about ideas. People go, 'Oh, you're preaching to the converted', but you find a lot of people have never heard of Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan or Alfred Russel Wallace. And then they want to go off and read them."

Robin Ince is at End of the Road Festival, Salisbury, 31 Aug to 2 Sep; "Happiness Through Science" tours this autumn (robinince.com)

Steve Cross

Responsible for hundreds of scientists becoming stand-up comics, Steve Cross runs Bright Club, where academics deliver eight-minute sets about their research – while making an audience laugh. The project started three years ago, when University College London, where Cross is head of public engagement, was looking for a way to connect with 18- to 40-year-olds, and hit on the idea of science stand-up.

The brave researchers get one hour's comedy training and their audience is, by design, a general comedy-club crowd. Cross gets in a professional stand-up to compère – among past MCs are Richard Herring, Isy Suttie and Josie Long. Such is the boom in science stand-up, the nights are being swamped by the professional crowd.

And so Science Showoff was born. "If the science nerd people want an event, I'll put on something perfect for them," says Cross. Anyone who works in science can get on stage: there's a lot of comedy, but it could be an experiment, a song, a mini lecture. And Cross is your comic compère for the evening: "I won't talk about quantum physics because that's what the acts are going to do – but I might take the piss out of Brian Cox's haircut."

Bright Club is at the Bloomsbury Theatre, 24 Oct (brightclub.org); "Science Showoff" is at the Wilmington Arms, London EC1, 4 Sep (scienceshowoff.org)

Simon Watt

You might recognise his face from Channel 4's Inside Nature's Giants series, but Simon Watt also does live shows. He acknowledges that great chunks of the Great British public have, for years, considered science "boring". His response? To "beg, borrow and steal techniques from the arts". And so, his show Dr Death, a "scientifically, historically accurate panto" provides a grizzly history of medicine through puppetry, animations and character. "It makes the facts that bit more digestible," he explains. It's aimed at kids, but another show, Sperm Warfare, is definitely for adults only.

"I remember Reginald B Hunter saying you shouldn't just be funny, you should be interesting. The information I was working with – on the reproductive race – was interesting anyway, so the jokes just wrote themselves. It naturally moves into differences between men and women, which is inherently humorous."

Watt does short comedy-club sets too, describing them as a good way of developing material. "In science, we have peer review; in performance, an audience."

And, he points out, with science you're unlikely to run out of material: "Research is never going to stop, so you've always got new material. The universe is an interesting place – and it's always going to be."

Simon Watt is at the Green Man Festival, Glanusk Park, Wales, this weekend. He compères the Ugly Animal Preservation Society, at The Vandella, London, 21 Oct (readysteadyscience.com)

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick