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 (

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 (; Helen Arney's "Voice of an Angel" is at Underbelly, Edinburgh, till 26 Aug (

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 (

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 (; "Science Showoff" is at the Wilmington Arms, London EC1, 4 Sep (

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 (

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions