“I’m writing a song about angry fruit flies”: An interview with Helen Arney from Festival of the Spoken Nerd

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Festival of the Spoken Nerd, the acclaimed science-centric comedy trio of Matt Parker, Steve Mould, and Helen Arney, is currently undertaking a third nationwide tour with their latest show Just For Graphs after a successful 25-show run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Ahead of their sold-out debut in Southampton at the Nuffield Theatre on November 15th, I spoke with Helen about PhD students doing comedy skits, how the trio got together, and the world of fax machines in 2015.

What can we expect from the Just For Graphs show?

Just For Graphs is our third tour show. It’s our usual mix of stand-up maths, scientifically accurate songs and things on fire. There are four things on fire in the show, and three of them are intentional. There’s a bit in the show where we tell everyone that we can’t do something and that we’re not allowed to do it because it’s too dangerous, but then at the end of the show we find a way to do it. When you see the show you’ll understand! There’s not as many cheesy puns as you would expect from the title. It is Just For Graphs and we do have literally a graph a minute, but there’s more to it than that.

I’ve seen on Twitter that you get the audience at each show to draw their favourite graphs.

Absolutely! If you go to storify.com/spokennerd, we put up the best graphs, plots, diagrams, and faxes. Yes, we get people to fax us live in the interval! That is an actual thing. We always love reviving a bit of retro technology and last tour we did overhead projectors, so we had a song with live overhead projector backing. We’re reviving the fax machine because it’s Back To The Future year and in their idea of 2015 everyone had fax machines all over their house. Now we’ve got hoverboards and everything else that Back To The Future predicted but we don’t have fax machines any more, so we thought we’d try and revive them just in time.

Is that the one thing from Back To The Future that didn’t come true that you wish had?

Yes, because they’re amazing. There’s a bit in the show where Matt [Parker] explains that the first ever image of the surface of the moon was sent back to Earth using fax encoding. The data that came was being sent by the Lunar 9 lander that the Soviets sent up, and it sent back raw data from its optical instruments and they sent it back using fax encoding so you could just plug the audio into a fax machine and print out a picture of the surface of the moon. It was the headline of the Daily Express in 1965 or something.

How exactly does the audience fax things in these days?

You can get fax apps on your phone so you don’t even need a fax machine, although we have had some beautiful fax moments. You can either pay per fax or get one that lets you have one free fax a day, which is brilliant because there’s a guy who calls himself Jeremy Faxman who sends us a fax every single day now. Our favourite one – there’s some people who still use fax machines, mostly in the NHS or over the age of 65 – was when we had the guys from Swindon Tourist Information Centre come to our show in Swindon. Their office was next door so in the interval one of them pegged it into the library, sent us a fax, and pegged it back again in time to see it read out on stage. Generally, the easiest thing to do is download a free fax app.

FOTSN-TOUR15_press-KITTYWALKERYou’ve written songs about the sun and googols and being cryogenically frozen with Walt Disney, but what topics that you haven’t yet sung about would you like to cover in future?

Ooh, well! I have a new project called Helen Arney Is In Her Element where I’m working with a bunch of scientists to write songs about their work, so I’m doing little bits on that and I’ll do more next year once the tour is over. One of them is a specialist in fruit fly aggression, so I’m writing a song about angry fruit flies. I think it’s going to be a sort-of death metal thing as fruit flies can get pretty angry, and there are these brilliant researchers I talk to who watch videos of fruit flies headbutting each other for a living.

Perhaps we might have a future where there are songs written instead of academic papers?

I think they work in tandem. There’s a feeling that anyone who does a science or maths degree, especially a PhD, has to be able to do a tight comedy skit about their topic. It’s different from 20 years ago, where you would say you were studying physics and people would literally walk away from you. Nowadays, if someone says they study physics, they say “please tell me about it” and you have to be able to, and it has to be funny and it has to be entertaining and it has to be fascinating.

There’s a great quote [from Sir Mark Walport]: “science is nothing until it’s communicated” and through scientific papers is one way to communicate to your peers and colleagues and others in your field, but if your science only ever gets communicated to people who are experts in their field it’s only half the possibility. You’ve got Bright Club in Southampton. I know the guys who run it and they are fantastic. It’s academics doing stand-up for five minutes about their subject. 

I think it would be amazing to have a future where you get an academic paper published but you also have a feature about it written in a magazine, a song written about it on YouTube, there’s a beautiful animated video made that gets played on the university website. If you only communicate in one way, you’re missing some tricks. There’s a lot more fun to be had with this stuff, and there’s a huge audience for this stuff. We know that for sure. This show’s sold out. There’s a huge amount of people who want to learn stuff and laugh while they do it.

You talk about science being opened up through these means. Is that what spurred you to get into the standup scene?

I left science after my degree study in Physics at Imperial College London, and then I went to work for the BBC for about 6 years making radio programmes about classical music, which was a bit of a departure. I didn’t really think about science for those years and then I started standup because, rather than just making radio programmes, I wanted to make something that I could perform myself. That’s the great thing about doing standup: you have an idea in the morning and you’ve got a gig that night. You can get something from an idea to an audience in hours, rather over a period of months. 

I started doing songs about things that I thought were interesting, and these quirky love songs where I was looking at the world a bit differently from other people. It was actually Robin Ince, who does a lot of stuff with Brian Cox, who asked me to come and do one of my science songs in his show. I didn’t really know what he was talking about, because I didn’t think I had any songs about science, and he pointed out that at least two of them were. I was looking at the world from a scientist’s perspective and he really enjoyed it. 

I ended up doing whole shows on science-based stuff. Weirdly it wasn’t science that brought me to doing science comedy, but it was comedy about anything and everything that brought me back to science. That’s the first rule of comedy: you do stuff about what you’re passionate about and what you want to explore. It turned out that thing was science and I’d really missed it for years and years and I hadn’t realised. Now I get this perfect combination of being able to do both.

Festival_of_the_Spoken_Nerd_Idil_SukanHow did you, Matt, and Steve [Mould] come together to form Festival of the Spoken Nerd?

We were all doing shows at the Edinburgh Fringe – I was doing my solo show Voice of an Angle of nerdy science songs, Matt was doing a show called Your Days Are Numbered: The Maths of Death, and Steve was in a nerdy sketch duo called Mould & Arrowsmith – and people were telling us to see each other’s shows. We’d not properly met before, and we realised that other people were putting us together in a group so we thought we might as well try it.

I was running a club in London at the time and the first night of the three of us sold out within about a day of going on sale. People got swept away by this idea that we weren’t trying to do science-y nerdy comedy by stealth. We weren’t trying to trick people or make it educational or make it sound cooler than it was. We all know it’s cool, so let’s move on and make a show and make it entertaining.

We did it because we wanted to do out-and-out completely nerdy comedy, not having to persuade people to come along because they might learn something. We just wanted people to come because it was going to be hilarious and they would love it. that was really different from any other science-y stuff. By the end of the tour we’ll have sold 15,000 tickets, which is a lot of tickets. Mathematically, that is a large number of tickets.

How many more shows do you have now?

As of today (Tuesday) we are just over half way with 16 more shows. By the end of this year we’ll have done about 80 shows, including all of our Edinburgh ones. It’s a biiig old tour, but we’ve never been to Southampton before. It’s so exciting that it’s sold out, and to go to a new city is normally really hard but it’s just been amazing to know that there are so many people who are really up for it.

What is touring life like? It is ‘rock and roll’?

It’s totally rock and roll! We have a luxury tour van which is WiFi-enabled. We set up desks in there to work while we drive. It’s rock and roll for nerds, definitely, because every day we’re driving for hours to a completely new venue. You just have to spend the whole afternoon problem-solving, so it’s basically nerd heaven. It’s really fun touring with Matt and Steve and our tour manager Giles. We really get on we’ve got all sorts of silly games that we play to keep ourselves sane.

One final thing: what is your favourite science-y joke?

The one that we get faxed a lot during the show is my current favourite. You know the joke about there being 10 types of people in the world? Those who understand binary and those who don’t. We get faxed a lot of variants on that.

One of my favourites has been that there are 10 types of people in the world: those who understand binary, those who don’t, and those who know this is in ternary. My favourite is that there are 10 types of people in the world: those who can extrapolate from incomplete data.

It’s so much fun because our audience gets so completely involved in the show, and they come up with some stuff that is genius during the shows. One of the highlights of touring is meeting new audiences and them telling us the things that they find funny.

Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s Just For Graphs tour continues until January 24th, and tickets can be found on their website

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Official email person, rambly music writer, and former Records Editor at The Edge. Often found playing pop music too loud on Surge Radio.

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