Geeks inherit the Fringe: How a group of science enthusiasts became comedy stars
zara gladman

The nerds are this year’s class clowns, bringing nuggets of knowledge to the Fringe along with the laughs, finds Jay Richardson

MIXING oohs and haha moments, the epiphany and the funny, geek comedy is so hot right now it’s “exothermic,” jokes Steve Mould.

The experiment maestro and his fellow Festival of the Spoken Nerd performers, science songstress Helen Arney and stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, recently released their first DVD. And they’re just back from performing in Las Vegas, delighted that the high salt content of US gherkins made Mould’s electrocution of a pickle glow even more fiercely than usual.

Meanwhile, the No Such Thing As A Fish podcasters sold out their first Fringe run before the festival even began. Each episode features Dan Schreiber, Anna Ptaszynski, James Harkin and Andrew Hunter Murray, researchers – or “elves” – for the television show QI, sharing the most interesting fact they’ve uncovered that week, with the others suggesting attendant quirky information.

Named after the delightful nugget that most sea creatures are not closely related, therefore, technically, there is no such thing as a fish, the “stripped back” spin-off with no famous comedians was launched last year with modest expectations. But today it attracts more then 600,000 listeners and won Apple’s best new podcast and the comedy website Chortle’s 2015 internet award. Live dates around the UK and in New York are to follow – incredible when you consider that although Schreiber is a stand-up and Murray an improviser with Austentatious, Harkin and the “deeply ambivalent” Ptaszynski have never really appeared on stage before. “There was a lot of wine drunk that first day wasn’t there?” Harkin suggests to his podmates.

Over the last decade, while the likes of QI, Professor Brian Cox, Dara Ó Briain and Robin Ince have popularised science and intellectual curiosity on television and radio with relatable passion and humour, academics have been learning to communicate their research more effectively with TED Talks and initiatives like the nationwide comedy night Bright Club.

Arney is scarcely exaggerating when she reflects that: “It’s now very difficult to do a PhD without having a tight five [minutes] about it.”

Dr Zara Gladman – whose pro-Independence Lady Gaga pastiche Lady Alba came to prominence in the run-up to the referendum, and who performs the panto science kids show The Periodic Fable at the festival – began her comedy career at Bright Club. So did Edinburgh University maths and physics graduate Hari Sriskantha, who is presenting his debut stand-up show.

The BBC is hosting the club’s Institute For Rare Jokes later this month, and Matt Winning is listed as a research associate in environmental economics at University College London, rather than as an established comedian who has performed around the UK. Elsewhere, as older stand-ups belatedly “out” themselves as geeks, newer comics like Chris Turner and Pierre Novellie “own” their degrees in archaeology or Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic studies, indulging in only the mildest self-mockery.

QI and Blackadder producer John Lloyd, a man with nothing left to prove in comedy, is also back in Edinburgh with his second fact-based show, Emperor of the Prawns.

“I feel like comedy’s always been aimed at cool people,” reflects Ptaszynski. “But there’s a huge audience of people who stay up till 4am on a Friday night reading kooky news stories on Reddit. Comedy’s just realised that.” Into this intellectually stimulating environment, a relatively unknown Belgian science comic can reasonably expect to sell tickets for a humorous lecture on Albert Einstein and special relativity. A sometime guest of the Fish podcast and fellow Fringe debutant, Lieven Scheire used to host his own QI-style panel show. But he only began performing in English two years ago at the CERN laboratory in Geneva, site of the Large Hadron Collider. Shrewdly, he’s promoting The Wonderful World of Lieven Scheire as being about “space, because that’s always the best marketing for physics – spaceships, fires and explosions – a good introduction for a real interest in science”.

He acknowledges the difficulty of pitching a show that attracts both informed science graduates and interested laypeople but emphasises the awesomeness of his subject matter. “Quantum mechanics are sensational,” he enthuses. “And my goal is always to perform for as broad an audience as possible.”

Lieven Scheire
Lieven Scheire

In the Spoken Nerd, an occasional gag is aimed at the “hardcore nerds”. But the perfect crowd is “a mix with comedy fans because they feed off each other,” says Arney. “The comedy fans become nerdier and the nerds laugh at more pop culture references.” Singing about the plucky Philae comet lander, running an electric current through everyone in the audience and unleashing the “biggest number” Parker has ever deployed on stage, the trio engage by reclaiming Bunsen burners and lab goggles from compulsory education.

As with comedians, Arney suggests, the best science communicators are obsessive and challenge the status quo. But they also make demands on their listeners, encouraging you to make a similar, satisfying “mental leap” to comprehending a punchline. As someone who used to have to “sneak science into my club set,” she wonders why it’s taken so long to rival the arts and humanities as stand-up fodder. Inspiring “cognitive fizz in your brain, when you put people in a place where they feel like they’ve discovered something for themselves, even though you’ve led them there, it’s the same process as happens with a beautifully crafted Jimmy Carr, Sarah Millican or Tim Vine joke”.

The Fish podcast is “education by stealth,” Murray concurs. But then education ought to instil the same passion the elves experience most days, “discovering fascinating things that stick in your mind, that you just have to share with other people”. Former accountant Harkin was recruited to the QI team after becoming a prolific poster on the show’s online message boards, illustrating the close affinity between the elves and their listeners, which has recently extended to their fans sourcing facts for them to use. Such a relationship also makes for authoritative heckles. At the Fish live podcasts Murray notes, “it’s actually possible that someone in the crowd wrote the book we got the fact from”.

Parker recalls hearing “what year are you taking your data from?” bellowed at one Spoken Nerd show. And he likens the process of honing their performances to the scientific method. “We come up with a hypothesis that we think will be interesting and funny, we subject it to the test of laughter, then we review our hypothesis, evolving the show to be survival of the funniest.”

He deadpans: “Sometimes, we even do a control show with no actual jokes, just to get a baseline reading…” “Was that what you were doing last night?” sniggers Mould. Now firmly established, geek comedy is diversifying, becoming more niche and, well, geekier.

“A comedian can make a joke about a submarine looking for animals that no-one’s ever seen,” suggests Schreiber. “And it could be a good joke. But no-one will get a bigger laugh than the scientist who was in the submarine and has a funny anecdote about what it’s like down there. Because it’s true. That’s a different laugh, a better laugh I think.”

Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Just For Graphs is at Assembly George Square Studios, until 30 August, 6:30pm / listings
QI Presents: No Such Thing as a Fish is at Underbelly Potterrow, 26-30 August, 7:30pm / listings
Hari Sriskantha: Like Breath on a Mirror is at Laughing Horse @ The Counting House, until 30 August, 3:20pm / listings
John Lloyd: Emperor of the Prawns is at Assembly Checkpoint, until 30 August 4:30pm / listings
The Wonderful World of Lieven Scheire is at Gilded Balloon, until 31 August, 3pm / listings
The Periodic Fable is at The Assembly Rooms until 30 August, 12:15pm / listings

Published in The Scotsman on 11 August 2015

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