When I decided to feature Festival of the Spoken Nerd in The Badger, it was with plenty of confidence that the show would be a definite hit with the student population. What I had failed to take into consideration was that the overlap between students who enjoy funny science shows and students who write theatre reviews for their university newspaper is pretty slim. And so it was that I found myself showing up to The Old Market last Sunday afternoon, scrambling within for some former iteration of myself who read Horrible Science magazines and had a t-shirt that read √-1 2² Σ π.
Thankfully the science-comedy trio put on a show that skillfully dodged either classic nerd trap of being too incomprehensibly clever or too annoyingly smug. Sure there were jokes that went over my measly B-at-a-level-maths head, but that was exactly how it should have been. There was something there for everyone in the room, from the professional neuroscientist, to the excitable Doctor Who-watching tween, to the apprehensive viewer who had been reluctantly dragged along by their significant other.
For the most part though, this was a highly enthusiastic audience. From the moment I stepped into the theatre I felt overwhelmed, and a little as though I was intruding on some intimate cultural underbelly – perhaps the feeling one might get if they wandered accidentally into a Star Trek convention. From the excited whispered exchanges before the show started, to the remarkable queue for autographs afterwards, it was clear this was a group of people that many here had adored for years.
The group in question – Festival of the Spoken Nerd – is made up of three scientists-cum-comedians: Matt Parker, Steve Mould and Helen Arney. As well as having science and entertainment careers in their own right, the trio has a YouTube channel, a DVD and download release, and has just brought out their own book. The show itself, entitled You Can’t Polish A Nerd, alternated between each of them putting on their own short segments, which ranged from live experiments to musical performances, while the other two made comic interjections and from time to time stepped in as glamorous assistants.
There was everything from exploding microwaves, to songs about radioactive bananas. The team had a knack for spotting oddities in the world, and not only poking them with sticks, but pushing them right along to the nth degree – surely the common denominator for what makes both a great comedian and a brilliant scientist. They could take a minor irritation with a geometrically-incorrect road sign, or the seemingly innocent sentence “the temperature outside a plane is 6 time colder than inside a freezer”, and next thing you know you’re ten equations and 20 PowerPoint slides deep, swinging baked goods from a pendulum.
Parker and Mould both contributed fantastically bizarre, thought-provoking and entertaining portions of the show, although for me Arney’s pieces got a little tiresome. It was clear from her involvement with the other sets that she was every bit as capable a comedian and performer as the other two, but her pieces consisted entirely of rather daft songs, that stopped being entertaining after the first couple. Sure it was impressive that she could recite The Elements song, but once you’ve seen Daniel Radcliffe do it on The Graham Norton Show, that’s really the maximum enjoyment you’re going to get out of it. Perhaps, the songs were there for the younger viewers who might have found Parker’s and Mould’s pieces a bit heavy.
The show concluded with a fantastic finale, which combined green screens, the Droste Effect and Escher paintings. We found ourselves on a slightly dizzying multi-dimensional virtual journey, that cemented my assessment that this was a show to awe and entertain everybody, no matter their nerdiness.
Image Credit: Idil Sukan and Draw HQ