Comedy trio Festival of the Spoken Nerd on Edinburgh Fringe beginnings and making science and maths fun

COMEDY trio Festival of the Spoken Nerd say they’re beside themselves with excitement at the release of their new DVD – and they quite literally are thanks to the infinitely recurring image on their cover.

It’s just one of the quirky and clever little features of their latest show You Can’t Polish A Nerd.

The group, made up of Helen Arney, Steve Mould and Matt Parker, formed eight years ago – or 2³ years ago as they prefer – as the result of their friends matchmaking at the Edinburgh Fringe.

(Mihaela Bodlovic)

“We were doing shows on our own and people kept telling us to go and see each other’s,” physics graduate and geek songstress Helen says.

“We met up because we had enough people trying to set us up and thought, this is great, we are doing the same kind of stuff for the same reasons.

“We want to do sciency, mathsy comedy that’s not taking the mick out of science and using the idea as a punchline but actually trying to turn real science and maths into real stand-up comedy. At the time that was very rare.”

The gang are beside themselves (Rosemary Rance / Adam Robinson)

Having met up and tried out material, things escalated for the group and their first few shows sold out in a day.

Now they’ve toured the UK, with around 15,000 people attending, and are onto their third DVD release.

“I’m always surprised there’s an audience for it and pleasantly surprised when the bigger venues are full of people with smiling faces,” says Steve, who is also a regular on TV with his quirky experiments and knowledge of scientific heritage. “We’re kind of enjoying the ride really.”

Helen adds: “We have to trust there are people a bit like us out there who don’t just want to laugh, they also want to have different parts of their brain stimulated.

“Since we started eight years ago there’s a whole bunch of stuff that has also exploded. Loads of people who are doing similar stuff to us have found that this audience is huge.”

(Mihaela Bodlovic)

With this and shows like Brian Cox and Robin Ince’s Infinite Monkey Cage proving to be a big hit, clever comedy is becoming more and more common.

“We’re no longer the only nerdy comedy gig in town,” maths expert and stand-up comic Matt laughs. “We all came from doing the normal stand-up circuit where you had a random audience and they’re just expecting someone to crack jokes and not expecting to think.

“We thought on the side we’d do little gigs where, as well as trying to be funny, we try and do something interesting.

“All these people who had done maths and science at school or university and remembered the joy and pleasure of finding things out suddenly realised they could get together en masse and can have fun while being entertained but also learning.”

Helen says: “I feel like a lot of comedy clubs expect their audiences to just want something mainstream, generic, but actually a lot of audiences want more and some really good comedy clubs provide that.

“If there’s more people doing this, we’re no longer a niche. The more people doing it, it’s got to be healthy.”

(Mihaela Bodlovic)

There’s plenty of learning to be done in this show, which goes off with a bang with a number of experiments and explanations, including a demonstration of Nobel Prize winning gravitational waves.

“I do something very dangerous with microwaves live on stage – it’s safe to watch on DVD though,” laughs Steve. “It involves a drill and some wheels and a massive sheet of lycra and it’s a way of explaining what gravitational waves are.”

Matt meanwhile has a more mathematical display, calculating pi as a constant live on stage.

“I have an ongoing challenge to try to calculate pi the number using pie – the baked good,” he explains. “On this occasion I have a pie attached to a piece of sting and the length of the string is a quarter of the value of gravity on earth and it means when it swings like a pendulum backwards and forwards it takes pi seconds.

“The pie gets lowered in which I thought would be to great fanfare but, no matter how many lights and smoke machines you’ve got, it’s still just a pie on a piece of string.”

Festival of the Spoken Nerd (l-r) Helen Adley, Matt Parker and Steve Mould (Rosemary Rance)

Matt also promises some ‘almost psychedelic mathematical processing’ with the help of a 360 degree camera.

“I have a very funny song about bananas, and how you can use them as a measure of radiation dose to find out if things you’re doing in your life are dangerous or not,” says Helen.

“Having a dental x-ray is equivalent to 50 bananas… I don’t know if that makes bananas sound more dangerous or X-rays less dangerous! A flight to New York is 800 bananas – 100 an hour.”

The show was also released on floppy disk

The new DVD release will also be available to enjoy as a digital download, as well as on a more retro medium.

Special edition 3.5 inch floppy disks have been loaded with parts of the show for anyone who wants something a little different.

“There’s people who ask why they’ve bought a 3D printed Microsoft Word save icon,” laughs Helen. “That’s all anyone under 20 knows it as.

“Plus, John Lewis has just stopped selling DVD players so we’re now not just releasing the show on one obsolete media but two!”


Festival of the Spoken Nerd’s You Can’t Polish A Nerd is released on DVD and digital download on Friday 2nd November 2018. For more information visit