We catch-up with presenter, comedian and science outreacher extraordinaire Helen Arney to talk stand-up, singing and cabaret.
So, from physics to stand-up, singing and cabaret… sounds like a hell of a ride! How did all that come about?
There’s always been a mix of science and music in my life. The first time I had to pick one over the other was applying to university. It felt so unfair to choose between my two favourites! Eventually I decided to keep doing music stuff on the side and went to study physics at Imperial College London: my first choice because it had three orchestras, two choirs and guitarist Bryan May as an alumni – despite having no music department.
Studying there while working part time at the Royal Albert Hall (literally a stone’s throw from the Physics department, if you’re good at throwing stones) showed me first-hand that there are plenty of musical scientists in the world and loads of musicians interested in science too. Pigeonholes aren’t even used for pigeons anymore, so it gets frustrating when people are put into them instead.
Getting into comedy happened much later. I started doing stand-up on the side while making radio programmes about classical music for the BBC – a day job that was about as far away from science as I could have ended up after graduating. I trawled around on the comedy circuit, gigging every night, and learning the unwritten “rules” of stand-up. The first rule of stand-up is to write about what you are passionate about. The second rule is to keep trying stuff out until you find your voice, however long it takes. The zeroth rule, by the way, is to always write your own material – a truly fundamental tenet.
Eventually my answer to the first rule turned out to be science, and the voice I found was a singing one. It was musical comedy that brought me back to science, and everything else – touring with Brian Cox and Robin Ince, singing the periodic table on Channel 4 News, gigging at CERN – has followed on from there.
You are something of a single-handed science outreach phenomenon - do you think scientists should make more of an effort to make their work more accessible to the world at large?
Absolutely, and there are a handful trailblazers who inspire me to learn more about their field every time I see them: Sophie Scott, Hannah Fry, Charvy Narain, Adam Rutherford, Matt Parker and Andrea Sella are on my mind right now. There are so many ways to get science into the public eye, but not all of them involve standing up in front of an audience or a TV camera. Writing, media interviews, volunteering on outreach projects… the list goes on.
One of the weirder things I love to do is collaborations with individual scientists. I spend some time learning about their research and then turn that material into comedy songs, scripts or part of a live show. Finding scientists who are happy to make themselves available to answer ludicrous questions – like, what would the Philae Lander be thinking right now if it had consciousness? – that kind of stuff is invaluable to me. If one of those songs or scripts then ends up in a Festival of the Spoken Nerd show or on YouTube, it takes on a life of its own and reaches a whole new audience too.
Of course, there’s always stand-up comedy... A lot of opportunities now exist to give scientists a chance to try their hand at stand-up, whether it’s through Bright Club in the UK, Science Riot in the US and heaps of other events like them. Comedy isn’t a full-time career that suits everyone, but many scientists would get something out of trying it out at some point. The experience of writing material that is unique to you but appealing to everyone else; of taking instant feedback in the form of laughter (or lack thereof) and adjusting what you’re doing as you go along; of looking critically at your material and performance, to improve it for next time; of feeling the pre-show fear, but putting on your game face and doing it anyway… all of that will feed into how you communicate in the future.
Do you think that, in general, science makes for good stand-up fodder… do you have to work harder for the laughs?
A large part of comedy is rooted in an audience’s shared cultural experiences, and there’s no denying that science is firmly embedded in our culture. From mobile phones and Facebook to healthcare and airline food, the comedy touchstones are already there, so the challenge is more about finding a unique science-y angle that gets everyone on board.
That’s for your regular Friday night comedy club audience, anyway. Performing to an audience stuffed full of chemistry buffs is a different Erlenmeyer flask of fish... Ultimately, it’s still about shared cultural references, but those cultural references can be much more niche. The challenge in that situation is to get extra laughs from the super-nerdy chemistry jokes, without alienating all the biologists in the process.
How has public engagement around science changed during the course of your work?
The main difference I can see is that science is unquestionably cool again. You’ve got queues round the block for adults-only late-night openings at the Science Museum, you’ve got Brian Cox breaking records for his stadium science tours, you’ve got science pouring out of every TV, radio, bookshelf and podcast source you can think of. And the internet has massively helped “sci-curious” people across the world to connect with great science content.
As Festival of the Spoken Nerd, with stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and experiments guy Steve Mould, I’ve played hundreds of sold-out dates across the UK everywhere from Shakespeare’s Globe to the Royal Albert Hall, and our three comedy specials have been downloaded tens of thousands of times. The audience for science is definitely out there, and they’ve shown themselves time and time again to want new and interesting stuff to get their teeth into – and real science, not just soundbites and fluff. They’re looking for something that elevates amazing ideas, rather than dumbing them down.
The other things I’ve noticed is anyone doing a PhD is not only expected to be able to talk about it in detail to anyone they meet down the pub, they need a tight 10-minute comedy set about it too.
When you think about outreach, what’s more important to you – the science or the entertainment?
They’re both equal in my eyes. Otherwise what’s the point? There are scientists who do more science than I do, and artists who create more art than I do, but neither of those are paths that I want to follow exclusively. It’s all about combining both things in a way that is meaningful and unique – and funny – and I never get tired of that challenge.
Helen Arney is a science presenter, stand-up comedian and geek songstress. She has appeared on TV, Radio and in theatres across the world with her unique mix of stand-up, songs and science.
Catch Helen’s keynote at Lab Innovations 2019.