ED2019 Caro Meets ED2019 Comedy ED2019 Interviews ED2019 Review Edition

Matt Parker: Humble Pi

By | Published on Monday 29 July 2019

ThreeWeeks readers may be aware of the high esteem in which we hold the three creative, clever and funny people behind the Festival Of The Spoken Nerd shows. And if so, you can probably imagine the delight with which we responded to the news that one member of that outfit, funny mathematician Matt Parker, is in Edinburgh this summer with a solo show.

‘Humble Pi’ is a kind of accompaniment (he’ll explain further down) to his fab-sounding book of the same name. I spoke to him to find out more about the show and the book, about what it’s like to be flying solo this time, and what to expect from him in the future.

CM: Right, let’s start with the show: what’s it all about? Can you give us a bit of a sneak preview as to what to expect from it?
MP: ‘Humble Pi’ is a show about mathematical mistakes. I’ve gone with the subtitle ‘a comedy of maths errors’, because even though that risks sounding like a modern re-imagining of Shakespeare – of which there are 46 shows at the Fringe this year, yes I counted! – it says exactly what I set out to do: write a comedy show about when maths goes wrong. People can expect McDonalds getting their numbers wrong, a plane running out of fuel mid-flight and other stories on the hilarious-terrifying spectrum.

CM: What made you decide to step out and make your solo debut? Why was this the right sort of time?
MP: It’s because I accidentally wrote a show. I host the monthly night ‘An Evening Of Unnecessary Detail’ which always involves me trying out new material. Normally we’re working up a new Festival Of The Spoken Nerd show but when we decided to have a fallow cycle I just kept producing new material all the same.

At the time I was writing the book version of ‘Humble Pi’ and so, in parallel, I was talking about it on-stage, accidentally writing a show simultaneously. When I had other comedians telling me the show was coming along nicely I figured I should stop living in denial and book a spot at the Fringe.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the book, and what motivated you to write it?
MP: My goal in life is to entertain people in a way that is also mathematically interesting. So stories about maths going wrong was perfect material for me. People love a disaster story. And there is so much interesting maths holding up our modern society, but it often only gets noticed when it goes wrong.

I had always been interested in maths mistakes but the book is actually directly the fault of the marketing department at Penguin. I had to convince them why they should publish another maths book – instead of a celebrity cookbook, it seems – and I sold them on hilarious tales of people making mistakes. They agreed, I think slightly worried they had made their own miscalculation. But the book hit number one on the Sunday Times best seller list so they’re pretty happy now.

CM: How does it feel, performing alone, after doing lots of shows as a trio with Helen Arney and Steve Mould?
MP: Lonely. And not just because I have fewer nerds to hang out with backstage: it’s very different being by yourself on stage. There is the obvious fact that I have to do more work. In our group show I would get the occasional breather as Helen sang a song or Steve set something on fire. Now it’s only me, for 3,600 seconds, without a break.

On top of that I have to play more roles. In ‘Spoken Nerd’ I was free to be as hard-core nerdy or mathsy as I wanted, because Helen or Steve would step in on behalf of the audience and rein me back. Ironically, by myself I need to be less relentlessly extreme with the maths because I don’t have the other two to bring the average down to something palatable. But don’t worry: like all of life’s problems I’ve solved this with technology.

CM: How different is this show in tone and content from the sort of shows you did with them in the past?
MP: It’s the same tone as always: as in it is an all-encompassing celebration of nerdiness. There is plenty of numerical fun for the maths fans in the audience and enough comedy and fun stories that all the other normal-humans can get swept up in the excitement. The difficulty this time was the serious nature of some maths mistakes. When maths goes wrong in engineering, medicine or aviation then everybody dies. And a ‘comedy’ show about maths can only have so many stories which end in ‘and then everybody died’. So it’s been a balancing act to get across the serious side of mathematics in a light-hearted show.

If it helps: the show features several aviation stories but I’ve only picked ones where nobody dies. So if you’re scared of flying, you have nothing to worry about – other than flying.

CM: Tell us about some of the other stuff you do: your appearances on TV/Radio, and your YouTube stuff?
MP: This year saw a new record number of the digits of pi calculated, so I was obviously all over the news media when that happened! But aside from my usual TV and radio gigs I’ve been doing a lot of YouTube this year. I work on the Numberphile channel as well as my solo Stand-up Maths channel and combined my videos have just gone over 100 million views, which is very exciting. Numberphile is also coming up on π-million subscribers. What a party that is going to be!

CM: What made you want to bring this show to the Fringe?
MP: Because it’s a month of the best comedy audiences in the world. I love doing stuff on the maths circuit – last year I gave talks everywhere from the Royal Institution to Harvard University – but there is something invigorating about a pure comedy audience. As much fun as preaching to the maths choir is: the real challenge is entertaining standard issue humans with maths comedy.

CM: Are you a fan of the Festival in general? What are you looking forward to about being in Edinburgh for the Fringe this year?
MP: I love the Festival Fringe. The city is full of energy and so many of my friends are all in the same city simultaneously. So not only is it a month of fun performing, but it’s also a month of hanging out with friends and being in a city full of life.

Plus there are so many shows to see. I know the shows are all online these days, but I still have a tradition of getting a physical programme and going through with a sharpie to circle all the ones I want to see. Then I force myself to see a minimum of one show per day which is not my own.

CM: Have you found any other mathematical shows on at the Fringe? Or aren’t there any?
MP: It’s still not a crowded market space, but there are some! My frequent collaborator Timandra Harkness has a new show called ‘Take A Risk’ featuring statistics, danger and a 0.00003348% chance someone in the audience will do the show instead. Mathematician, World-Slam-Champion and all-round lovely chap Harry Baker is doing a show about turning 10,000 days old. Legitimate maths teacher and musician Kyle D Evans is back for a week of his show ‘Maths Madness’. And an Australian comedian called Tom Cashman is doing a show ‘XYZ’ which claims to be about maths. I don’t know Tom, but they’re right on my turf so I’ll definitely be checking them out!

CM: What shows are you planning to see while you are in town?
MP: Just through sheer bad luck I’ve not had a chance to see my friend Bec Hill’s show about the future: ‘I’ll Be Bec’. But through sheer good luck she is performing it at this Fringe in exactly the same venue as me! So not only will I get to see it at last, I’ll also get sick of it.

My other must-see shows are: Foxdog Studios’ ‘Tomorrow’s Office’, a mix of music, comedy, augmented reality and overly ambition technology. And magicians Morgan And West have a children’s show ‘Unbelievable Science’ that I have every intention of sneaking in to see.

CM: What advice would you have for others negotiating the Festival for the first time?
MP: As a punter: you can see too few shows in a day, and too many. Strive to see enough shows each day but factor in some breaks, and allow time to get across town. And be sure to see a mix of shows: if you don’t see one show which is truly terrible you have not been ambitious enough in your ticket buying.

For first-time performers: remember that this is a chance to evolve your show to perfection. It’s emotionally exhausting to sit down once a day and go through everything you did wrong in the past hour, but when else will you get to do twenty shows in such quick succession? Make sure you get trusted friends in regularly to see the show and give honest feedback so you can continue to hone all month.

CM: How did you get into this? Were you always planning to be a stand up mathematician, or were you planning to just be a mathematician to begin with?
MP: My first career was being a maths teacher. I had gone into university without a real plan other that I enjoyed studying mathematics – and physics and engineering. While I was there I had a great time learning maths, but also started doing comedy writing for the student paper – UWA’s Pelican Magazine – and made short films for local competitions.

After graduating, I combined my love of doing and talking about maths by becoming a maths teacher. After a while I missed doing comedy though, and that is what started my transition to a stand-up comedian and YouTuber. But I had no idea how much of the maths I would be able to take with me! Spoiler: it was all of it.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
MP: Writing a book and a show means that my Stand-up Maths YouTube channel has been a bit neglected. It’s bumbling along just shy of half a million subscribers. So my next ambition is to focus on that and see if I can get some of my more over-the-top plans for maths videos made. I’ll not be happy until I hit the mega-subscriber level.

I’m also very lucky my channel is crowd funded via Patreon which means that people who made their money with maths give some of it back so I can do ridiculous maths projects and make videos to inspire the next generation of maths nerds. Thanks to them I was recently able to hire a helicopter to make a video about frame rates. I’m very lucky to have this bizarre career.

CM: What’s coming up next for you, after Edinburgh?
MP: Straight after the Fringe I’m off to Australia with my wife. I’m doing some work with maths teachers in Sydney, but most of the time will be spent seeing my family in Perth and having some much needed rest.

Then October and November I’m on tour with the ‘Humble Pi’ show around the UK! It’ll be a full evening of maths, mistakes and comedy. All the details are on my site standupmaths.com

Matt Parker performed ‘Humble Pi’ at Pleasance Dome at Edinburgh Festival 2019.