ED2016 Comedy ED2016 Interviews ED2016 Week0 Edition

Matt Winning: Space in the future

By | Published on Saturday 30 July 2016


If you’ve seen Matt Winning performing one of his comedy shows, you’ll know he’s really rather good at it, which makes it all the more amazing that as well as all this performance lark, he’s also a working social scientist who doesn’t want to leave his day-job.
His show this year is a set with a narrative that’s in some way inspired by the work he does, and it sounds fascinating as well as funny. We put some questions to Matt ahead of his Edinburgh run.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the new show? It’s listed in comedy, but it’s clearly got a proper narrative and sounds pretty theatrical – what’s the story?
MW: I don’t want to give too much away as I think it has some nice surprises in it, but it’s about a future relative of mine who must journey through space to a distant star. It’s all comedy, but I’d say half is stand-up and half is a play. I may make a cameo appearance as myself.

CM: What’s the origin of the title ‘Ragnarok’?
MW: It’s the Norse mythology word for the end of the world. I’m a big fan of those vikings. And given that the show is about climate change and has other references to the end of humanity I was searching for one-word titles and instantly thought it was pretty apt. I think there’s a Thor film coming out soon with the same title so lucky I got there first.

CM: Where did the idea for this show come from?
MW: I wanted to try a show that involved me interacting with a live robot on stage – we’d previously done something similar in the Bearpit Podcast and it was great fun. Also, I had an idea for an epic story which could also involve stand-up. The combination allows me to talk about things I want to discuss but find it difficult to do in a direct manner as a stand-up comedian because my on-stage persona is very silly and doesn’t talk about his own life.

CM: When you are creating a show like this, how do you go about it, given that it seems to be something of a cross between theatre and stand up? Do you sit down and write it in a formal way?
MW: It’s the first time I’ve ever done anything that isn’t straight stand-up so it’s taken me a lot longer than I hoped. Mostly because it’s quite daunting and also because, unlike stand-up, you can’t just go and test it out in clubs. So I’ve had to wait quite a while to start previewing the show. Yes there has been a lot of sitting down. Mostly it’s been writing out the story and then going back to make it funnier. And then going back to change the story again. Ad infinitum

CM: There is real science in the show, isn’t there? Because you are an actual scientist, aren’t you? Presumably it’s easy stuff that us lay-people can understand?
MW: Yes there is, and yes I am. I’m a social scientist, though, as my PhD is in climate economics. Any scientific references in the show are fairly simple bar one or two that are just for me really. To be honest, it’s more a show about how difficult it is to write a show about climate change. I started with grand ambitions to be more science-based, but in the end had to make it more of a personal journey as all stories tend to be. It’s quite a good metaphor, really, for how difficult climate change is as a political problem. You have to engage people on a personal level and how it affects them, otherwise nobody cares.

CM: Climate change remains something of a hot topic, if you’ll excuse the pun. Obviously, there remain some high profile sceptics. But is it something we should actually all be really concerned about? 
MW: Some people are sceptical but almost all scientists agree that it is happening. The disagreement is really about how much we should do about it and what specifically we should be doing. But yes, we should be scared.

The aim is to reduce global emissions to a level which will give us a decent probability of staying below a two degree celsius global temperature increase. To avoid dangerous climate change we need to stabilise and then reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gas and other non-GHGs rapidly over the coming decades. We probably have about fifteen years to start making dramatic reductions in emissions otherwise we’ll end up with a global average temperature probably somewhere between three and four degrees celsius higher than pre-industrial levels.

We have no idea what that will involve. To give you an indication, we reached one degree above this year, so multiply the current climate issues by three or four and add in a bunch of non-linearities and feedback effects such as the ice-caps and sea-level rises. Basically, we have no idea what that future looks like.

CM: What inspired your interest in matters scientific? Was it something you were always drawn to?
MW: I’ve always been interested in topical policy issues and I did environmental law and economics classes at University – in Edinburgh – it all happens in Edinburgh – and they were the only courses I took which I actually really enjoyed, so it seemed natural to continue with that path.

CM: What about performance? Did you envisage doing this kind of stuff when you were growing up? Who or what has influenced you in this regard?
MW: I did some acting in primary school but that idea got beaten out me quickly at high school. Then I used to make stupid videos of made-up movie trailers with my best friends. Later at uni I played guitar in a few bands, but it wasn’t until I was 24 that I gave stand-up a shot.

The only family members who were in the arts are my aunt, who was a ballerina and now has her own ballet school, and my mum’s cousin who is an actress. She’s in ‘Downton Abbey’ and was in ‘Lovejoy’, but I don’t know her very well. So I guess it’s always been there but I don’t really know who the influence was. It’s probably because I was the youngest and smallest in my class so had to find something to make me interesting to girls.

CM: Despite being really quite successful at comedy in recent years – nominations, awards, TV and radio work – you still have a sciency day-job. How do you find time to fit it all in?
MW: I don’t. That’s what the show is about. All my holidays are spent on going to the Fringe.

CM: Do you think you’ll ever want to drop the day job?
MW: I really enjoy my job, it’s extremely relevant and interesting and think I’m quite good at it, so I’m very lucky in that respect. It would depend what came along to replace it though. It would need to be an offer I couldn’t refuse.

CM: As aforementioned, you’ve done lots of TV and radio, as well as live performance – which is the most satisfying?
MW: They are all quite different. And I’m still learning how to do all of them as well. Stand-up is the most comfortable though and you get the instant feedback which is nice.

CM: You’re becoming a bit of an Edinburgh veteran now with a number of shows under your belt – what do you like about the the Festival? What makes you keep on doing it?
MW: It is a wonderful bubble for a few weeks and you get to see lots of inspiring shows by people you think are great and then you get to get drunk with them and go to a pizza shop at 3am with them and order a round of baklava for everybody in the place. Every night. For three weeks. Three Weeks!

CM: What plans do you have for the future? 
MW: I’d like to do some radio if possible – whether it’s just writing or performing as well, I don’t mind, but ideally with some creative control. I’m also doing a sketch show at the Fringe this year called ‘I Am Wario’ with Stuart Laws and Anne Klein. It should be fun to perform so who knows if it goes well we might do more. We’re also doing a couple of Bearpit podcast (podcast) shows as well in the last week at the Pleasance, which will be mayhem as usual.

Matt Winning performed ‘Ragnarok’ at Opium at Edinburgh Festival 2016.

LINKS: mattwinning.com