Matt Parker, stand-up mathematician

“There’s a strong correlation between comedy and nerdiness”

There has been a groundswell of geeky comedy over the last few years. From the Uncaged Monkeys tour, which sold over 35,000 tickets, to the permanently sold-out Festival of the Spoken Nerd monthly comedy night, it seems that huge numbers of people are demanding intelligent entertainment and cerebral comedy.

No one is happier about this than the comedians themselves. A disproportionate number of comedians are closet nerds who spend their working lives talking to comedy clubs full of drunken stag parties who just want crude jokes and casual racism. The new nerdy comedy scene is providing an outlet for comedians to talk about subjects that they genuinely find interesting. I recently saw the ex-accountant comedian Tom Goodliffe delighting in his routine about double-entry book keeping, with a willing audience enjoying every moment of it. It was hard to tell who was having more fun.

While this is all good for those science fans that enjoy comedy, the question remains: Why are so many comedians nerdy in the first place? Surely the industry should be overrun with performance artists, and booking the panel for ‘QI’ should be a difficult task? But it’s not. The geeks had already taken over comedy long before there was a demand for them.

This is not limited to stand-up comedians. ‘The Simpsons’, arguably the most successful comedy TV show in the world, is written by people with a science background. Several of the writers completed maths degrees before going into writing. One of the co-executive producers, David X Cohen, has a degree in physics and an MSc in computer science.

It seems that the skill set for writing comedy is not all that dissimilar to what you learn studying maths, science and other technical subjects. Comedy writing is like engineering a finely honed mechanism. Any joke that is not working at full efficiency needs to be refined, re-ordered or removed.

When writing a comedy routine you need to be able to think logically, draw upon a toolkit of strategies and solve a complex network of ideas – all skills that you learn through maths. If you watch a stand-up comedian performing, they are mentally moving around a flowchart of material while still responding and adapting to the audience. This is no trivial mental feat.

Of course, this evidence is anecdotal and I’m careful to not jump to causal-link conclusions. But it is safe to say that comedy and nerdiness seem to be strongly correlated, which bodes well for audiences that like to have both halves of their brains entertained at the same time.

Matt is based at Queen Mary, University of London. 

Reproduced from ‘Wellcome News 70’.

Further reading

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Careers From Biology’ in June 2012 and reviewed and updated in November 2017.

Statistics and maths, Careers
Careers From Biology
Education levels:
16–19, Undergraduate, Continuing professional development