Interview: Matt Parker, Stand-Up Maths
Matt Parker is a funny dude — and a bit warped.
He created a show called Your Days are Numbered which, as the name implies, is about the statistics of death. The tagline reads, “You’ve got a 0.000043% chance of dying during this show.”
He claims that his favorite number is 3,435, because 33 + 44 + 33 + 55 = 3,435.
And he took two diametrically opposed careers — math teaching and stand‑up comedy — and morphed them into one.
What do you get when you cross a mathematician and a stand-up comic?
But Matt Parker is not only funny and warped. He’s also wicked smart. Check this out…
Being a math guy and wanna-be funny guy, I interviewed Matt with the hope that maybe I could learn a little.
Popular belief holds that both Brits and mathematicians are notoriously unfunny. How do you explain your phenomenon?
I am one of many counterexamples.
Your show Your Days Are Numbered: the Maths of Death deals with the probability of dying in various ways. What’s your favorite statistic about death?
You are more likely to die from falling out of bed than falling off a ladder or cliff.
You’re clearly not dead, but have you ever had a near-death experience?
I once nearly died trying to find the integer crossing point of two lines of latitude and longitude in the Australian desert. But I made it to the ‘confluence’ and back.
As far as I know, you’re the first mathematician ever to do a national comedy tour. Tell us how this came to be. What was the trajectory?
I was working as a stand-up comic in regular comedy clubs as well as being a maths teacher. Slowly, the two careers started to merge. In stand-up comedy, you cannot help but talk about what you are interested in, so I would talk about maths. I wouldn’t do maths jokes — they are notoriously unfunny — but I would use maths and being a maths teacher as the basis for my jokes.
Eventually I got a following for talking about maths and so my material could gradually get more and more nerdy. My maths tour show Matt Parker: Number Ninja contains a lot of maths, but it’s still a comedy show in its own right. You don’t need to be a mathematician to enjoy it — just like I enjoy political comedians without having a big interest in politics — but there is an extra layer of jokes for the extra-nerdy.
[Ed. note: The opinions expressed by Matt Parker about math jokes being “notoriously unfunny” do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the MJ4MF blog.]
Why do you call yourself “the number ninja”?
A mathematician is not someone who does lots of boring sums, like what most people remember from school maths. A mathematician is someone who plays with numbers and maths and tries to solve puzzles. The phrase “Number Ninja” helps to get this sense of playfulness across.
What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever said during a lecture?
I was once showing a spreadsheet which was an RGB digital photo of myself, turned into a series of conditionally formatted cells. I couldn’t help but say, “I’ve really exceled myself.”
Who’s the funniest mathematician or professor you know? What’s the funniest thing that he or she ever said?
A surprising number of stand-up comedians were once mathematicians. The fantastic Dave Gorman is always worth looking up. [Ed. note: You might like Dave Gorman’s bit about perfect numbers.]
Where is it harder to be funny — on stage, or at the front of a classroom?
The stage is far easier because you’re expected to be funny. The classroom is a place to communicate maths. There is a lot you can learn from performing comedy when you are in the classroom, but jokes are the very last thing. The real transferable skills from comedy to teaching are things like structuring a lesson and knowing how to pace a talk.
What’s your favorite blog post that you’ve written for The Guardian?
I am rather proud of Mobile Phone Masts Linked to Mysterious Spikes in Births.
Matt Parker will be performing in the Festival of the Spoken Nerd in London through July 12.