Big Problems with Helen Keen

After three series’ of her cult award-winning Radio 4 show It IS Rocket Science! – based on her debut solo Fringe show of the same name – comedian Helen Keen is ready to go mainstream, as she returns to Radio 4 with more funny, yet factual, stories of unsung pioneers and oddballs (sometimes both), in a new show which shows us how science and technology could help solve our Big Problems.  Carl L. Hutchinson (not to be confused with the other Carl Hutchinson; the Mancunian stand-up) discussed Big Problems with Helen L. Keen (not to be confused with the other Helen Keen).

After three series’ of It IS Rocket Science! in Radio 4’s late-night 15-minute experimental comedy slot, what differences were there writing for a mainstream audience in the coveted 18:30 comedy slot?
Well, It Is Rocket Science was pretty much wall to wall filth, so we had to cut down on that a little bit… Obviously Miriam (Underhill – my co-writer) and I wanted to make the new series as accessible as possible, because it’s in a much earlier slot and people might be listening while they’re eating their tea. But I think ultimately you have to write about what what makes you laugh and what you’d be interested in listening to, so for the two of us it’s always going to be the agonising awfulness of our personal lives – and killer robots. You do have to steel yourself a bit too though, as hating whatever happens to be in the 6:30 slot with a florid passion is a popular pastime for Radio 4 listeners who use social media.
Bog Problems with Helen Keen -
Big Happy Family

Even though Big Problems is playing out in a better timeslot, you’re using the same team assembled by Gareth Edwards back in 2011 – you all seem to be like a big happy family now!

I’m not sure I’d say 6.30 was a ‘better’ timeslot! The 11pm slot was always what I aspired to because that’s where the comedy I loved as a teenager sat. The early evening slot’s certainly higher profile though, which is really exciting. But yes it’s lovely to be able to keep the same team, so it’s still Susy, Peter and me and a lot of weird stories about weirder science & technology. Before the first ever recording of the first ever series of Rocket Science I was so nervous and anxious I was almost crying and Peter & Susy stood backstage with me holding my hands. They’re both also super-multi-talented, so I will always hugely admire them & want to work with them if they’re willing!
With some people, there seems to be a fine line between genius & insanity (e.g. John “Jack” Whiteside Parsons & Dr. Wernher von Braun); I guess when covering these types, the material kind of writes itself?
If only… That would make my life (& Miriam’s) much much easier. Nine times out of ten when you find a piece of info that seems so good you don’t think you’ll have to work hard to write things round it, it turns out to be false. In reality we spend a lot of time scouring obscure library books and websites, triple-checking facts and sweating/swearing at each other over how to make things funny, but yes, having said all that, when you discover the stories of people like that it is quite exciting!
Helen Keen -

Tell us about the best gag you were sad to edit out or pare down & why; was it purely for timing reasons or did it just fall flat?

Haha – there are always loads of things that either work unexpectedly brilliantly or fall mysteriously flat. I think that’s one of the wonderful/terrifying things about recording in front of an audience. And Peter and Susy are kind of amazing at finding big laughs in lines that we’d written as completely straight. But it’s not just a question of audience response. Sometimes there’ll be something that Miriam & I both loved in the script that doesn’t quite work as a live bit, but that with some FX and music sounds absolutely great in the final edit. We always write the episodes a bit long so that we have a room to manoeuvre, but I think we ended up having to chop about 6 minutes from the first episode – all of which I’d have kept if I could.
Just because it was the an easy bit to cut without upsetting the narrative, we lost a whole section about Hugh de Garis, an artificial intelligence researcher who’s convinced that a massive war, resulting in billions of deaths, is inevitable between supporters and opponents of artificial intellects (or artilects). There was a really nice (genuine) quote from him where he’s just FAR too enthusiastic about the whole robot-deathy-war thing:
Am I prepared to risk the extinction of the human species to risk building artilect? …YEP!
It got a big laugh, but we had to cut 6 minutes, so something had to go. But it does cause me pain that we had to lose it.
Astrophysicist Dr. Brian May once wrote, “Who wants to live forever?”  If you would want to live forever, what would you say is the most promising method; prolonging human life or simply downloading your memories into a computer?
Given the immense difficulties my current laptop has downloading e.g. the front page of the Daily Mail (this is in many senses a blessing) I think we’re a long long way from Johnny Depp-style Transcendence. For myself I think the most promising means of prolonging life will be eating three normal, home-cooked meals a day instead of running out of time and going through an entire packet of Pringles for breakfast.
Finally, what can we expect after Big Problems has finished its run?
There’s a DVD of the live show of It Is Rocket Science coming out later this year through Go Faster Stripe which is very exciting – and I’ll be touring a live show about the ‘science’ of Game of Thrones. It’s based on some pieces I wrote for SFX magazine last year and I’ve put the live version together with Ian Simmons from Newcastle’s Centre for Life. He’s brilliant at coming up with demos – and there are some excellent explosive and gruesome experiments in the show. I’m one of Wired magazine’s Innovation Fellows this year, so that should be exciting. And there’s some other exciting space-y stuff that I can’t talk about until things become official, so, er, watch this space…
Thank you, Helen!
The final episode of the current series of ‘Big Problems with Helen Keen’ is on Radio 4 tonight, which will then be repeated a week later Radio 4 Extra; all the other episodes are currently available on the iPlayer.  The first episode was last week’s Comedy of the Week podcast, which you can download – for free – until 6th July.