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Interview: Rocket Science Comedian Helen Keen

The 50th anniversary of human space flight is fast approaching, and with it all manner of events, shows and celebrations. One of the brightest stars in the firmament is stand-up comedian Helen Keen, whose show It Is Rocket Science begins on Radio 4 tonight at 11pm. The four-part series examines the early years of rocketry, from a comedic but factual angle. Helen and I will also co-host a special space-themed variety evening on 12 April to mark the 50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s flight. More on that soon, but first, here’s Helen:

Why does space enthuse you so much?

There’s just something incredibly inspiring about looking up into the night sky. I’d worry a bit about anyone who wasn’t enthused by that! But when it comes to space exploration – a real point of fascination for me is the story of the fathers of modern rocket science, who were inspired to dream of building rockets in part by reading Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon when they were kids – a book written long before the first aeroplanes. There’s something fascinatingly imaginative and even a bit touching about the sort of people who would devote their lives rather methodically to making a fairytale come true.

Is it just the human exploration part, or are you into the scientific side as well?

I’m an arts graduate so I can’t pretend to know as much about the scientific side of things though I do find it intriguing.

But I’ve always been very interested in what motivates people to make these great technological leaps forward though. And the pioneers of rocket science that I talk about in the show were all extremely determined to get into space in spite of people laughing at them or ignoring them or even criticising their grasp of basic physics. They faced massive obstacles – and not just technical…possibly the biggest problem for all of them was convincing other people that space travel was possible.

Space is a bit of an odd topic for a stand-up, isn’t it? Given that comedians usually rely on situations their audience can identify with. How did you get the idea, and did you ever think ’this’ll never work’?

The wonderful thing about the Edinburgh Fringe is that you can take a show up there about some obsessive interest you have that doesn’t seem an obvious subject for comedy and audiences there will still give it a chance and come along to see it.

I was interested in the story for years before it occurred to me that I might be able to turn it into a show. It seemed like an opportunity to talk about something that really means something to me, rather than just doing the usual Edinburgh stand-up thing of trying to shoe-horn your regular club material into a themed hour and hoping for the best.

Also, with Rocket Science, I think that most people can identify with a story about someone struggling to achieve their dream – however unusual the dream may be. On top of which (and this is probably because in its earliest days the whole notion of space travel was so “out there”) the men who obsessively tried to make it a reality were for the most part a bit… erm… peculiar is probably the kindest word. And stories about peculiar, off beat people do make for an entertaining show… (I hope). But yes – to be honest, the day before the Edinburgh run started I was thinking to myself “this is going to be a disaster”, and swearing a lot about my own idiocy…

Tell me about the radio show – how did it come about, and what can people expect?

It’s perhaps best described as a low budget, highly subjective look at the history and future of space travel. It Is Rocket Science! was my first Edinburgh show – in fact it was the first hour show I’d ever performed and I took it up to Edinburgh quite naively, without really understanding what a competitive environment that is and without any real strategy to get people to come along to see it. But fortunately – I suppose because it was such an unusual subject (and because as I discovered during the run LOADS of people are just as fascinated by space travel as I am) – lots of people from production companies came along and towards the end of the run Gareth Edwards was in the audience. That was a bit bizarre because he was someone I’d admired and wanted to work with – and he suggested turning it into a radio script. Although it took a long time to write, from there on the process of getting it commissioned was pretty smooth.

What next for Helen Keen? A gig on the space station?

Wouldn’t that be amazing?! Obviously that’d be a long term goal… but in the nearer future Spacetackular! for Yuri’s Night – a space-themed science/comedy/silly costume extravaganza on 12 April is something I’m very excited about hosting (with you Matt!) More details about that here.

I’m also working on a new solo show about The Future (and robots…)

Finally, tell us a one-liner about space that doesn’t involve the word ‘Uranus’.

Ooh – well – if I’m allowed to pick one that isn’t mine & is slightly more than one line….

“The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.” Douglas Adams

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