An ENIGMAtic evening of comedy
Tuesday night saw the much anticipated arrival of the Boffoonery show – a comedy fundraiser benefitting Britain’s historical codebreaking centre, Bletchley Park. If the name’s not familiar, Bletchley Park is the site where British cryptanalyst Alan Turing – with the aid of his dedicated team – cracked the formidable German encryption codes being used on communiques, and turned the Allies’ fortunes around during World War 2. So in the interest of raising some badly-needed funds for the centre, a computer scientist named Jason Gorman decided to assemble some of the country’s finest comic talent and hold a benefit gig – what’s still unclear is who thought of the somewhat unsettling title, but hey… the place was packed out! Additionally surprising was that The Puzzler had bought himself a ticket, and was seated more or less exactly 3 rows back from me.
The evening opened with an address from author, physicist, and all-round bright spark, Mr Simon Singh. Initially concerned that I was going to yet again witness Singh electrocute a pickle, I was pleasantly surprised that his talk was an overview of how the ENIGMA worked, and a debunking of The Bible Code – an idea that using letter-frequency analysis it’s possible to find all manner of chilling prophecies hidden within the text of The Bible. Singh demonstrated some of these claims, counterpointed with mathematician Brendan McKay’s demonstrations that you can find more or less the same “predictions” hidden within the text of non-sacred stalwart text, Moby Dick. So just to reiterate, Singh had an *actual* *working* ENIGMA machine on stage. Way cool.
Nerd-comedy legend & sweary perpetually becardiganned librarian Robin Ince delivered a great set, featuring the seldom-approached topic of Eugenics: mind you, after the gigs he’s been doing I think it’s safe to say he knows how to work a room full of geeks.
We were also treated to some surprisingly good sketchwork – I say “surprisingly”, because one thing I’ve found so far at live gigs is that sketches always seem so contrived. There’s that slightly stilted moment where the compere says “We’re going to have a sketch now”, and you sort of have to suspend disbelief momentarily and consciously set your mind to figuring out what the scene is. In this case however maybe the transitions in were slicker, or they just raised the curtain and got on with it… the point is, they were very good. There was a wry piece set in a call centre for “Science Line”, backed by a companion piece on a Sex Line, also a piece on the inanity of credit card security, and the main part of the second half featured a radio play set in Bletchley Park, narrated by Steve Punt.
Punt & Dennis also provided one of their trademark routines with the help of Margaret Cabourn-Smith, Dave Gorman performed a set involving statistics and number theory (revelling in the fact that you don’t get to use material about perfect numbers, friendly numbers and sociable numbers particularly often), and my favourite standup of the night after Ince was Richard Herring, whose act I’ve been meaning to catch for ages now. He paddled around a bit claiming to be a little out of his depth, but settled on a nice little idea about the French word for potato being “pomme de terre”, or “apples of the sky” – then engaging in a national conspiracy to convince the French that our name for “apple” is “sky potato”, or “pomme de terre du ciel”.
I can’t decide whether it was the best, or most interesting, or most memorable section of the show, but we were all extremely tickled by the haphazard “game show” segment, “Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party”, in which Herring, Ince, former TV presenter Maggie Philbin, and a chap named Johnny Ball – who everyone in the room went absolutely nuts at the appearance of… he’s clearly some kind of legend, and in an overenthusiasticly shambolic way he demonstrated all sorts of maths to us – oh yes, and the whole thing was chaired by Scrapheap Challenge and Red Dwarf star, Robert Llewellyn (by way of whose Twitter feed I heard about the event in the first instance). Chaos was definitely the order of the day – Philbin providing some much-needed facts into the occasion, Ince riffing on some amazing lateral thinking to create sort of logical Rube-Goldberg devices, Ball demonstrating maths at any chance he could (to the crowd’s delight), and Llewellyn clearly just buzzing about being there and having a great time of it. At one point Johnny Ball asked a question about calculating the square root of a number, and produced a rope with some globules spaced evenly along it, which unfortunately looked like a gigantic set of arse-beads… but the mathematical principle was sound (using Euclidean geometry to calculate square roots easily), and he tucked in a wry social comment about how kids don’t get that in today’s educational system.
So anyway once again, like the “Nine Carols And Lessons For Godless People“, the “Night of 400 Billion Stars… and perhaps some string theory“, and a growing portion of standup gigs – this was an excellent, entertaining, thought provoking and informative night of geek comedy.
There’s a bunch of photos from the show on Flickr, on the offchance you’re interested. I only mention it because that’s where I ripped off the image at the top of the page.