Danica McKellar on Her Nerdist Show ‘Math Bites,’ YouTube vs TV [INTERVIEW]

Remember “The Wonder Years”? You know, that one ’80s/’90s show starring the curly-haired boy (Fred Savage) who turned out to be the real life big brother of the other curly-haired boy (Ben Savage) from “Boy Meets World”? Right, so I’m sure “Boy Meets World” rung a big nostalgia bell for you YouTube-loving kids. Too bad, because we’re focusing on the “The Wonder Years” here … which was that one show with the really nasally narrator and also had a young, bespectacled Marilyn Manson starring as the nerdy best friend — okay, that rumor was exposed as false forever ago, but wasn’t it so believable yet unbelievable when you first heard it? Weird feeling, that believable yet unbelievable feeling. I get the same feeling whenever I realize that I am considered an adult.


Anyway, I’m sure you remember the show now that I’ve described it to you in the absolute worst way possible. However, what you will definitely remember about the show is a pretty and shy dark-haired character by the name of Winnie Cooper. Winnie Cooper, who was the crush of many a male viewer (okay fine, AND female — are you happy about mucking up my writing, LGBT activists? Oh right, my writing is always kinda mucky) was of course played by Danica McKellar, who is still today the crush of many — check out her Maxim spread from a couple years back.

So Danica is far past her “Wonder Years” roots (except for when assholes bring it up as though it’s all she’s ever done with her life … give me a chance — I’m not done with this article yet), having earned a math degree from UCLA over a decade ago and has since written several top-selling books aimed at teaching students how to not suck at math. It’s turned out to be a little bit of a life’s mission for her, and she even has a YouTube show about it now called “Math Bites.” Episodes are out on the Nerdist channel, and NMR gives it our highest recommendation of … um, a lint ball, two thumb tacks and a Steel Reserve can full of tears — sorry, it’s all we have at the NMR “offices” these days.

Read my interview with the bubbly, bright Danica below to learn more about “Math Bites,” why she thinks math is the bee’s knees and her thoughts on where online video is heading.

So how did you get your first job on YouTube?

Well, I had done Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast, and he said, “Hey, I think what you’re doing with your math books is great, and if you ever want to do some kind of math show, let me know and we’ll produce it.” I was like, okay, and it was great. It’s rare to get to work with someone who says, do whatever you want and we’ll pay for it [laughs]. So I’m sure there were limits, but it’s been amazing. It’s been so much fun. I said, “I wrote a song about pi and I wanna do a music video where I get to dress up like a fairy. And by the way, Chris, I want you to wear a tutu in it,” and just to hear people say yes is really fantastic.

Before he had offered you a spot on the Nerdist channel, what YouTube shows had you watched and personally enjoyed?

Hm, I mean you can watch anything on YouTube. I would use it usually for research if I was going to be on a TV show or audition for a TV show if i wanted to get a sense of the show and hadn’t gotten a chance to watch it, because i have a 3-year-old son — so not a lot of recreational TV-watching time [laughs]. YouTube is an incredible tool. It’s like Wikipedia: you want to know what something is and you can just go there and find out.

How well do you think your style of teaching math, which you’ve done in books, has transferred over to the online video medium?

I’m having a great time with it. People seem to really like the show. It’s different from my books; my books are much more educational. These videos aren’t really teaching that much [laughs]. They’re like little bites of math education, which is why I named it “Math Bites.” The books are geared towards helping students really understand how to do their homework, how to do well on tests, which is its own skill aside from knowing the math itself, and it’s inspirational for kids, especially for a  girl to understand why it’s important to be smart. “Math Bites” is really more of a fun show geared to everyone, and it’s silly, it’s math comedy. So for “Math Bites,” entertainment is number one, education is number two. And for the books, reverse. For the books, education is the first goal and then we have to make it entertaining while we’re at it.

And so what sort of commentary have you received on your show? I’m sure at least some people must have asked, “Why is Winnie Cooper talking about math on YouTube?”

Actually, people seem to know already that I’m known for math. I haven’t had people questioning why I’m doing math for a while now. When it first came out that I was a math major at UCLA back in like ’98, ’99, I got a lot of press for it, like, why? Why math? Why would you do that to yourself? You don’t have to! Because math is good for your brain, and it makes you smarter, it makes you savvy so you don’t get ripped off by credit card companies or department stores. It just puts you in better control of your life. I mean, who doesn’t like control over their own lives? I don’t know anybody who doesn’t like that, so math is a powerful tool to give you that. And my charge in my life seems to be to make the whole experience of math entertaining and fun for people so they can reap the benefits of having that power.

What does your typical week look like when you’re working on “Math Bites”?

Well, we did all of them at once.

Oh, wow.

Yeah [laughs]. So first it was writing a lot and then casting and then locations. So we did all the green screen stuff, all my stand up post stuff on the same day — that was a long day; I could barely talk by the end of it. Then one day was just the pi music video — that was a whole big production and we had ballerinas and ballet school. That was so much fun; I loved that. Then we had a day at the park. All these random days. And it was so much fun just to call my friends and be like, “Hey, check out this part. Are you free tomorrow? Lets go!” and it was just fun.

Yeah, I like all the random guest people you have on the show. How many episodes are in the season?

We did five episodes.

Just five episodes?

Yeah, we’ll see how it goes. Let’s see how people like it. All the episodes are very different from each other in terms of topic. So we wanted to see what people liked and what they responded to because I didn’t have a specific audience in mind when I wrote them. I wrote stuff that I thought was entertaining and would be fun for people to watch to learn a little bit about math but also be entertained, especially for people who don’t like math it’s like, here’s a way to deliver math to you in a way that’s not going to be painful — it’s going to be fun.

Have you given thought to doing other types of online video like vlogging or a scripted story web series?

I’m open to the ideas whatever they are. People have been wanting me to do math videos for a long time and this is the first time someone has given me free creative license, so I said I’ll try this stuff and see how it goes. But I’m very open to other ideas, especially for educational shows. But, you know, I have a busy life so I don’t have time to sit around and write a whole new series at this point. If something is meant for me, it will come to me.

So you’ve been in Hollywood ever since you were a child actor. How do you see the online video industry? Do you see it taking a big share away from TV and movies?

I think it already does, yeah. To me, it’s all about convenience. Soon there’s not going to be a distinction between what’s on your TV and what’s online because we’re all plugged into each other anyway. I mean, all this technology is talking to each other. People are watching stuff from their phones on their TV anyway, so that’s the direction we’re going to keep going I think.

Do you have any other projects coming up?

Well, I have my weekly contest on Twitter every thursday. I’m not sure. I might be writing another book but I’m not prepared to talk about it just yet. I’ve had an amazing, diverse life, and the universe just brings me the next thing. This time I don’t know what it’s going to be yet but it’s going to have something to do with math education, I’m sure of it, because I just love that stuff too much. And nobody else really wants to be doing it except for me [laughs]. Not many anyway — there are a few out there.

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