“Off the Top”
Baba Brinkman and Dr. Heather Berlin Canon's Gait 1210 until 24th August Reviewed 17th August Free 5 stars
Now bear with me, because I’m about to make a bold statement – on Sunday 17th, at the cosy Canon’s Gait pub, I saw Baba Brinkman and Dr. Heather Berlin deliver what may be the best show of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2014.
I’m aware that I have a weakness for rapper Baba Brinkman and his mixture of witty, technical rap with academic subject matter. I acknowledge that sometimes you’ll prefer a relaxing hour of comedy rather than a stimulating one. And I know that my enthusiasm for this show may be influenced somewhat by the surprise we witnessed midway through it, (more on this later).
But I’ll be darned if this isn’t a five-star show on its own merits.
There are, perhaps unintuitively, a host of comedy shows which deal with cognitive science – Robin Ince has one (and has done guest spots on Off The Top); and Baba Brinkman has another on evolutionary psychology.
But this is almost certainly the most in-depth that you’ll find, given that it’s compered by neuroscientist Dr. Heather Berlin. The good doctor is both an esteemed scientist in her field, (lecturing in psychiatry at Mt Sinai), and an entertaining host.
While Brinkman flexes his considerable rap skills, Berlin runs a batch of tests to demonstrate the effect of freestyling on his ability to perform mathematical, motor and linguistic tasks simultaneously. She then talks us through the cortices and functions behind the phenomena, while Brinkman in turn raps about them.
There’s plenty of back-and-forth and genial banter, which makes sense given that the pair are in fact a married couple. In fact, the show borders on the saccharine at times – when a volunteer was needed, little Jimmy almost broke our hearts with his adorably enthusiastic ineptitude. Later, as I mentioned, our guest comedian/scientists Rob Wells and Helen Arney surprised us by turning out to be another couple.
Celebrating their third anniversary.
And then Rob proposed to Helen.
But I don’t think it’s fair to detract points from Off The Top for the unpredictable cuteness of their volunteers, or the matrimonial intentions of their guests. It’s a near-perfect show with or without these coincidences. Not only is it massively entertaining, it’s also eye-opening. I dislike the term edutainment, with its connotations of wackiness. But one does get the sense that this could equally be a science class taught by a comedian, as a comedy gig led by a scientist.
There’s practical demonstrations of fascinating cognitive and behavioural processes, mixed with hard (but not boring) science and comic patter. It’s accessible to both hardcore neuroscientists; and punters who popped in for a pint and a pie, and stayed for the show. You’ll laugh throughout, and keep thinking about it afterwards – Off The Top is a comedy gig that keeps giving long after you’ve left.