Baba Brinkman and Heather Berlin’s journey through the mechanics of the mind is an elegant marriage between comedy and science, co-presented by a married pairing of a comedian and a scientist. Brinkman and Berlin have hit a rich seam here, and they’re perfectly suited to exploit it. Berlin is an eminently qualified and widely published neuroscientist and science communicator. Her husband Brinkman, is a comedian and rapper, whose work over recent years has tended increasingly towards the scientific and nerdy. What they’re presenting here with Off The Top is a genuinely fascinating examination of the behaviour of the human brain, during periods of recollection and artistic creativity. There’s an easy and playful chemistry between the two of them, which never strays into the saccharin. Both are confident and charismatic speakers, but Off The Top is sufficiently well-structured that there’s almost never a competition for the microphone, or for the protagonist role.
Berlin is interested in the behaviour of Brinkman’s brain while he’s freestyling, and presents a series of tests intended to determine exactly which parts of Brinkman’s brain are being utilised when he’s composing and performing an unprepared rap. An audience volunteer is established as a “control group”, and quickly realises that he’s bitten off more than he can be reasonably expected to chew, when he’s asked to perform a freestyle rap of his own devising in front of the packed crowd downstairs in Ciao Roma. It’s a real testament to the atmosphere of joyful scientific fascination that Brinkman and Berlin have created that nobody present feels any sympathetic terror for the poor sap once he’s started: indeed, with the whole audience cheering and whooping as he jumps through each of Berlin’s psychological hoops, the “control group”’s ad-hoc performance of “My Shot” from Hamilton is one of the highlights of the gig.
They have an enormous subject to cover, and Berlin and Brinkman give a good whistle-stop tour, but – perhaps inevitably – the time available to them is a bit too short and we never really seem to get into the meat of anything. A projector with slides and animation is used throughout, and those of us towards the back of the room occasionally struggle to see clearly. None of that really takes away from the enjoyment and power of Off The Top, though. This feels a lot like a TED Talk, but it’s no less enjoyable for that. Brinkman and Berlin are sharp and witty, both with their more obviously scripted gags and with improvisational throwaways. Some concentration is required, but you will definitely learn things about your brain that you didn’t know when you walked in.