Robert Newman’s Summerhall fringe offering, The Brain Show, sets out to take a wry look into contemporary trends in neurological science, the majority of which he refers to as “neuro-babble”. This is how he describes the tendency to a “reductive, pessimistic” scientific outlook on the human brain, which he believes is ultimately damaging to the way we view the world.
His act, somewhat chaotically, takes us through some of his gripes with what he refers to as the “macho nihilism” of the kind of scientific and philosophical thinking on the brain which reduces humanity to simplistic evolutionary programming. He then links this in with his own participation in a study called The Neurobiology of Romantic Love, and a protracted debate and flirtation with a cute marine biologist.
It gambles along pleasantly enough, with his assured stage presence, meticulous delivery and ear for mimicry, but often the journey through the history of brain science feels slightly laboured. His mockery of established yet slightly ridiculous scientific theories regarding subjects such as gender colour preference are sharp, yet the fringe show format doesn’t allow for any real depth to the argument, and it can feel like it is neither one thing or the other.
There is obviously a very real antipathy here to the reduction of human life to simplistic philosophy. He balks at that old misery guts Sartre’s description of the natural world as nauseatingly sloppy, and mocks the “melodrama” of Freud. Tonight’s audience are very receptive, the laughs come easily and we are even treated to a musical number involving two rather cute and colourful bobtail squids.
However, the real satire and belly laughs come when Newman turns his own sharp brain to both other comedians and establishment figures like Paul McCartney (he wonders if the Beatle asked his plastic surgeon for a face of ‘permanent mild surprise and vague curiosity’) and Richard Branson, who gets a succinct and delicious mauling. These are delivered as casual asides to the main focus of the show (describing his childhood home as having a garden, he quips ‘don’t tell Mark Thomas‘) but this is where the real comic energy lies.
He tells us that he feels “desperately sad” that scientists suggested that the human smile as a greeting came from the hunter gather changing a snarl to a smile when faced with a stranger. ‘A smile from a snarl!’, he wails. Tonight though, when Newman bares his teeth against some thoroughly deserved targets, he delivers the most satisfying laughs of all.