Off the Top, Rap Comedy Theater in NYC

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Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman

The new rap comedy on the science of improvisation, Off the Top, is the latest brain child of hip-hop performer MC Baba Brinkman and neuroscientist Heather Berlin, PhD.

What do people really know about the human brain’s activity when we create something new, specifically, do improv? Quite a lot, it turns out, thanks to this couple’s joint research: in real life the wife is the scientist, and the husband (test subject) is a rapper.

Heather Berlin, brain science expert, works on impulsivity, compulsive behavior, and human emotion experiments in the lab at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York. She’s also a gifted performer who delivers neuroscience with attitude.

Sex, Science, and Smart Women

Baba Brinkman opened the show with his autobiographical rap on being attracted to brainy women, on sex, evolution, and how he met the mother of their two children, Dr. Berlin. She then bounced amazing brain-science research facts off Baba and the audience throughout the interactive show.

On stage together, they created a sophisticated alternate of the familiar childhood mind game: Can you pat your head and rub your belly at the same time?

Science of Hip-Hop Improv

Here it is: Can your brain let you perform a memorized rap and – at the same time – identify words, colors, or type something meaningful about a famous movie you saw long ago?

What about while you perform a freestyle rhyme you create on the spot, live?

With unscripted experiments on stage, using Baba as the first subject, then a volunteer from the audience, Dr. Berlin showed us which of our brain activities overlap so much that doing them simultaneously becomes impossible.

Scientists see the brain as a complicated organ of billions of neurons (nerve cells) with trillions of connections that can “light up” when active, using MRI scans. Dr. Berlin’s MRI imaging studies of Baba’s brain while he raps show that certain sections of the brain make freestyle rapping possible. This is true not just for Baba’s freestyle rhyming but for musicians doing jazz improvisations, too.

I caught the fascinating comedy variety show live off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse Huron Club in New York City, where it’s playing Wednesdays through April, 2017. The place is intimate, friendly, and has a small bar. In the line-up are freestyle rhymes, bawdy jokes, bite-sized brain science facts, live demonstrations of brain function experiments on stage, wacky audience participation, and guest performers.

The sexy and brainy comedian Leighann Lord was on as guest last Wednesday, and I really hope to catch this very funny lady’s stand up comedy show again soon in New York.

Lillian Isabella and J.J.Brown at the theater seeing

After “Off the Top” off-Broadway, with Lillian Isabella.

The audience at Off the Top was diverse, from rappers and rhyme lovers to science geeks and word nerds. I saw the show with my daughter, actor Lillian Isabella and we both loved it.

Bring a friend who needs to cheer up, bring a science lover, bring a feminist.

I guess I’m sort of all of these, and my face kind of hurt on the subway ride back home from having laughed so much.

More Brainy Rap and Research

Check out Baba Brinkman’s series of science-based hip-hop albums and theatre shows, including Rap Guides to Evolution, Climate Change, and Religion. He’s on twitter at @bababrinkman

Find out more about Dr. Berlin’s research in her newest paper, just published in Psychiatry Research, on people who have obsessive compulsive disorder, OCD, and their sense of smell. Catch her on twitter at @heather_berlin.

Heather Berlin and rapper Baba Brinkman perform rap comedy at Soho Playhouse

Dr. Heather Berlin and Baba Brinkman perform Off the Top, a rap comedy.

Photos: Baba Brinkman