Arts

Grey matters: Robert Newman gives 'good head' with The Brain Show

Comedian Robert Newman returns to Belfast this weekend with The Brain Show. David Roy quizzed the comic and author about taking on negative neuroscience

Robert Newman is a comedian rarely caught out of his depth

ROBERT Newman has based the second act of his comedy career on his uncanny ability to 'find the funny' in unusual, research-heavy inspirations.

The former Mary Whitehouse Experience man's recent shows have revolved around unlikely 'comedy' topics, such as when he set about debunking propaganda to get to the real, historically accurate and reliably crude oil-related reasons behind 100 years of global conflict for Apocalypso Now!: Or from P45 to AK47, How To Grow The Economy With The Use of War and the similarly themed, more snappily titled performance From Caliban To The Taliban: 500 Years Of Humanist Intervention.

With 2013's tour Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution, the Londoner took aim at The Selfish Gene author Richard Dawkins (and, by extension, the fundamentals of capitalism) and his 'survival of the fittest'-inclined ilk to remind audiences that humans have actually done the whole 'group co-operation' thing quite well since time immemorial.

The latter set led nicely into last year's book The Entirely Accurate Encyclopaedia of Evolution and his similarly titled BBC Radio 4 series.

Now, The Brain Show, which the Cambridge-educated comic brings to Belfast on Saturday afternoon, finds the father of two tackling pop scientists who peddle often unsubstantiated theories about the human brain as though they were incontrovertible fact.

Yes, Newman (51) has come a long, learned way from the wonderful, utterly juvenile joy of the History Today skits, his "that's you, that is" catchphrase-based double act with one-time comedy foil David Baddiel.

"My beef is not so much with neuroscience, it's with brainless interpretations of brain science," he explains of his latest comedy crusade.

"I think they're really badly distorting our ideas about human nature and where we are in the world.

"If you look at the current crop of best-sellers about the brain, you can learn that everything you see is an illusion, that east Asians can't see the trees for the wood, that the hormone prolactin predisposes women to enjoy scrubbing the kitchen floor, smiling evolved from an aborted snarl and that everything about you can be uploaded on to a memory stick.

"That kind of fashionably pessimistic stuff is really depressing and, as I argue in the show, not actually based on science – it's based on certain philosophical assumptions and retro sci-fi."

To illustrate his argument, Newman begins the show by sharing a not strictly true anecdote about his participation in a real 'brain imaging' study in which university scientists used a MRI machine to try to and pinpoint "the part of the brain that lights up when you're in love".

From there, The Brain Show finds him to kicking holes in some rather thin thinking that's literally been disguised behind expensive flashing lights.

"All the high-tech imagery they can produce with these machines has a kind of prestige to it," argues Newman, "which is why half a billion Euros is being spent on the European Human Brain Mapping Project.

"But that doesn't mean that the aformentioned unsubstantiated claims are truly scientific – they're not. There's just this aura of high-tech science which is allowing some very 'old hat 'claims to sneak under the wire."

As with his New Theory of Evolution, Newman's latter-day comedy contains a definite through-line in which he's attempting to re-frame human beings in a much more positive, awe-inspiring light.

Could the fact that he now has two young children to explain the world to have possibly influenced this new-found optimism?

"I think they have changed things a lot," Newman reveals.

"Or it might be the other way around: perhaps I was only ready to have children once I was ready to see things in a slightly less apocalyptic way than I used to.

"Anyway, I recommend it."

Last seen on TV back in 2007 with the BBC4 show The History of The World Backwards, comedy's most likeably intellectual stand-up is currently contemplating a return to the small screen with an idea for a sitcom spin-off from The Brain Show.

In fact, just before we spoke, Newman had found himself getting carried away with the project:

"I've spent the afternoon writing out some ideas," he tells me. "They're really just proposals, but I often find that I get really into them as I write and then accidentally end up writing a whole episode.

"I find it quite difficult to know how much detail to give TV people. There's that great Alexei Sayle joke where he enters a competition: 'Complete the following sentence in not less than 80,000 words, 'I would like to win a Pulitzer Prize because...'

"Anyway, I just really like the idea of a sitcom set in a brain lab."

Here's hoping that the power of Robert Newman's positive thinking keeps paying off for him, in TV-land and beyond.

:: Robert Newman, The Black Box, Saturday April 30, 2pm, tickets available via CQAF.com.

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