Seriously, Scientifically Funny

Can you apply the rigour of the scientific method to comedy? Jay Richardson gets nerdy with Olga Koch, Harriet Braine and Dr Heather Berlin

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 5 minutes
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Impulse Control
Published 24 Jul 2019

In both comedy and her romantic life, Olga Koch is rigorously systematic. Consequently, she's banned from dating website OkCupid, after abusing the platform to fill a gig.

"Yeah," she laughs guiltily. "I would start conversations, then three sentences in be like, 'do you want to meet at this specific place and specific time?' Someone either reported me or they clocked that I was sending the exact same message to dozens of guys."

A computer science graduate, Koch admits that her degree was important in shaping her thoughts "in a way that's very rigid and logical, seeing everything as cause and effect". Her show If/Then, following her Edinburgh Comedy Award newcomer nomination last year, "traces how I began thinking that way. And how, when it coincided with my first relationship, I tried to apply rigid logic to first love, something that is fundamentally not logical at all."

Like a coder at work, she builds an artificially intelligent boyfriend, an algorithm derived from the entirety of the input of her ex's email and WhatsApp messages, his Twitter and Facebook posts.

Applying scientific methodology to something as apparently mysterious as love is akin to what Harriet Braine explores with music. As co-host of The DesignSpark Podcast about technology with fellow comic Bec Hill and Dr Lucy Rogers, she's the composer of the show's myriad tunes and jingles. Several of these feature in her latest Fringe hour, Les Admirables, about the scientific pioneers Ada Lovelace, Hedy Lamarr, María Sabina, Grace Hopper and Valentina Tereshkova.

Challenged to "write within such niche parameters", she found parodying pop songs to be its own sort of experimentation and refinement. It's based on how familiar crowds are with a tune, how closely it mirrors the original and at what point they might intuit the parody. Yet while these parodies get the biggest laughs, she's now limiting them to short bursts, "because audiences actually prefer original songs," she explains. "[It's] tougher as it's harder to make them funny in the same way."

Much more than a springboard for great comedy, though, this difficulty of actually getting a scientific grasp on how we define creativity still eludes researchers. Indeed, it has preoccupied neuroscientist Dr Heather Berlin throughout her career. Defying measurement and easy definition, "the closest we can get [to defining creativity] is divergent thinking, thinking outside the box or making novel associations between ideas," she ventures. She references an Australian study, in which people given riddles to solve, temporarily had their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex inhibited, "the part of your brain constraining your thoughts so they're conforming to social norms". This suppression of their "inner critic" enabled them to think more creatively and complete the task.

Berlin, however, can look closer to home for her research matter. In her previous Fringe show, Off the Top, she analysed her comedy-rapper husband Baba Brinkman's brain function. That suppression of the inner critic is something Brinkman feels intuitively. "Learning to be a confident stage performer is just the process of telling your brain to shut up criticisms in real time, especially for freestyle rapping," he says. It's about achieving the state of "flow" characteristic of an MC or comedian when creativity is just pouring out of them, unchecked.

The couple's latest collaboration, Impulse Control, weighs up the positives and negatives of this impulsive thinking, from prefrontal cortex malfunctions (gambling addiction and OCD) to deliberate relinquishing of control in order to improvise.

Not only does the show express this tension itself—it's carefully scripted but allows for audience interaction—but it also mirrors their marriage. "I'm the prefrontal cortex. The more thoughtful control, the brake system, thinking about the future," Berlin says. "He's like the id. I plan things to a schedule. But he lives life by the seat of his pants. So there's this push and pull between us, similar to what's happening in people's individual brains."

That's not the only tension at work here, though. Berlin is only too aware that, historically, female scientists have been treated as more of an outlier than a white comedy-rapper.

"I've definitely faced obstacles and prejudice from being a woman in STEM," she reflects. "But I feed off it. The lower expectations are, the more blown away they are when you actually go 'look, I have something to say and I'm to be taken seriously'. I enjoy that dynamic and see it as an advantage."

The same goes for Koch. When she began comedy she was aware of the same pressures to confound stereotypes that she'd experienced as a female programmer. But while If/Then explores "being a woman in a mostly male field, be that comedy or computer science", she's conscious that as a student "I was significantly less of a feminist... having a ton of internalised misogyny.

"Today, I'm more confident. I made a really conscious decision not to see other women in my field as competition but those who understand my experience better than anyone else."

For Braine, history's marginalisation of female scientists is a creative headache too. Her show requires more setup and explanation than it would if it focused on say, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. "The main reason I've decided to use a lot of visuals as well as the songs is so that people know what these five great figures look like," she says. "I'm giving a little rundown of their lives.

"These amazing women. There's so much potential in science 'herstory'. It's a shift of focus onto the previously untold."