ARNOLD Brown, albeit packing a wit drier than a martini and sharper than a sherbet lemon, is the gentlest, most charmingly self-effacing of comedians.
I am quite sure he has no idea where he last left his own trumpet, and certainly seems disinclined to blow it. If ever he lets slip some impressive autobiographical nugget from his long and constantly surprising career, he does so with egregious modesty. I feel it behoves me to be a little immodest on his behalf.
Brown – alongside Alexei Sayle and Rik Mayall – was part of the original stock in the ground-breaking, genre-changing Comedy Store in the early 1980s. He won the Perrier Award in 1987, has appeared onstage with John Cleese and Steven Wright, on TV with Bernard Manning and Stewart Lee and on film with Ewan McGregor. He and Armando Iannucci (in what must be the comedy world’s most laconic double act) persuaded the Oxford Union that Scottish Comedians are Funnier than English Comedians and, after more than 30 years in the business he is still the only Jewish Scottish ex-accountant doing what he always refers to as “the comedy”.
We are taking tea in Patisserie Valerie with Rory Bremner and discussing, with reference to Chic Murray, the problem female comics have with being “droll” and, with reference to Michael McIntyre, the current trend for today’s comics to play massive stadium spaces.
“I’ve played a stadium” murmurs Brown. “When I opened for Frank Sinatra”. Bremner does a wholly convincing impression of a man whose lower jaw has just detached itself from the rest of his face. “Ibrox Park,” Brown says, straining a second cup from the pot. “It went… reasonably well”. He smiles.
Bremner had been on Brown’s wish list of guests for the chat show he is doing at the Glasgow International Comedy Festival. Sadly, Bremner is unable to do it and is hugely apologetic. He has to rush off to address The British Council and Arnold and I are left to continue the discussion of the trajectory of comedy in today’s competitive environment. “It’s a commodity now,” says Brown, brows quivering, “it is being commercialised… privatised.” There is a thoughtful, Arnold Brown-ish pause. “And is the Labour Party complaining about that? No!” The brows knit and the eyes twinkle. It is pretty much a killer comedy combination. “And what about this tendency to talk about… anal sex and paedophilia? And Down’s Syndrome?” Another pause. “I don’t think we talked about that”. He sighs “It leaves you nowhere to go. Except nihilism”.
He has an ambivalent attitude to the relationship of comedy to today’s media. A couple of years ago he had been doing a (sold out) show at The Stand in Glasgow (“it had gone pretty well…”). Leaving, he saw that there were people “queuing round the block… and I asked who they were queuing to see… Limmy.”
“Ah, online sensation,” I nod knowingly.
“Yes, I’d never heard of him. For someone who has been doing the comedy for as long as me… for donkey’s years… it was like the arrival of the printing press.” He looks up earnestly. “I thought, what will this mean for comedy? I felt for me, it was the writing on the wall… you come back and… people have moved on to different things.”
For Brown “the real comedy” is still “the live comedy, the stand up comedy”. Pure and simple. And, preferably, meaningful. Over the next 15 minutes of our conversation, it is quite possible that Jeremy Hardy’s ears were not just burning, but probably spontaneously combusted.
Brown is a huge fan of the man, his politics and his comedy. “I would never say this to his face, but I would compare him to Bill Hicks.” Hardy was one of Brown’s guests on the chat show last year. In an ideal world, I ask him, who would you want to chat to? “Kevin Bridges” he says, somewhat surprisingly. “And Dylan Moran.”
There is much that is surprising about Brown. A fleeting mention of Frankie Boyle (“why do you think he is he so angry?”) leads to the mention of the fact that Boyle is headlining a Stand Up For Palestine gig at the festival. And now it is my turn to do an impression of someone whose lower jaw has detached itself from the rest of her face. “I’m Jewish,” says Brown, “and so I would never take part in something like that. I’m always on the side of the Jewish thing.” He smiles. “I have a Jewish heart.”
From the very start with Sayle (“he really only made one reference to being Jewish”), through the explosion of alternative comedy with Ben Elton (“he never once mentioned being Jewish”), for Brown his Jewishness was always important. His main comedic influence was, he says, Woody Allen. The angst, he specifies. The self-analysis. He went to see one of his comedy heroes recently – Jackie Mason. He went backstage. He talked to Mason. Mason’s routine about the psychiatrist, and Woody Allen’s piece on the same topic are, opined Brown, probably the funniest in comedy. “You think Woody Allen is as funny as me?” demanded Mason.
As someone who spent four years as the “token shiksa”, in the law faculty of Glasgow University I challenge him about what he agrees can be a self-imposed “ghetto mentality”. He tells me about going to New York with Craig Hill and Rhona Cameron for Tartan Week. They did a gig. It all went very well. After the show a couple came up to him. “They said they’d enjoyed the show but wanted to know why I went on so much about being Jewish. ‘Because I am,’ I said. Then they said, ‘But in New York everyone is Jewish!’”
Arnold has a passion project, born of what he gently refers to as his “obsession with the Jewish thing”. He wants to collaborate with Scottish comic-book genius Mark Millar on a work of what sounds close to comedy genius… The Joke Kaballah. Brown is already 7,000 words in to a revelation which began (he tells me) when his uncle went to see Danny Kaye perform and subsequently had an out-of-body experience in which the Comedy Angel told him to go to New York and form a Joke Kaballah not just to nurture Jewish comedians but to find Jewish scientists who could build the perfect comedian.
Just as I think Brown could not possibly be any more surprising, a charming lady arrives at our table and embraces him. She is Caroline, I am informed as we order more tea. She illustrated the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I discover. Which is lovely.
She is here, I further discover (only because Brown goes to the loo) because she is illustrating a children’s book which Brown is writing with Nigel Planer’s brother. Dolphins Don’t Eat Pancakes was Brown’s idea. “When I saw one of those ‘Adopt a Dolphin’ adverts and I thought how disappointed some couples must be,” he says. The book has been eight years in the making. If you are considering a pregnancy, it is most certainly something to put on your Amazon list.
When I talk to Brown about his success, he refers me to Leonard Cohen, who said that “success is survival”: “And survival means”, he twinkles, “that you get a documentary made about you.”
Needless to say, Brown has plans afoot for that too. Jes Benstock is lined up as director. All they need is a budget and a broadcaster. Look, STV, the man is a national treasure. For goodness’ sake, Channel 4, it has to be better than another single episode of Hit The Road Jack. I for one look forward to seeing it.
Now Arnold and Caroline are perusing a manuscript and I leave. “You might just mention we’re looking for a budget…” he says. I did, Arnold.
lArnold Brown and guests will perform comedy and discuss the serious side of funny business at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, from tomorrow, 30 and 31 March, as part of Glasgow International Comedy Festival