Who the Fuck is Roy Chubby Brown?
Blue comedian Roy Chubby Brown is one of the most successful comics in the UK but rarely in the press for comedy
There is a famous experiment where a man in a gorilla suit strolls through a basketball game. Concentrating on the match, the spectators don't notice the fake great ape. Those of us following comedy can suffer a similar kind of 'attentional blindness'. It's an affliction that renders a certain comedian invisible.
Roy Chubby Brown is as conspicuous as a gorilla on the loose. He wears a Biggles-style flying hat and goggles, a bow-tie and colourful patches on his suit. His short trousers dangle over suede moccasins. It isn't only in appearances that he stands out though. His shows are notorious for obscenity and tastelessness. From today's perspective, it seems to arrive through a 1970s portal; a decade when comedians casually quipped about 'the wife', 'the mother-in-law' and 'funny foreigners'. In a typical Brown routine he might express incredulity about the number of black millionaires in the UK, while simultaneously portraying black men as spear carrying savages.
While his unrepentant schtick eludes mainstream media attention, it hasn't deterred his fans. What's more, Brown isn't playing to some tiny crowd either. This is not some die-hard faction, furious that the jokes of yore fell out of fashion. Right now, in the Official Charts' Special Interest DVDs, Brown's ranks in the Top Ten. The Great British J**k Off sits with titles by Billy Connolly, Sarah Millican and Michael McIntyre. In the 1980s Brown sold thousands of cassettes and his sales only grew with videos and DVDs. His first video, Inside the Helmet, sold a quarter of a million copies. The tours often attract 150,000 fans in total and sometimes up to 350,000. This is all without any conventional publicity or promotion. Love him or loathe him, Roy Chubby Brown is a giant of British comedy.
Roy Chubby Brown: A timeline
Nuance is not a word we would associate with Brown, although there is more to him than a reputation for derogatory humour suggests. Born in 1945, he grew up in Grangetown, Teeside. His father worked at the local steelworks which dominate the town, but his home life was not always a happy one. His mother left the family 'to live with a guy who came to fix the washer' when Brown was nine. There followed spells in borstal and, as a young adult, prison. As he puts it, “In those days it was easy to become an arsehole in that environment.”
At 25, he read a book by American comedian Bob Hope which changed his outlook. Music and performance offered Brown a new lease of life. After teaching himself ukulele, piano and drums, he joined a band. A natural at patter between songs, Brown soon made the move from musician to comedian. It's hard to imagine now, but at this point his humour was clean-cut. Then, encouraged by his manager, he soon found he suited blue material. Straightforward swearing killed TV prospects but gave him his own distinctive style.
The rare appearances Brown has made in the mainstream seem fortuitous. In 1995, the band Smokie heard an explicit Dutch parody of one of their songs. They recruited Brown to help them record their own sweary version. Living Next Door to Alice (Who the F*** is Alice?) sold half a million copies and took Smokie and Brown to number 3 in the singles chart.
In 2000, he appeared in the cult TV series The League of Gentlemen, based on the 1997 Edinburgh Perrier Award-winning show. When adapted for television the grotesque town – a 'local town for local people' – became Royston Vasey, after Roy Chubby Brown's birth name. Brown endorsed this and played the town's Mayor. Playing along with the joke displays a self-awareness many wouldn't credit him with. These are traits which make another of his appearances on TV so compelling.
'Britain's Rudest Comedian'
In a Channel 4 documentary entitled Britain's Rudest Comedian, by Will Yapp, Brown comes across like any hard-working entertainer. He has a sharp mind that's always on the lookout for new material. He'll think nothing of getting out of bed and going to the office in the early hours of the day if he's had an idea for a joke. There's a piano in almost every room of his house, and this is out of musical passion and not excess. The portrait of his home and family life is a serene one.
Brown also displays perspective in areas he's infamous for. He's aware that the only black people he saw in 1950s Grangetown were from illustrations in outdated textbooks. Also, that his present experience of immigrants and asylum seekers derives from “what I read in the papers.” Yet, he seems to go on to confirm an overlap between his personal and onstage views in the documentary. It becomes more difficult to accept the view his shows are pure merriment. Or to defend that anyone questioning Brown's routines is 'easily offended'.
Stewart Lee has made the point that Brown's recordings escape public broadcasting constraints. But there is no heroism on Brown's part in circumventing some perceived censorship. It has nothing to do with bodies such as the BBC pandering to the 'easily offended' nor is it 'political correctness gone mad'. It's more that some of Brown's jokes rest on plain incorrect premises. For instance, Brown might start a joke with, “You can't say...”, only to announce words you can say, and which he is saying, to hundreds of thousands of fans. From there the jokes evolve with flawed logic, with punch lines unconnected to the set-up. As Lee says, due to Brown's “impeccable timing and delivery” it can all sound like a joke even if it doesn't work as one. Lee's main point is about broadcasting ethics, but Yapp and others also pick up on the significance of these pseudo-jokes.
Yapp notices Brown's routines based on asylum seekers elicit the cheering of a rally rather than mirth. The implication is that the absence of laughter throws into doubt these moments belonging in a comedy show. Brown counters that his audience would say, “it's a joke”, but that is exactly what Yapp says isn't happening. Journalist Yohann Koshy, in a superb Vice feature, also noted this aspect of the crowd's reaction, which becomes sinister if it evokes assault. 'It's not even a joke, just an image: a scene of slave-plantation-style brutalism. It's basically an incitement to racial violence. And it got a round of applause.'
Despite this, Brown doesn't seem to see his act as contentious in a political sense. He says: “I entertain lorry drivers, road sweepers, welders.” He later adds his audience is not “politically minded” and nor is he “instigating a riot.”
It might be some form of dissonance, but Brown does seem sincere in his view. This is at odds with a general perception. Before the EU referendum, the satirical site NewsThump published a spoof news story that the Leave campaign would soon wheel out Brown. But the real Brown is quieter. One thing there's been a lot of in the last year is politics, but Brown's social media streams are all friendly greetings and soft promotion of his tours. Stoking fears might be the outcome of what he does and he may disregard his obvious intelligence to do this. But, Brown does seem more all about the job than having some conscious political motive.
And, to a certain extent, this is more clear in other parts of his act. His material on men and women also rests on dated roles, but is in the comedic tradition of Donald McGill's bawdy seaside postcards. Men are randy sods but also tragic and ridiculous. Brown's appearance works well here. If he's moaning about his wife, the joke is at least partly on him. As he says: “You can't be serious looking like this.”
Roy Chubby Brown's fanbase
As for his fans, it is easy to assume they all share Brown's onstage prejudices especially given what Yapp and Koshy saw. It's useful to suspend assumptions though. Brown's following has caught the attention of academics.
In his book, A National Joke, Andy Medhurst identified a sense of belonging which Brown brings to his audience. This has roots in family life and growing up in local communities rather than some shared interest in xenophobia. In Comedy and Distinction, Sam Friedman – former chief at Fest Magazine – uncovers multi-faceted reasons people like Brown. An interview with a primary school teacher suggests she enjoys the jolt of disbelief about what Brown is saying, yet she can distance herself from the content. Background and current situation mingle with comedic taste in ways that are not immediately obvious.
It's striking that Brown tours to many locations which voted Leave, while Edinburgh Fringe comedians have noticed their tours map with the Remain vote. It's difficult to argue that Roy Chubby Brown isn't all the things his critics say he is, or that all his fanbase are going for comedy alone. But, in understanding Brown's endurance and fans it may illuminate the wider divisions unearthed over the last year.