Arnold Brown on the Fringe and his new podcast

The first stand-up to win the Edinburgh Comedy Award, Arnold Brown shares some comedy memories and talks about his new podcast Are You Feeling Funny?

Feature by Ben Venables | 30 Jul 2018
  • Arnold Brown

Arnold Brown had a misspent youth. "I mixed with the wrong people growing up", he says. And so it was that he became an accountant.

Brown was in the first wave of alternative comedians who changed the direction of British comedy. He performed at the Comedy Store on its opening night in 1979 and became – in 1987 – the first stand-up to win the Perrier Award (now simply, the Edinburgh Comedy Award) in Edinburgh. Brown even has a claim to being the first 'stadium comedian' in the UK, supporting Frank Sinatra at Ibrox Park in 1990. He's appeared in Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. And, ahead of his talk at The Stand's New Town Theatre, he's preparing to launch a new podcast Are You Feeling Funny? for which he is a comedy consultant with Lee, Helen Lederer and Paul Merton.

Yet Brown didn't start performing comedy until he was 42. The absence of an alternative stand-up scene during the 1960s and 70s kept him off the comedy books until the Comedy Store placed an open call for acts. "The side of my career that kept me sane," he says, "was I always used to be scribbling one-liners, cartoon ideas, even when I was in Glasgow."

Except for one cartoon published in Glasgow's Jewish Echo, he had little reward for his efforts. He kept up the habit, though, when he moved to London: "I used to work at Oxford Circus, round the corner from the BBC, and every Friday morning, for years actually, I took in one-liners before work. I was in training for the Comedy Store in May 1979 – always."

The Comedy Store in Soho took stand-up in a new direction. "It was a free for all. I'd never been on a stage in my entire life. I must have been off my head. I had one joke... and I was gonged off. But, I made up my remark about how I came back the next night, despite public demand."

Brown's style proved an asset, making him distinctive in a line-up of ebullient acts. Especially at the second Soho club, the Comic Strip. "My laid-back approach gave the night a contrast," Brown says, adding that "Rik and Ade, Dawn and Jennifer" were in their early 20s.

In 1983, he performed at the Edinburgh Fringe for the first time. Stand-up was beginning to establish a small presence, having grown year-on-year after Alexei Sayle and Tony Allen's appearance three years earlier. "I was at the Masonic Lodge with Norman Lovett and Helen Lederer. The main people in Edinburgh were still 'Oxbridge'. Somehow the tide changed, and it takes the energy of someone like Alexei to do that," he says.

Four years later, Brown picked up the Perrier Award for Brown Blues with jazz musicians Jungr and Parker. "When you're in something you don't always get the relevance or perspective until later on. When we won the Perrier it was very low-key, the reception was in a hotel in Charlotte Square and there was only about 100 people there. Some years later I opened the paper when Al Murray won. It was huge front [page] news." He jokes: "My timing wasn't so good there."

The Press clippings of the coverage Brown did attract were all preserved in a scrapbook kept by his sister, which only came into his possession when she passed away. "I only found out about it when my nephew gave me it," he says. His sister was always supportive: "She was the one in the family who came to the Frank Sinatra concert."

That night at Ibrox Park, Brown found himself performing to people finding their seats. "The reality wasn't fantastic," he admits. But he did manage to win the crowd over when he said he hoped Sinatra would open with "Fly me to Dunoon."

Brown is animated speaking about the new podcast, which has a strong line-up from the latest generation of comedians: "Jamali Maddix, Isy Suttie, Phil Wang, Adam Kay, Zoe Lyons," he says. "All fantastic. It's exciting. I like analysing comedy."

He's interested in how a comedian's heritage and lifestyle is now a natural part of who they are on stage. Brown was one of the few to do so in the early alternative scene. "It was part of my act, my emblem. Being Jewish and Scottish – it was two racial stereotypes for the price of one."

In Conversation with... Arnold Brown, The Stand's New Town Theatre (Grand Hall), Fri 24 Aug, 12pm, £12