“How do you reconcile the fact that you don’t sound like a thug, but you look a bit like one?” you’d think twice before asking Queensland comic Rob Brown.
Rob’s a comedian who’s been around for a good eight years but prior to making comedy his full-time occupation he’d worked within the prison system, trained police in Iraq and security forces in Afghanistan. Which is an interesting proposition for comedy. He looks as though he could pretty much quash a prison insurrection or deploy troops single-handedly. So even though you’ve thought twice, when you’re safely interstate, on the other end of a phone line, you might even have the courage to ask him.
“I don’t know,” Rob laughs. “There are not a lot of gifts in looking like everyone who’s ever appeared on Australia’s Most Wanted,” he admits. “I did a degree in criminology, and I am educated, and I can read, and I can write and I can think. It does conflict with the way I look. But thankfully, I can punch on as well. It’s a gift.”
At 41, Rob says, a smack in the mouth might leave him bedridden for a couple of days. So it’s good he can “punch on”, I reckon. “Well,” he reasons, “it can’t hurt, can it.” Only the other guy, I’m guessing. But—isn’t that at odds with the comedy career? Shouldn’t a comedian be more of a peacemaker?
“Oh, look,” he explains, adopting a kind of ‘there really is a simple explanation to this’ tone of voice: “I think there are plenty of peacemakers out there, mate; I was there for the cash. I wasn’t there for any individual, nor was I there to steal oil. I was there because employers were paying me incredibly large sums of money.”
Well, you can’t argue with Rob’s logic. Or honesty. At the time, he adds, he was also “on the back end of a divorce”, so behaved in the manner of men confronted with such a situation: “We do become a little distressed and angry, and thankfully for me, I was given an opportunity where I could go away, earn good money, and get away from the situation.”
What Rob did to earn good money, while getting away from the failed marriage situation, was spend 18 months training 22,000 national policemen in Iraq before spending another four training static security teams (the ones that guard buildings and the like) in Afghanistan.
As for the ten years he spent working in prisons prior to that, he assures me that “prisons are far more violent and aggressive on TV than they ever are in real life”. Most people in prison, he says, are there to sentence and then go home. “They’re not overly interested in prison officers. They’re not overly interested in anything, really. They just want to do their time, get on with it, and move on. And most of us can respect that; society doesn't care what they do, really, as long as they don’t get out…” Still, Rob did serve on the riot response team; I’d hate to have been the riot requiring his response.
So how did someone who – let’s continue being blunt – looks like he would have been the carnival strong man last century, end up being a modern-day clown?
“I think it’s fair to say I’ve been an idiot all my life,” Rob insists. “I have extracted great joy making people laugh ever since I was a child – sometimes to my own detriment, mind you. It hasn’t always been pleasant for me. But I’ve enjoyed making my friends laugh, my family laugh… sometimes complete strangers! It’s what I do.” One such friend insisted Rob “had to get on stage”.
“I’ll tell you what,” Rob told him, assuming he’d never hear about it again: “you organise me a gig, I’ll go do it”. Two weeks later, Rob had a gig. And the kind of fear you get if you’ve never been on stage in front of an audience that actually expects you to be funny. “I almost soiled myself,” Rob admits. “It was terrible.” The thought of it, that is. Because Rob Brown’s quelled prison riots and deployed security forces in the Middle East. He not only coped – he had an awesome gig.
“I’ve ever really had a bad gig, actually” Rob confesses. “Well,” he considers. “There was a corporate gig where they said, ‘We don’t have a microphone. Or a stage. Or lights. And the audience will be standing around you.’” Turns out Rob Brown was one of the country’s best-paid buskers that night. But only the people standing closest to him knew he was also the funniest. People three rows back, and beyond, who could hear the people laughing down the front, were constantly asking, “What did he say?”
“You know what?” Rob assures me. “You’ll find I’m a lot funnier if you can actually hear me.”
Driven to comedy
For Rob, one of the driving factors was the desire never to work again. “That's why I do comedy: ‘If you do what you love, you never have to work a day in your life.’ That’s very, very true. I have a friend who loves heroin and never worked a day in his life. He lives in a dumpster.” While some people are very, very good at working, Rob isn’t one of them. But given that there was a time before comedy (B.C.) when he had to work, did his comedic disposition ever get in the way? Or did being the big, muscular guy mean he was allowed to get away with being the clown when he mood took him? I mean, what exactly is the boss gonna do to a guy who’s six-foot-three and built like the proverbial brick sh*t house when he’s caught goofing off?
“That's the premise I worked on,” Rob laughs. “That works for me.” Most people, he reasons, enjoy a laugh. And it’s a matter of being tactful and respectful. Although, he admits, he has lost a job because of his sense of humour.
“I was working for a friend who owned a fish and chip shop. I was only there casually. He said, ‘I need you to help me out, but I need you to be serious because this is my livelihood.’ I said, ‘Mate, I’m not an idiot’.” That afternoon, a customer came in – “quite a snobby woman with a small dog in a bag under her arm” – and said, “can you tell me a fish that has absolutely no bones?” Rob's answer: “Yep. Jellyfish. What’d I win?” For that bit of foolishness, Rob’s mate sacked him. Well, says Rob, he was sacked either for being funny, or for giving the wrong answer. “I think what the woman wanted was cuttlefish!” he explains.“Harsh. Harsh but fair. I was asked a question and I obviously got the answer wrong.”
Indeed. But look at the bright side – getting the answer right, might’ve ensured that he’d still be frying fish and chips and having to be nice to snobby women with dogs in handbags. Instead of travelling the country and the world, doing comedy. As it turns out, Rob’s performed in seven countries this year: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, England, Ireland, US, New Zealand… “And I love the fact that I can come home and tell stories about my travels,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s made me a better comic, but it has made me a better performer.”
Part of what being Australian is all about, Rob reckons – and it sounds like he was reminded of this on his travels – is being able to take the piss, with a great deal of compassion. And he’s right. There’s no doubt we’re a nation of piss-takers and, generally speaking, Australians do pathos better than most other nationalities. We can be sad and funny.
“I’m caring for a friend of mine who’s dying of cancer,” Rob says. “She only has probably three or four weeks left to live. I’ve known her since primary school, and I love her dearly. She said to me the other day, while she was getting all these negative reports back from the doctor of how the cancer is now in her liver and her lymph nodes and her… she goes, ‘I just wish someone could give me some good news!’ I said to her, ‘Well look at it this way: you can now buy yogurt with a lifetime guarantee’. She thought that was hilarious. Now, admittedly, the rest of her family fell over, but she thought it was hilarious. That's all that matters.”
Before we know it, we’ve hit the ‘heavy’ stuff. But we’re here now, so why not make the most of it, I reckon.
“Can comedy change anything?” I ask.
“Comedy can change everything,” Rob insists. “It doesn’t matter what the subject is, you’ve got to be able to laugh at it. And it’s a matter of laughing at it respectfully; it’s not a matter of laughing at a person; you’re laughing at a situation. And there’s a world of difference between the two.”
So, essentially, nothing’s off-limits if you know how to deal with it. “As long as you’re funny, as long as people laugh, you’ve gotten away with it.”
Good point. Because audiences differ. The good comic can gauge the audience and know how to get it to a point where the outrageous ‘truth’, in form of a humorous punchline, can broach an important topic and get a new, unusual or unpopular message across – even if it is only to be considered for the time it takes to lead to laughter. But if a comic can’t get the audience to go with them – for whatever reason (lack of experience on the part of the comic; lack of experience on the part of the audience) – it’s time to abandon that joke and try another.
“Exactly. Material is material. Some materials are really good to wear; some are good to have on furniture. There are some things you can say to certain audiences, and some things you can’t.”
I reckon Rob could pretty much say whatever he wants to whomever he chooses. After all: the big don’t argue. But that wouldn’t necessarily make him funny. Part of what does make him funny, an instant ‘likeability’, is that disjunction between the way he looks and the way he talks. We expect intelligent guys to be weeds, and tough guys to be meat-heads.
“There’s a huge dichotomy there,” Rob concurs. “Usually, if someone can lift heavy things, you expect them to be retarded; if they can actually read a book from start to finish and not fall asleep or fall over or lose the plot, then they’re not going to be very strong.”
Although, he lets me in on a little secret: the only reason Rob continues to maintain his musclebound exterior is because all of his friends his age have gotten to the point in life where everything hurts. “They’re always telling me: this hurts and that hurts and my back hurts and my shoulders hurt… I’m frightened to stop going, in case I fall apart.”