âHow do you reconcile the fact that you donât sound like a thug, but you look a bit like one?â youâd think twice before asking Queensland comic Rob Brown.
Robâs a comedian whoâs been around for a good eight years but prior to making comedy his full-time occupation heâd 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 youâve thought twice, when youâre safely interstate, on the other end of a phone line, you might even have the courage to ask him.
âI donât know,â Rob laughs. âThere are not a lot of gifts in looking like everyone whoâs ever appeared on Australiaâs Most Wanted,â he admits. âI 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. Itâs a gift.â
At 41, Rob says, a smack in the mouth might leave him bedridden for a couple of days. So itâs good he can âpunch onâ, I reckon. âWell,â he reasons, âit canât hurt, can it.â Only the other guy, Iâm guessing. Butâisnât that at odds with the comedy career? Shouldnât a comedian be more of a peacemaker?
âOh, look,â he explains, adopting a kind of âthere really is a simple explanation to thisâ tone of voice: âI think there are plenty of peacemakers out there, mate; I was there for the cash. I wasnât there for any individual, nor was I there to steal oil. I was there because employers were paying me incredibly large sums of money.â
Well, you canât argue with Robâs logic. Or honesty. At the time, he adds, he was also âon the back end of a divorceâ, so behaved in the manner of men confronted with such a situation: âWe 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.â
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 âprisons are far more violent and aggressive on TV than they ever are in real lifeâ. Most people in prison, he says, are there to sentence and then go home. âTheyâre not overly interested in prison officers. Theyâre 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 donât get outâ¦â Still, Rob did serve on the riot response team; Iâd hate to have been the riot requiring his response.
So how did someone who â letâs continue being blunt â looks like he would have been the carnival strong man last century, end up being a modern-day clown?
âI think itâs fair to say Iâve been an idiot all my life,â Rob insists. âI have extracted great joy making people laugh ever since I was a child â sometimes to my own detriment, mind you. It hasnât always been pleasant for me. But Iâve enjoyed making my friends laugh, my family laughâ¦ sometimes complete strangers! Itâs what I do.â One such friend insisted Rob âhad to get on stageâ.
âIâll tell you what,â Rob told him, assuming heâd never hear about it again: âyou organise me a gig, Iâll go do itâ. Two weeks later, Rob had a gig. And the kind of fear you get if youâve never been on stage in front of an audience that actually expects you to be funny. âI almost soiled myself,â Rob admits. âIt was terrible.â The thought of it, that is. Because Rob Brownâs quelled prison riots and deployed security forces in the Middle East. He not only coped â he had an awesome gig.
âIâve ever really had a bad gig, actuallyâ Rob confesses. âWell,â he considers. âThere was a corporate gig where they said, âWe donât have a microphone. Or a stage. Or lights. And the audience will be standing around you.ââ Turns out Rob Brown was one of the countryâs 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, âWhat did he say?â
âYou know what?â Rob assures me. âYouâll find Iâm a lot funnier if you can actually hear me.â
Driven to comedy
For Rob, one of the driving factors was the desire never to work again. âThat's why I do comedy: âIf you do what you love, you never have to work a day in your life.â Thatâs very, very true. I have a friend who loves heroin and never worked a day in his life. He lives in a dumpster.â While some people are very, very good at working, Rob isnât 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 whoâs six-foot-three and built like the proverbial brick sh*t house when heâs caught goofing off?
âThat's the premise I worked on,â Rob laughs. âThat works for me.â Most people, he reasons, enjoy a laugh. And itâs a matter of being tactful and respectful. Although, he admits, he has lost a job because of his sense of humour.
âI was working for a friend who owned a fish and chip shop. I was only there casually. He said, âI need you to help me out, but I need you to be serious because this is my livelihood.â I said, âMate, Iâm not an idiotâ.â That afternoon, a customer came in â âquite a snobby woman with a small dog in a bag under her armâ â and said, âcan you tell me a fish that has absolutely no bones?â Rob's answer: âYep. Jellyfish. Whatâd I win?â For that bit of foolishness, Robâs mate sacked him. Well, says Rob, he was sacked either for being funny, or for giving the wrong answer. âI think what the woman wanted was cuttlefish!â he explains.âHarsh. Harsh but fair. I was asked a question and I obviously got the answer wrong.â
Indeed. But look at the bright side â getting the answer right, mightâve ensured that heâd 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, Robâs performed in seven countries this year: Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, England, Ireland, US, New Zealandâ¦ âAnd I love the fact that I can come home and tell stories about my travels,â he says. âI donât know that itâs made me a better comic, but it has made me a better performer.â
Part of what being Australian is all about, Rob reckons â and it sounds like he was reminded of this on his travels â is being able to take the piss, with a great deal of compassion. And heâs right. Thereâs no doubt weâre a nation of piss-takers and, generally speaking, Australians do pathos better than most other nationalities. We can be sad and funny.
âIâm caring for a friend of mine whoâs dying of cancer,â Rob says. âShe only has probably three or four weeks left to live. Iâve 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 herâ¦ she goes, âI just wish someone could give me some good news!â I said to her, âWell look at it this way: you can now buy yogurt with a lifetime guaranteeâ. 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.â
Before we know it, weâve hit the âheavyâ stuff. But weâre here now, so why not make the most of it, I reckon.
âCan comedy change anything?â I ask.
âComedy can change everything,â Rob insists. âIt doesnât matter what the subject is, youâve got to be able to laugh at it. And itâs a matter of laughing at it respectfully; itâs not a matter of laughing at a person; youâre laughing at a situation. And thereâs a world of difference between the two.â
So, essentially, nothingâs off-limits if you know how to deal with it. âAs long as youâre funny, as long as people laugh, youâve gotten away with it.â
Good point. Because audiences differ. The good comic can gauge the audience and know how to get it to a point where the outrageous âtruthâ, in form of a humorous punchline, can broach an important topic and get a new, unusual or unpopular message across â even if it is only to be considered for the time it takes to lead to laughter. But if a comic canât get the audience to go with them â for whatever reason (lack of experience on the part of the comic; lack of experience on the part of the audience) â itâs time to abandon that joke and try another.
âExactly. 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 canât.â
I reckon Rob could pretty much say whatever he wants to whomever he chooses. After all: the big donât argue. But that wouldnât necessarily make him funny. Part of what does make him funny, an instant âlikeabilityâ, 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.
âThereâs a huge dichotomy there,â Rob concurs. âUsually, 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 theyâre not going to be very strong.â
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. âTheyâre always telling me: this hurts and that hurts and my back hurts and my shoulders hurtâ¦ Iâm frightened to stop going, in case I fall apart.â