Interview: Alfie Brown brings The Revolting Youth to 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Upcoming comedian on writing ambitious material, anger and Alexei Sayle
This article is from 2013.
The Alfie Brown comedy juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down. As he takes Brian Donaldson for a magical mystery tour across London, the young comic discusses anger, apathy and antlers
Alfie Brown is hugely apologetic. Not only did he arrive 45 minutes late for our interview in London, but he appears to have just driven us into the King’s Cross cement depot. ‘Did you see the second series of Homeland?’ he asks as we hurtle past massive lorries carrying, presumably, a whole load of cement. ‘This is just like a scene from that.’
But humbly apologetic he is, agreeing to do the interview en route to my next appointment. That just so happens to be with Alexei Sayle, who once upon a time cast Brown’s mum, Jan Ravens, in his BBC sketch show from the late 80s. All of his gentlemanly behaviour runs somewhat contrary to the impression others have given of Brown as an arrogant young fool, with, as one scathing reviewer put it, ‘all the intellectual rigour of Vicky Pollard’.
His star ratings for 2012’s Soul for Sale hour ran the full gamut, but even his most ardent critics would surely admit that he is doing something very few comics of his age (26) are even attempting. Brown would be the first to concede that his comedy has its fair share of rough edges, but that coarseness helps him to see through an awful lot of bull and take down those he feels are deserving of wrath.
‘Last year was quite an angry show because I was quite angry at the time,’ he states perfectly calmly − thankfully, given that he is still at the wheel. ‘I did a show the year before called The Love You Take which a grand total of zero people came to see, and which garnered a grand total of no press. Nothing happened. That made me angry and then I was told [by an influential promoter] that I should be doing the exact same thing that everyone else was doing.’ The same promoter’s advice included dropping any attempt at being intelligent from his act. ‘Of course there are flaws in my work but I didn’t want to take the soul out of it. I was doing something that I cared about.’
So this year, Brown is suggesting that he might be taking a more measured approach. He got married in February (having proposed on Christmas Eve) and there will inevitably be some material about that: ‘It’s basically impossible for a stand-up comedian to get married and not talk about it. It’s the great therapy that we all want.’
Given the largely positive reaction to last year’s show, The Revolting Youth has a lot riding on it. Brown is especially wary of falling into an all too familiar trap. ‘The temptation would be to make it an impersonation of last year’s show because that is the first thing that has really happened in my eight years of comedy that has gone well. It has made everything completely different and that’s great, but it would be a little stupid just to replicate that. Everybody who is shit is shit for that same reason: they have a bit of success and instead of progressing, they try to replicate that success and end up just being a slight impression of themselves. Like Frankie Boyle.’
To that end, Brown has adopted a whole new way of writing his hour. With Soul for Sale, he conceived a ‘sort-of script’ but he sought to work natural rhythm into it by writing it all out in verse. ‘This year, I’m writing it from the stage: I’m going up with ideas and talking about how I feel about them, but trying to get jokes from up there. I’ll stay away from the material for as long as possible and just talk, so a lot of the time I’m not being polemical. I think as long as you’re talking about things you care about and being honest about them, you can’t go far wrong. But I don’t have the same hatred of talking about myself that I used to have because of the joy I’ve found in listening to other people talking about themselves.’
As if to emphasise the point, he presses play on his CD and the voice of outspoken American stand-up Bill Burr fills the car. Burr was embroiled in controversy during 2012 over comments he made about the US alternative comedy scene, concluding that ‘nerds’ have helped take the thrill and danger out of stand-up by creating a ‘comedy womb’ where everything becomes just a little too safe.
Brown has some sympathy with that view. ‘There are all these alternative comedy weird nights with people going, “I’m wearing moose antlers and talking about shoes being on fire, because I haven’t written anything, I’m just keeping it real.” No, you’re not, actually. But when the moose-antler people do their moose-antler thing well, it can be brilliant. But to just be OK is tricking yourself into believing that you’re doing really well.’
We come to a halt in central London, a large sex aid rolling around at my feet on the floor of his Toyota Yaris. He reflects on the man I’m about to meet, someone who clearly left a great impression on a very young Alfie Brown: ‘When I was two, I watched Alexei Sayle’s Stuff and Thomas the Tank Engine. I thought Alexei Sayle was a superhero and that he didn’t exist. So when he came over to the house and I saw him at the door, I had to run away because I was scared. It would have been as weird for me if the actual Thomas the Tank Engine was in full size at the door. Maybe seeing him has stayed with me.’
Alfie Brown: The Revolting Youth, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 3–25 Aug, 9.10pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10). Previews 1 & 2 Aug, £6.