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Friday, March 4, 2011
Doc Brown’s website has a section marked “memoirs”. At 33, the Cricklewood-born performer could be considered a little young for this. His CV, however, tells a different story.
As a youngster in Kilburn, Brown was fixed on making a Doc-shaped hole in the music industry, releasing three rap albums and continuing in his 20s to tour with DJ Mark Ronson performing in a band alongside Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. At the same time, he ran a music charity for the children of refugees.
At 29, disillusioned with music and unable to put the time he wanted into his charity work, he made an unconventional career move into comedy. As he wrote on his blog: “I asked myself: as a parent who suddenly owns a pair of Air Force Ones that are solely for garden use, does my future really lie in the frat boy world of Rap?”
Four years later and Brown can shed a more pragmatic light on his decision. “The music industry is po-faced, self-obsessed and vain. All these things are things I’ve grown out of. Comedy has kind of fit into that gap perfectly.”
His comedy career happened by accident. Drafted in to “make the script more realistic” on Lenny Henry’s Radio 4 show Rudy’s Rare Records, he continued in comedy, working on Radio 1 and taking stand-up shows to Edinburgh. Now he has a string of lucrative comedy writing gigs for adult and children’s radio and TV as well as continuing his stand-up career and making cameo appearances in big TV comedy shows like Miranda and The Inbetweeners.
“I have knocked the serious music on the head because comedy is a 24-hour job, you can’t just do it half-arsed,” says Brown. “For me, it’s all or nothing.”
Although the words roll off his tongue easily, this success has not come quickly, as the father of two knows. “When I made the change, I just got burned out. I was running a charity, but I was working there less and less. I decided to just concentrate on one thing. I dropped everything with a kid, a mortgage and a baby on the way – at some stage you need to take the risk” he says.
His risk has paid off and his feelings about it betray just why. “I have two kids to look after, their mum works full-time as well. Every now and then you think, ‘I’m too busy’, but at the same time you have got to think of the state of unemployment and just be glad of the work.”
In spite of his hard work, Brown’s appearance in the mainstream was initially met with criticism; he is the sibling of acclaimed novelist Zadie Smith. “People used to second guess me, but that’s gone now I’ve proved my own worth” he says.
Now Brown has bigger fish to fry than shrouded complaints about nepotism. “There is quite a lot of snobbery in comedy. It’s harder sometimes if you didn’t go to Cambridge and you weren’t in Footlights. You see it in casting quite a lot, sometimes it’s as if I can’t do anything else than the working-class black guy. I feel like I could play any part.
“The frustrating thing is that the people they usually cast are the Keira Knightleys of comedy. They have one character they can do well; I feel like I could be anyone.”
“For me, it’s a double-edged sword. A lot of these people have never worked in a proper job. I have always worked. I’m not from money but, at the same time, I have got a wealth of experience.”
Sometimes this experience is useful in a literal sense: as material. A 2009 stand-up gig at The Comedy Store saw Brown parody an entry he made into a talent competition as a serious 15-year-old rapper with a rap entitled ‘Don’t be racist’.
The semi self-deprecating and honest material that followed proved Brown was right not to be shy about delving into his past to retrieve laugh worthy situations. “Why should I not mention my past? In stand-up, you need to develop what’s funny and interesting about you.”
Self-proclaimed as “worthy”, his entry into the talent competition showed an early awareness of cultural divides which Brown now makes much of in his material. Ironically, this commentary on cultural division has seen him go into mainstream comedy, which often sees young black comedians fall by the wayside. “A lot of black comics struggle to cross over into the mainstream. It is true that the industry is biased in some ways, but sometimes it’s the material that isn’t right. For me, the material should transcend all of that stuff.”
o Doc Brown will perform ‘Unfamous’ at the Elgar Room of the Royal Albert Hall on March 16. Tickets are £15.