Doctor Brown interview
We speak to the award-winning silent clowning sensation
Doctor Brown is reinventing clowning and mime with a dark, unpredictable edge. Ben Williams speaks to this year's Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award winner
For more than 30 years the most prestigious gong in live comedy, the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award (formerly the Perrier Award), has been celebrating razor-sharp wit and formidable stand-up skills. In 2012, however, it wasn’t a punchy gag-man or whimsical storyteller who picked-up the trophy, it was Doctor Brown – the anarchic mime/clown creation of Los Angeles-born performer Phil Burgers.
Like an unnerving cult leader, Doctor Brown takes his audience on a hysterical, occasionally unsettling and celebratory journey in his show ‘Befrdfgth’ – it’s thrillingly unpredictable and gloriously funny. ‘He’s less aggressive towards his audience than he used to be,’ says Burgers of his alter ego, whose first solo Edinburgh Fringe show saw him intimately involving audience members: groping some, snogging others and smearing oil on to the chest of one.
His threatening vibe originally started as a protective mechanism for performing spots at rowdy stand-up gigs.‘Hecklers are always ready to put you down,’ he says, ‘so it was a way to put them down before they got me. I am slowly moving away from that alpha-maleness of comedy as it doesn’t interest me and is ultimately limiting to one’s freedom as an artist and human being.’
Burgers trained at the Ecole Philippe Gaulier, a prestigious clown school just outside Paris, whose alumni include Emma Thompson, Sacha Baron Cohen and Complicite founder Simon McBurney. His training shows: Burgers’s physical comedy skills are impeccable, extracting laughs from simple, subtle movements, like a raise of an eyebrow, rather than big visual punchlines. However, he says the most valuable skill he learned at the school was ‘to find pleasure in being a complete idiot’.
And this is where awards don’t help. Although the recognition can open doors to wider audiences and industry attention, that’s not important to Burgers. ‘It feels good, but awards can put you on a pedestal and pedestals are completely stupid,’ he explains. ‘Ultimately I want to celebrate the spirit of failure and being a piece of shit. To do this work, I have to I stay in the shit.’