Doc Brown is a man with an array of talents, boasting successful careers as a comedian, a rapper and an actor. His rapping career spanned from 2000 to 2007, at which point he transitioned into TV and Film acting, stand-up comedy, screenwriting and children’s books. Most will know him for his successful stand-up career, as he has toured up and down the UK, as well as appearing on popular shows such as Russell Howard’s Good News, Comic Relief and Live at the Apollo. His stand-up career has also seen him tour extensively as the support act for Ricky Gervais. His comedic acting has lead to roles in TV shows like Channel 4’s The Inbetweenwers and Derek and BBC’s Miranda and Hunted. Doc Brown has built a strong following from children and young people, having starred and written the cult CBBC animation Strange Hill High, as well as creating and co-writing the BAFTA winning Four O’Clock Club, which is now in it’s fifth series. Most recently, Doc Brown can be seen in the return of David Brent, in his role in Life On The Road alongside Ricky Gervais. Excitingly, Doc Brown has also returned to music in recent years, with his latest releases available on Spotify. I am personally a big fan of Doc, and all of his work across all disciplines – so I was extremely excited to talk books with him. He didn’t disappoint; please enjoy my interview with the intelligent, hilarious and talented Doc Brown…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I usually say I’m a writer because people ask less intrusive questions than if you say Actor or Comedian. I hate nothing more than having to list stuff I’ve appeared on for someone until they finally go “oh yeah I’ve heard of that. My wife likes it. I’m not a fan.” Great, thanks. In reality though I’m an entertainer. But one who writes all his own shit.
I’ve just finished four volumes of Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor, which is a wildly entertaining prehistory of Hip Hop culture. Incredible achievement and still being written as we speak. Novel wise it’s The Sellout by Paul Beatty. I always like to have a non-fiction and a novel running concurrently. Too much of one thing in literature is pointless.
What’s your earliest memory of reading?
Being read Rosie’s Walk by Pat Hutchins by my Dad. It’s a picture book with no words so he just made it up and it was still always brilliantly funny. As for actually reading for myself it was probably Dirty Beasts, The Twits or The Enormous Crocodile by Roald Dahl, closely followed by my sister’s hand-me-down Judy Blumes.
If you could encourage young people to read one book in particular, what would it be?
Depends on the age. For 3-6 year olds I cannot recommend Not Now Bernard by David McKee and I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen enough. For 7 year olds I would say George’s Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl is an absolute must. For breaking all literary rules, I would further recommend The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle for the same age group. Also for 7 year olds the Clarice Bean series by Lauren Child is peerless, brilliantly funny and great to look at. For 8 – 10 year olds I’d say The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, The Witches by Roald Dahl, and pretty much anything by Michael Morpugo. Into the teens it’s a lot tougher because some are fine with adult books by 15, some aren’t. That said, I think The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon is a real age spanning masterpiece. I’d recommend that for any age from 10 years to adult. Quite a feat of writing to be able to do that.
What came first for you? Comedy? Acting? Rapping?
Rapping. Although I wanted to be an actor first, I remember being desperate to get a role in the school plays before I was old enough to be allowed, so like 5 or 6 years old. Acting was the first dream, I just never really believed it was possible for people like me. Which is a bit of a damning indictment of the industry isn’t it? The beauty of Rap was that anyone could just give it a go. You didn’t have to go to some poncey school or be recommended by some twat. You just rapped.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had?
I’ve had a few! Although it probably wasn’t the hardest I think I actually hated working at Next the most. Next Menswear Department, Marble Arch, around 1996. I really fucking hated every minute and everyone in there, staff and customers alike. Retail can very much kiss my arse.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring comedian?
Be as truthful as you can, be in the moment as much as you can and for god’s sake try to enjoy it. And don’t be shit.
Who would you say your three biggest comedic influences are?
Richard Pryor, Sean Lock and The Marx Brothers.
Do you read as much as you’d like to?
Yes. It’s something in my life I’m really proud of and a real stickler about. I never have less than two books on the go at once. It’s a life rule I gave myself in my teens and I’ve stuck with it for 20 years. One fiction, one non fiction. All the time, always. No magazines, no online blogs. Books. People are always a little surprised by my intelligence because I’m not an academic and I sound a little working class. Well I’m not an academic and I was raised working class but books were still a massive thing in my house, they were central. Everyone in my family was a voracious reader, that’s just how it was. So if I sound smart it’s not because of schooling or privilege, it’s because my vocabulary and insight has been beefed up by a lifetime of reading. My vocab’s the shit bruv, innit.
Oh man, too many to list. One thing I would say is crucial is to have range. It’s pure coincidence that at the moment I’m reading a novel by a black author that discusses black culture (The Sellout by Paul Beatty) and a non-fictional series that also discusses black culture Hip Hop Family Tree by Ed Piskor. Before that I was reading Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes (60’s psychological sci-fi) and Dylan on Dylan by Bob Dylan, selected writings of Bob Dylan. Variety is so key to expanding the mind of a creative person. You can’t afford to only be an expert in one area, because at some stage in your career you’re gonna be challenged in something that’s away from your comfort zone. I don’t think there’s any one book that would pin down everything you need to be successful in show business, although Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor definitely comes close. That book is essentially my bible. I turn to it in times of need and in quests for greater understanding, as well as in big decision-making. Richard laid bare his biggest mistakes in the hope that he and you, dear reader, could avoid making them again or even for the first time. A true inspiration, and of course, funny as fuck.
Is there a book that you’ve read more than once? What is it and why did you revisit it?
Without a doubt, Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Probably The Sisters Brothers by Patrick de Witt. I just can’t express what a rip roaring, exciting, edgy, philosophical, funny, compelling adventure story it is. It’s just bloody great. Can’t believe there isn’t a movie yet.
If you weren’t in comedy, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I wasn’t in showbiz I’d be in Youth Work. That’s what I did for ten years before I stepped on a stage. I have the experience, the qualifications and it was the only other job I’ve done that I thoroughly enjoyed.
What’s your favourite genre of book?
I’m a sucker for a smart thriller. There’s so many shit ones though. Someone recommend me a good one please!
What do you think a world without books would be like?
Like this: ” .”
Is there an author whose writing you’re such a fan of, that you’ll read everything they release?
My sister Zadie. Even though she’s a huge star, I still think she’s a little underrated, mainly because White Teeth was such a huge hit, the average consumer assumes nothing else she’s written could possibly be as good, but actually On Beauty and the new one Swing Time are superior in my opinion. I’ll also read anything by Adrian Tomine, Patrick de Witt, Dave Eggers, Roald Dahl and Jon Klassen.
Do you think digital books will ever completely replace real books?
No. I mean, if they did, the most important thing is that people still read and authors still get paid- as long as that continues to happen then I don’t really mind, but speaking as someone who was exclusively Kindle for nearly 3 years, I just prefer to have a book in my hands. The Kindle was brilliant for travel and late night reading (if you share a bed with someone you’ll know what I mean) but I stopped using it and returned to books for one very simple reason: I got no satisfaction from finishing. With a Kindle it’s harder to know exactly where you are in a story so there’s no real sense of progress and the when you finish? An automatic advert from Amazon and on to the next one. Not the most romantic of experiences. I love the process of physically adding the volume to my bookshelf after turning the last page, or bringing it to the pub and tucking it my mate’s pocket like “Trust me, it’s a good’n”. But that’s just me.
Probably The Circle by Dave Eggers. A timely reminder of the danger of corporate power and how fragile the modern world is and how susceptible we all are to mass deception and the illusion of happiness- plus the cynical packaging and selling of a perceived inner peace.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
As an adult, Pryor Convictions by Richard Pryor but as the most enduring image throughout my entire existence I would have to say The Twits by Roald Dahl because it was the first slightly longer form book I read, but it had such grown up concepts in it- the strains of marriage, emotional abuse, animal cruelty, attempted murder, the pursuit of happiness and the burden of misery. And it was funny as hell. Incredible achievement.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Where do I start?
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I want to read more about the history of Hollywood in particular and Los Angeles as a whole. I’d also like to read more about the emergence of graffiti art. I’ve just bought a massive book about the bombing of London during WW2 so will get into that soon too.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
Came and Went, Killed and Died.