A veteran of the seminal American stand-up scene of the 1980s, Brett Bickley has since set up in Budapest and spent the summer filming a series for Serbian TV. On Wednesday, 17 November, Brett does a comedy turn at the Down Under bar before heading up to Prague for a film shoot. We caught up with Brett as he was out walking his monolingual dogs.

Having made Budapest his home for the past three years, Brett Bickley is a regular on the burgeoning local comedy scene. In a career stretching back 40 years, Brett has appeared with the likes of Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld, opened for Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins, and had parts in hit films such as Batman and Men In Black II.

After a long stint in the States, Brett has swapped California’s Comedy Store for Budapest stages such as Davy Byrne’s Irish Pub, where he appeared last week, and Australian bar Down Under, where he performs as part of its regular Comedy Showcase! tomorrow, Wednesday, 17 November.

We Love Budapest: You’ve appeared at a lot of notable comedy venues across the States. Which was your most memorable gig – and how has stand-up changed over the years?

Brett Bickley: Wow! Considering 2021 is my 40th anniversary doing stand-up comedy professionally, that’s going back through a great deal of memories. I started at The Comedy Store in La Jolla, California and was performing there weekly for about a year before moving to Connecticut, about 15km outside of New York. That was in 1981. Pretty much just as comedy was beginning to skyrocket in the States. So, living between NYC and Boston, another incredible comedy town, I was in the right place at the right time.

There were so many amazing venues in those years. Plus, it was a time when so many American comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Denis Leary, Joe Rogan and Bobcat Goldthwait were starting to break big and I had the chance to open and work with them. I can remember standing at a comedy club urinal and looking over to see the legendary Rodney Dangerfield next to me. He noticed my cross earring and said, "Hey, kid. Nice religious artefact!", zipped up and walked out. An amazingly cool experience.

Comedy turns

I would have to say that comedy has changed on a few levels. First off, in the old days, comedy and comedians careers relied on performing live and becoming good enough to get your break on television. Now, with the internet, a comedian can become famous without ever setting foot on stage and performing live.

Also, comedy has become a real social hotspot these days. In the beginning, no-one worried about being politically correct. You went on and performed. If you were funny, people laughed. If you weren’t, they didn't. Now, it seems that comedy has become a social minefield. Heaven forbid, you say the wrong thing onstage and annoy the wrong people. Which is pretty apparent with what Dave Chappelle is experiencing these days with his latest Netflix special.

WLB: You’ve also opened for a few bands. How easy is it for a comedian to go out in front of a rock crowd and give his spiel when everyone’s pretty much just there for the main act?

BB: Yeah... That can be tough. I think what always worked in my favour was the fact that I'm 6’4’’, 225lbs and covered in tattoos. I do not look like someone you want to mess with when I’m on stage. Plus, I'm a major music geek. It’s my biggest passion in life, so I know what I am talking about when dealing with a rock audience. But, yeah. I was able to open for Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins when they were just starting out and playing in clubs, and for the amazing Allman Brothers.

The strangest experience I had was opening for Todd Rundgren. I arrived at the venue thinking it would be an ordinary gig. But, it turned out that Todd was touring promoting his album where he re-recorded his hits as bossa novas and they had the stage set up like a small tropical club with people sitting in chairs on the stage in front of the band. And, I was told to pretend, when I came out, that I was a comedian performing for just the people on stage and it was supposed to be somewhere in the tropics. I was to ignore the audience in front of the stage completely! Not exactly what I was anticipating.

WLB: What brought you to Europe – and how do you have to change your act if you know you’re addressing people whose first language may not be English, and who may not understand some of the more nuanced cultural references?

BB: What brought me to Europe... Why does a man do almost anything? A woman. (LOL). I was living in New Orleans when I met my now wife. She's born and bred here in Budapest. And, with her kids and career here, it just made more sense for me to relocate. So, I sold off my car and most of my belongings and shipped over some things, got on a plane and moved to Budapest.

In fact, we met online and met in person for the first time at the airport. Luckily, she liked me! I said to her, ‘What if I had got off the plane and you weren't attracted to me?’. She replied, ‘Well, if you were wearing socks and sandals, I would have walked away’. And, to be honest, I wouldn’t have blamed her.

Budapest actually has a very strong English comedy scene. So, that makes it easy to perform. Because, Hungarian? Unbelievably hard to learn! I've been here three years. I still only know the three words I learned the first day I arrived: igen, nem and köszönöm. That's it. 

Dogs like their owners

We have two dogs, Drisz and John Wick. Someone asked my wife why she speaks Hungarian to one dog and English to the other. She said, ‘That one is mine and he knows Hungarian. The other one is my husband’s, who is not smart enough to learn Hungarian, so his dog only understands English’.

WLB: How easy is it to source comedy material from life in Hungary?

BB: After living here for three years now, it's pretty easy, to be honest. I knew I was assimilated the day I came home and complained about all the American tourists blocking the sidewalks. I do kind of miss America but I love Budapest and have fallen in love with Europe, so I now understand the expat mentality people develop after living away from the States for any amount of time.

Corn... On pizza?!?

So, I think now that I consider Hungary home, it's easy to see things through different eyes than if I was just visiting. But, man! I cannot get used to putting corn on pizza! What is with that?!? I love corn but not on pizza!

WLB: What’s your take on the comedy scene in Budapest?

BB: Like I said before. Great scene here. Lots of venues have started up again after the lockdown which is fantastic. Trust me. After not being able to get on stage for a year and having to do shows on Zoom, it’s been fun.

Also, what makes the scene here so amazing is the fact that with Budapest being such an internationally diverse city, you have comedians from all over the world. Sid Moorthy is from India, Rupert Slade from England, plus there are a number of local Hungarian guys that are very funny.

WLB: Apart from the show at Down Under on 17 November, tell us something about your plans.

BB: Well, I spent most of the summer in Belgrade, a city I absolutely fell in love with, shooting season 3 of the Serbian TV series, Državni Službenik (‘Civil Servant’), so I’m excited waiting for that to start airing in a few months.

I’m also going to be heading to Prague to start filming a new movie which, interestingly enough, is set in the American Appalachia mountains. Other than that, I will still be out here performing in Budapest.

Event information

Brett Bickley
Down Under
1066 Budapest, Ó utca 37
Comedy Showcase! 
17 November
Admission: free