Life is filled with ups and downs, joy and pain.
Bill Arnold sees the contrasting experiences as dance partners. Usually, says the comedian, magician and writer, he has “felt the pain and then looked for the lighter [side].”
The pain in Arnold’s life was evident almost from the beginning. His father died when he was young; he lost his best friend when he was 13; the uncle he was named after and who played a significant role in helping to raise him died when Arnold was just 12.
But through that pain—and the normal pain associated with life—Arnold has developed a career of entertaining people and giving them a glimpse into the unfettered joy all of us desire.
The realization that Arnold had a gift for making people laugh was evident early.
“The comedy gift began when you grow up with four sisters and realize that comedians are just trained observers,” he said. “So you learn a lot about comedy just by observing and listening. You grow up with four sisters and may not get a word in edgewise, but you gain perspectives. Then I found I could make my sisters laugh. That’s always a good starting point—when you take people who are close to you and your humor or your style amuses them. And you go, ‘OK, that’s good.’”
Yet that gift for making people laugh didn’t immediately lead to a career in comedy.
After high school, Arnold attended the University of Minnesota.
“My aspiration [was] to finish,” he said. “I just thought that’s something I guess I want to have done. I don’t want to do it, but I want to have done it.
“I majored in not going to class,” he continued. “When that major ended up going nowhere, I ended up in Family Social Science because I thought it would be interesting to be a marriage and family counselor. But that involved a lot more school, which I didn’t like in the first place and a lot of sitting on my butt, which I didn’t like doing either.”
During college, however, Arnold got a taste for performing in front of people. A friend owned a Green Mill restaurant in the 1970s, and Arnold, who immediately took to magic when he first learned illusions at the age of 19, asked his friend if he could do close-up magic for patrons as they waited for their food.
Arnold said: “You have such a fan base, and they wait 40 minutes for pizza when the pizza ovens are all loaded up. Why don’t you give them 10 minutes of me while they’re waiting to get their food?”
The friend agreed.
“I remember when I first started I was trying to introduce myself at the table,” Arnold said. “‘I’m here compliments of the management and for the next 10 minutes, I can put a little show on for you.’ They would always say ‘Yes’ and after about three or four months, all I did were request tables. The waitress would say, ‘Table 6 is here to see you. Table 4 is here to see you.’”
The money he earned during those years helped pay for college.
But when he finally earned that elusive degree, Arnold said he treated it like a “bowling trophy” and took a run at the entertainment industry, where his skills and interests made for a better fit.
Doing something ‘anti’
Growing up in Edina—something Arnold jokes about as something his parents achieved and that he just “lived with them”—he said he felt a desire to pursue a career that was what he called “anti.”
“Growing up in Edina, all my friends were going to law school or medical school or business school,” he said. “They were going to do this or that, and everybody is going to be conquering the world. I was feeling ‘anti.’ This was anti—anti-food, anti-clothing, anti-money, anti-friends ….”
A real opportunity to be “anti” took flight when Arnold drove out to Lake Tahoe, Nevada, and got a chance to train under a card connoisseur. He spent the next nine years there.
“Lake Tahoe is a difficult place to live because it’s a place where people go to party like crazy for the weekend,” he said. “You kind of leave your manners at home and go to Tahoe. That’s the people I’m around all the time. A lot of people are there trying to find themselves. I was not trying to find myself. I’d been found.”
After nine years in the tourist and casino town, Arnold was feeling burned out.
On a Monday, he prayed, “I need to get out of here.”
On Thursday night, he was working and decided to go to the bar to get his coffee, instead of the restaurant where he normally went.
Arnold was holding a deck of cards and a guy at the bar said to him, “Show me your pass.”
This meant the guy wanted to see Arnold’s skill level with the cards.
Arnold said to man, “Oh, you must know magic.” The guy said he did and that he owned Magic Island. Ten minutes after Arnold got him a table, he was booked for a month in Newport Beach, California.
“From there, I got down to the last weekend and I didn’t know what I was going to do, because I really had this gig and then nothing,” Arnold said. “I remember that weekend Penn and Teller came and saw my show. Then the other owner of the Magic Island came that next day—my last day—after I had said again, ‘Lord, what next?’”
Arnold was offered the head close-up magician position at a new club in Houston, Texas.
The idea of being “anti” was seemingly taking off.
Coming back home
After his last tour with Magic Island, however, Arnold came back home and again asked, “OK, what now, Lord?”
“What now” appeared to be getting into the comedy scene.
He got connected with The Rib Tickler, a comedy club in Minneapolis during the 1990s.
“I ended up emceeing for pretty much five years down there, which is like going to graduate school in comedy,” he said. “Because every night on stage there is a headliner back then during the surge of comedy who are basically pretty big stars today. My first week down there where I was the middle act—I wasn’t the emcee, I was the middle opening act—the headliner that week was Dana Carvey.”
But during this time, something else was brewing in Arnold’s career, something that would leave a strong mark on Twin Cities’ audiences and audiences around the country.
In 1991, Arnold met comedian Bob Stromberg at a National Youth Workers Convention event in Chicago. On the last night of the event, Stromberg and Arnold each did 15-minute comedy sets.
“Bob loved what I did, and I loved what he did,” Arnold said. “And he said he was moving to Minnesota.”
Michael Pearce Donley was the musical director at the time for a Sunday night nationally syndicated Christian radio show out of Northwestern. Donley got to hear Stromberg’s comedy on the show and liked it, and Stromberg enjoyed Donley’s musical abilities.
“So we had this mutual society of admiration going on,” Arnold said.
The three eventually got together in 1995 at the Good Earth in Roseville and basically said, “Wouldn’t it be fun to try to do something together?”
That meeting and that idea eventually became “Triple Espresso,” which has been seen by nearly two million people since it launched in 1996. The show ran continuously in Minneapolis and San Diego for more than 10 years and has been performed in six countries and in three languages: English, German and Flemish.
“The storyline was we need it to happen in a location,” Arnold said. “‘We don’t want it to be a nightclub,’ or ‘We don’t want it to be something too corny,’ and coffee shops were emerging and getting more popular. We liked the idea of caffeine. We liked the idea of projecting into the future where coffee shops would have live entertainment in them.”
The trio also wanted to use the best 10 minutes from each of their solo acts and put them in a show and “weave a storyline through them,” Arnold said.
“We wanted the show to be a two-hour vacation from their life,” Arnold said. “Because we always thought when you go to the theater, it’s most fun when you have fun. Because there is a lot of heavy baggage in theater today. There are a lot of very serious, dark subjects. Theater is basically kind of a dark place in American culture, and we wanted to bring light to it.”
That idea of giving people a two-hour vacation from their lives also has a healing element to it.
When they were sitting around a table at Good Earth sipping coffee nearly two decades ago, the trio had no idea how successful the show would become.
After each show, the three performers meet the audience in the theater lobby as they are exiting.
“We’d always have people coming up and saying, ‘Oh my goodness. You just gave me two hours of a cancer-free life,’” Arnold said.
One marriage counselor, Arnold said, used to send couples who had forgotten how to laugh together to the show. A few even cited Triple Espresso as a turning point in their relationship.
After doing more than 3,200 performances with Triple Espresso, Arnold rarely takes the stage anymore. If and when he has to, however, he doesn’t need to take out the script.
“The less you think about [the lines], the better off you are,” he said.
Today, Arnold helps charitable organizations raise funds by putting on events, and he works corporate events, where his comedy and magic skills take center stage.
He also co-hosts a weekly radio show, along with George Fraser, on Faith Radio—heard locally on Sundays at 5 p.m. on AM 900—called “Real Recovery.”
“It’s recovery from addictions, which is ironic because I’ve never done drugs or alcohol in my life,” Arnold said. “But our premise is basically everyone who is a Christian is in recovery because we were once sinners. We all have … we manufacture idols, and they occupy space in our heart and we have to make sure that we deal with those.”
Even from an early age, Arnold wanted to use laughter to give people a chance—including him—to look at the brighter side of life. For him the deaths of so many loved ones early on almost made laughing a necessity in his life. That same commitment to making people laugh still propels Arnold many years later.
“I always want people to feel good about what they laughed at,” he said. “Because that’s the kind of stuff that kind of gets in people’s bones. It sticks with them. It’s like a little pharmacy of chemicals that you have in your head that gets accessed when you laugh about something and you feel good about it. And then all of a sudden these endorphins get released.”
Learn more at www.billarnoldcomedian.com.
— by Scott Noble