To understand him means reading between the lines—the one-liners, that is. Bill Arnold likes to steer the conversation one way, toward humor. But to truly appreciate his punch lines, one needs to understand the set-up. Comedy accessorized with an element of pathos isn’t a new formula, and Arnold’s comedic genesis is no different.
Born in Minneapolis, raised in Edina, Arnold may be best known as co-creator and co-star of Triple Espresso...a highly caffeinated comedy. The long-running show tells the story of three men, “whose bid for showbiz fame and fortune ended in four minutes of magnificent failure on national television,” the website notes. The production has played to more than two million people in over 50 cities and six countries since it opened more than 20 years ago. Arnold also works as a comedian, comic-magician and emcee for clients, including Cargill, 3M, Dairy Queen, General Mills and The Salvation Army, to name a few.
Before he was the comedic man about town, Arnold was the boy, raised in a home that suffered repeated loss through death. By the time his mother was 52 years old, she’d lost three husbands; the first was Arnold’s father when Arnold was only 8 months old.
“In my family, you laughed or you cried,” Arnold says. Subsequently, an uncle and close friend died, and Arnold gives credit to the Edina school system for pulling him away from the darkness. “I could choke up—they didn’t let me slip through the cracks,” he says in an unusual break from a one-two punchline.
As a youngster, Arnold wasn’t the class clown or the kid in constant need of attention, but he figured out that he could make his sisters laugh. In a household with four sisters, along with three step-brothers, he quickly understood the value of watching and learning. “Comedians are trained observers,” he says. “You look at [situations] from 360 degrees.”
Saying he “peaked in third grade. I threw legendary parties. I charged a cover and a two apple juice minimum,” Arnold attended the University of Minnesota, where he studied to be a marriage and family therapist and was a magician on the side. Later, early gigs appeared at St. Anthony on Main and for diners waiting for pizzas at The Green Mill on Hennepin Avenue. Arnold was inspired by Bob Newhart and Billy Crystal as well as The Andy Griffith Show and Gilligan’s Island (especially the episode when Gilligan messes up the crew’s chance for rescue. Cue the wink.) Arnold was the opening act for Dana Carvey (months before his Saturday Night Live debut) at the now defunct David Wood’s Rib Tickler in Minneapolis.
Arnold says Minnesota is a “brilliant training ground for comedians. Minnesota audiences aren’t easily fooled.” They want their intellect stimulated with clean material. “I’ve always been ridiculously appropriate,” he says, noting that audiences want to feel good about what’s making them laugh.
While Arnold seeks success on stage, he also finds it through his spirituality and guiding others toward faith-based living. Those early familial losses didn’t only create a framework for Arnold’s comedy, they built a religious foundation. “It most definitely influenced his faith,” says longtime friend, Jay Carroll. “There’s something about Bill’s fervor, sincerity and consistency,” he says. “He walks the walk; talks the talk... a man with a sense of humor and a heart for God and others,” Carroll says. “That’s who I want to be.”