Billy Connolly is a legend, an international treasure, and a brilliant comedian. He’s about to embark on a brief U.S. tour- just three cities- so if you are anywhere near New York City, Washington D.C. or Boston in April and May, consider yourself lucky and grab a ticket.
The UK considers him the most influential comedian of all time, in fact, just this past January Connolly received a Special Recognition Award during Britain’s National Television Awards, presented to him by his good friend Dustin Hoffman. When he accepted the award he was midway through a sold out 15 show run at London’s 3600 seat Eventim Apollo theater. 3600 seats, 15 nights!
You could call him a comedy rock star, but that would belie his beautiful rhythm, un-flashy presentation, his wisdom, and the almost shaman like aura he carries with him- that is if a shaman was the type to use no-bullshit, politically incorrect terms, and some un-PG language while imparting their wisdom and wit. He’s also got a brilliant five decade long movie career with more than one role of a lifetime, that is still going strong, a terrific television career, and he’s a galleried artist too.
Recently, I had the chance to speak with Billy about his upcoming tour. He was enjoying some downtime and nice weather at his home away from home in Malta after a 15 show run in London. “I’ve done that my whole career” referring to the 15 shows he performed at one theater in under a month- much like a limited engagement Broadway run. “I just attack it and then lay off for a while. That’s the only way I can handle it.”
The limited engagement run suits his style as well- he’s infamous for having an ever-changing show full of improv and stream of consciousness thought, and the ability to be quite brilliant on the spot. He’s asked all the time how he does it, since the majority of great comics hone, refine and rework jokes until they are happy with them. “It’s kind of weird for me because I don’t write the stuff down,” he said. “I don’t write it. It’s all ad-libs that stay in and become a story. There’s no way to plan it. It just happens.” And while he’s on stage, ideas and thoughts pop into his head that he can’t ignore. “Things irritate me until I speak about them,” he said.”They’re like bullies.”
Early on in his career, he said didn’t know that his performance style was different from other comics. “I was amazed that people thought I was original. I thought I was doing what everybody else was doing until they came up to me and expressed it.” In fact, he says other comedians used to doubt that he really was ad-libbing. “They would come more than once to see if it was the same,” Connolly said. “They wanted to see me do it. They didn’t believe me.”
The best thing is not to mix with other comedians, they’re a scuffy bunch anyway. They’re a bunch of liars. They’re actors.
One person that he’s not worried about watching is fellow UK comic Noel Fielding. Connolly went to see Fielding’s show in New York City last month. Fielding’s surreal comedy is in no danger of getting into Billy’s head because it’s so different in style from what Connolly does on stage. He called Fielding’s comedy “lovely” and “smashing” and loved the show so much that he wants to get in touch with him about getting a CD of the incidental music. We talked with Fielding last month about that show, and he had said that he was nervous knowing Billy was watching. “Noel got all nervous when I went back, it was funny,” Billy said. But Connolly admitted that he also gets uncomfortable knowing celebrity friends are in the audience. “It makes me nervous and even worse- I think about them all the time when I’m on the stage and I don’t like that. I don’t want to think about anybody.”
Billy first ventured over to perform in US in the 70’s, broke big as a stand up star in the U.S. in the 90’s and has been gigantic ever since. Although he said his brain goes a different speed depending on whether he’s in the US or the UK, his performances are largely the same in the US and abroad. “If I’m performing in Scotland, I’m like an express train, because I don’t have to think- will they understand this or not– and I just charge ahead with all my colloquialisms and slang that work wonderfully. But when I’m in Australia or New Zealand or America, I have to keep a constant– you know… I don’t have an African act and an Australian act, and an Irish act. You get what I’ve got.” He says the key to translating internationally is his signature rhythm. “It’s very difficult to describe, but I think it’s down to rhythm; the rhythm you speak at. It isn’t the way you pronounce things and its not the subject you choose. It’s the rhythm you choose to speak at. And you can be in the wrong rhythm from people.”
He lives full-time in the US now- New York specifically but he’s considering a move back to Los Angeles where the better weather will make it easier for him to get exercise. “Cause I have Parkinsons’ Disease,” he said “and I need to exercise more.” He’s doing well, for the most part. “Some days I walk badly, and other days I don’t,” he told me. “Sometimes I find it difficult to get out of my chair when I’m in a restaurant. it’s kind of embarrassing. I have to ask for help, But its okay.” He said fellow comedian Rick Shapiro who also has Parkinson’s recently sent him a shirt that he loves, that says “Shakey is the new cool.”
Airplane people are the worst people in the world. They bring on too much luggage in their carry on and they put it up above seats that they aren’t even sitting in. They’re bastards and I hate them.
He traveled by train because, he said he likes train people better. “Airplane people are the worst people in the world. They bring on too much luggage in their carry on and they put it up above seats that they aren’t even sitting in. They’re bastards and I hate them.” Train travel has its own pace, and he said you get tired because you don’t realize you’re working all the time to adjust your balance. “And you can walk down the thing to get something to eat and its lovely and looking out the window.”
I call him Bumble the Talking Arse. . .He gives me the shits.
Always outspoken, always brilliant, Billy Connolly’s US High Horse tour begins Wednesday April 27th at the Beacon Theater. You can also get tickets to see Billy on May 14th in Washington D.C. at the Warner Theater, and in Boston, MA at the Wilbur Theater on May 19th.
For more information and to get tickets, go to billyconnolly.com.