Hirsute, Amiable and Curious - It's got to be Bill Bailey
Interview by: Caroline Foran
"Hirsute, amiable and curious" - Three words that when taken together can only describe one thing: Bill Bailey. Now these adjectives were chosen by Bailey himself but if I were to add just one more to the mix, without doubt that word would be 'erudite'. After all, it's not every day you find yourself passionately discussing the truth about the origins of the species with a hairy stand up comedian who - randomly enough - happens to have a plant named after him. But that's Bailey for you. Despite enjoying all manner of success since the early 80s, his thirst for knowledge remains unquenched. Before he sets off to satisfy another of his unyielding curiosities - about which you can read below - I caught up with the man himself to talk about his current show, the gently modified Dandelion Mind, his appreciation of constructive criticism and how Ireland remains his favourite place to perform.
Of all the comedians I've had the pleasure of interviewing, never before has one's biography been quite as longwinded as Bill's. It's hard to imagine he ever switches off. "well even when I'm switched off I tend to think I should make use of the time. I read a book or I listen to some music. I'm always on the go. You know I probably did enough idle drifting in my twenties (he chuckles). So I feel I have to make up for it now." Like most ridiculously talented people, Bailey's career began as early as the age of 7. At, of all things, a funeral party. He laughs, "yeah I knew even then, 'that's it, a career in comedy destines'. It was a rather sombre occasion, as you can imagine. Everyone was sitting around in our lounge, drinking cups of tea and nodding safely and I did this little bit from a Les Dawson piano routine and this chaos ensued because I was just in the background burbling away and then I did this Tchaikovsky bit and my dad involuntarily spat all of his tea out and it went all over some little frail blue rinsed relative and then she went 'ooh!' and leaned back and nearly fell over and then my mum swore and she never swore, then she dropped something. It was like this little bomb of chaos went off." Tchaikovsky at the age of 7? Not too shabby. "Yeah my mother was fantastic at encouraging me to play the piano. From a very early age. But I was always into entertaining, with cousins and stuff at family parties and then I was in the school revue taking off the teachers and writing sketches and doing impressions and stuff so it was always part of my life."
And from that moment on, the rest was pretty much history. It wasn't long before Bailey was touring the UK with his theatrical comedy band, The Rubber Bishops, moving on then to what would become a most fruitful solo career, beginning with the launching pad that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in the mid 90s. There are few who would disagree that today it seems whatever Bailey touches turns to gold. Nevertheless, the humble comedian assures me that he'll never become so successful as to forget the importance of what he does best: "I think the fact that I'm able to choose the things that I want to do now is a great luxury really. But it's all just borne out of the fact that if you stick to something then it does bear fruit. I know that sounds like something my grandfather used to say but it's true. He instilled this worth ethic in me when I was a kid and I think there's something in that philosophy. I've been doing stand up for a long time and it's something I've noticed along the way with other comics who have been stand ups and good at it too and then they get a bit of TV success or a book or something else and then they say 'ah well that's it, I don't have to do this stand up anymore. Phew, I don't have to stand in a smokey club on a Thursday night and try out some new jokes, that's it' and then you wait 5 years and you seem going 'oh, I'm going back into stand up'. I mean I don't have many great skills (um, I beg to differ) but one thing I have been blessed with is a real insight into, well, 'what'd be the best thing to do' and I've learnt that you stick at something and it does bear fruit and that's what I've done over the last few years. I've always gone back to stand up even though I've been doing films. I've kept the stand up going at the same time."
Unlike Bill there are indeed others who, given a bite from the juiciness of TV success, continue their careers with scant regard for the honing of their most fundamental comedy skills. "It's something you have to keep at because if you obtain a certain level of success then there's an expectation which you have to either match or better and that's a good spur. You need to be kept on your toes.Then when you go to America, for example, where people mightn't know you as well there's another level of expectation and that helps you to up your game."
Back in 2008, Bailey spoke of the need to strike a balance between pub-like banter and the meatier, intellectual fare that at the time, he wanted to do more of. Given the state of the world today, I found myself wondering if he still felt the same and whether he thought people's comedy needs had changed somewhat. "There is still definitely a need to balance between the two types of material. There's a tension between the two and I don't think there is any merit in trying to change your style to suit. You find your own and that's what propels you forward in people's consciousness. So rather than ever change it, you just have to refine it. Now, probably more than any other time, there's a great awareness of comedy, different comics' material, styles. I think one of the big drives of that was back in 2005 when YouTube started to take off and now people can see all of your stuff online. It's not a question of 'oh I saw him on the telly the other night' or 'I heard this cd', like when I was growing up we listened to vinyl and that's how you heard comedy in those days, but now you can see the show before you see the show! The audience are now auditioning comics 'oh I quite like that, Oh I don't like that' so people are much more aware and much more savvy and much more critical."
Criticism. Is that something which still registers on the radar of someone this accomplished? "I do read it, I take it on board. You have to. It's part of the job really and part of the process. It's interesting because sometimes there's something which a critic may pick up on which you haven't really even noticed you think 'oh yeah I see!' So it can sometimes inspire you? In some ways it's largely positive I think. You take the rough with the smooth but over a period of time it's more useful than anything else."
Speaking with Bailey, one thing's for sure. If passion were an energy source, this guy could power an entire nation. At 47 years of age this comedan remains as inspired by his craft as the day he soiled that blue rinsed granny. "I still really enjoy watching people and I try not to be the comic watching the comic doing comedy. I try and go as a punter. And just sort of enjoy it purely as an audience member. A few years ago I went to see Robin Williams, he was in town he did one show in a theatre that I was actually performing in in the West End and it's great to see someone have such an apetite and energy and passion for it. It's inspiring to see people who see it as an art form and who really care about it and want to constantly push themselves and be ambitious about a subject matter and even engage in subjects that are more difficult to engage in, I think that's the beauty of comedy."
I want some of what he's having. Is he as passionate too about returning to Ireland for his Olympia and Bord Gais Energy Theatre shows? "Yes I am. Oh Always. The audience are unique. That's the only one word for it. There's no other audience like an Irish audience and particularly a Dublin audience. I remember years ago I was performing in the Olympia and I was there for a week so the first night was a Monday. And traditionally around the world, Mondays are a little bit quieter, the audience are a little bit more subdued. Particularly if I do a West End run. Anyway Monday night in Dublin, at the end of the show there was a Conga line from the stage into the audience back onto the stage, it was just a riot. It was fantastic. So I'm looking at the crew and they're looking back at me like 'this is Monday night? What will Friday be like?' There'll probably be a carnival float driving through the theatre. And I think for me personally, because I've a lot of music in my act, there's something about Irish audiences, there's just an appreciation of it just for itself. In some places you pick up an instrument and they'll look at you rather askance, wondering 'ok, where are you going with this, is there a context, is there a joke at the end, some sort of ironic twist?' and in Ireland there's none of that. You pick up an instrument and it's 'ahhhgowaaan' and I kind of think that that's much more of what I'm about. I love traditional music, and the natural home for what I like is Ireland." - Well, you're more than welcome to take up permanent residency here Bill and we'll love you forever.
As our conversation draws to a close - no time is ever enough in the company of someone as interesting as this individual - I hope that the forthcoming show hasn't been modified to the point that the amazing 'This is the real Bill Bailey' rap has been cast aside. Watch it in the video below, laughter is guaranteed. "Yea I know that rap was breaking all the rules. But the thing about shows, the thing about comedy is that it kind of changes all the time. I'm going to be doing elements of that show, some of the old favourites but there's a lot of new stuff which I've written in the last while." Sounds good to me.
And next on the list for the stand up from Somerset? "Ooh ahh, well, we're sort of gate-crashing a Sting gig with an Alpine Horn, (I assume that's a joke) I dunno! I'm actually in the process of writing and presenting a documentary about Alfed Wallace who was a contemporary of Darwin. It's been an obsession of mine over the last few years. I am big into Darwin but more so his contemporary who was this chap who spent a lot of time in Indonesia which is where I've spent a lot of time and just through my travels there I became aware of his legacy and the fact that there's whole swathes of Indonesia named after him and he named the Wallace line and there's all kinds of creatures and flora and fauna named after him too. He was, as I believe to be, or what will be revealed in the documentary has unfairly been airbrushed out of history and his role in Darwin's origin of the species is absolutely crucial and really, not to be critical of Darwin you could say that Wallace's insight into the surival of the fittest, that was his eureka moment and he wrote all this down and sent it off to Darwin." So what you're saying is, Darwin stole it? "Some people would say he did! So it's a fascinating story and it criss-crosses the world. I'm starting that now but it's going to be a while yet before you can see it."
I wonder if his interest in Wallace was sparked when he too had a plant named after him. "I do actually have a plant named after me (he laughs) which is an extraordinary honour. To be immortalised in plant form. That's not something many comedians can say."
No Bill, it's certainly not.
Bill Bailey plays the Bord Gais Energy Theatre on May 31st and the Olympia on Friday the 1st and Saturday 2nd of June.
Story by EI Team | 09:00 | Friday 11th May 2012 | Comedy
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