Talking to the Big Yin: An Interview with Billy Connolly
Comedian Billy Connolly has been bringing laughter to audiences on stage and on film since the 1960s - the Scottish comedian got his start as a musician and quickly found that his knack for on-stage banter suited him better for comedy than for music. He's been touring, recording comedy, and acting since then. Many people in the United States are familiar with him from his role as "Il Duce" in Boondock Saints and Boondock Saints 2: All Saints Day or his turn as a pedophile Catholic priest in the The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Connolly's known as the "The Big Yin" in Scotland. He's one of Britain's favorite comics — during a 2009 tour of Scotland, the ticket demand broke the theater's computer system. Loved by critics and audiences, and hailed as an influence by comics like Eddie Izzard, Connolly is one of the funniest comics to come across the Atlantic. We spoke to Connolly in advance of his appearance at the Bagley Wright Theatre March 12 and 13.
So you're coming off a four-week set in London directly to Seattle?
Yeah, it's my first gig.
It seems like, among younger people in the US especially, there are two groups of Billy Connolly fans -- diehard fans of your comedy, and people who are more familiar with your film career. Do you find that Americans respond to your comedy different than British audiences?
No, they don't. They respond exactly the same. Except, as you say, a lot of them don't know that I'm a comedian -- they think I'm an actor first, which is kind of a problem. And there's another section of society that thinks I'm John Cleese, which is very weird. I've never seen anyone less like John Cleese in my life!
When you started touring the US, were you ever worried about being "too Scottish" for American audiences?
No, I don't care about that. It doesn't matter where you come from. You could come from the bayou of Louisiana, and after five minutes, you'd get the comedy. The ear tunes in.
And if the audience isn't getting it, you an explain it to them. That's another great aspect of being different: You can explain things, describe things to the audience, and that becomes funny in itself - the process of explaining what you're talking about.
Are there any comedians working today whom you look at and think "Wow. He's got it, he's got an energy I admire."
I don't think I've ever seen a comedian I didn't like. I like them as a breed. They're a good breed of people, comedians you know? I don't think of "good" and "bad" comedians. Some comedians have bad nights, but I don't believe there's such a thing as a bad comedian.
I have favorites: I love Robin Williams. I think he's just amazing. I don't know all the names! I've seen loads of them.
There's an Irishman called Tommy Tiernan, do you know him? He's very good. And I like Eddie Izzard.
He's expressed a lot of admiration for you as well.
It's very pleasant when he does that. Nothing nicer than adoration, actually. (Laughs). Nothing nicer than praise from your pears. It's the only thing that matters. The rest is kind of bullshit.
Although a fan phoned up in London with a tattoo of me on his stomach, which to me was the ultimate adulation. He got me to sign it, and he was going the following day to have that tattooed.
Was it your face?
It was my face! It was an album sleeve I had done about 20,30 years ago for an album called The Pick of Billy Connolly, where i had my finger up my nose. He had it tattooed on the left side of his stomach just above his waist. I thought "holy shit"! Because of my roles in Boondock Saints, there's a lot of Boondock tattoos, but they're mostly of the two boys.
You really seem to be having fun on stage. Some performers you get the idea that what they're doing is just a job, that it's work. It's work they enjoy, but it's still mainly a job. You actually laugh at your own jokes. How do you keep it fresh for yourself after multiple decades of tours?
By trying to remember it all!
Do you prepare material, or is it all off the cuff?
It's off the cuff. I have a skeleton. You can't do it all off the cuff, because some nights, there's nothing there, and you have to have something. I have a skeleton of show that I embroider around, that's how I've always done it.
Is there a mindset you have to put yourself into in order to do things off the cuff? How do you prepare for a show?
It happens in the dressing room, when I change into my clothes.
And what's the mental process you go through to get to the energy you want to bring to the crowd?
I would describe it as cold panic, even now. It's one of those cosmic little things that everyone has and always will have.
You started off playing the banjo - could you talk about how you went from being a musician to being a comedian?
Yeah, I played a banjo in a band. Then I joined up with a guy called Jerry Rafferty, and we formed a band called the Humblebums. He was a very good songwriter, and I was the banjo player. We would go on stage, and I was funny, and over time I got funnier and funnier, and eventually it become very obvious what my calling was, so I went on to do comedy without him or my banjo. And because of that start, I've never performed in a comedy club in my life.
Do you remember what it was like your first night on the stage without a banjo in front of you?
Yes, I was sort of weak in the knees.
How has your comedy evolved since then? Do you find that audience's sensibilities and sophistication has changed? Are there things you used to do that aren't as shocking or surprising as they once were?
Absolutely. As the years go by, less and less becomes shocking, and the world becomes healthier and healthier. It's not that you won't do the same thing anymore, it's that you do it more casually.
When I started out in comedy, comedians seemed very racist. I wasn't, but every comedian out there was. All these guys in blue mohair suits were really racist, and they were shocked and horrified at me for talking about masturbation!
Billy Connolly plays the Bagley Wright Theatre March 12 and 13.