As a comedian, Billy Connolly doesn't look back
CHICAGO - If you want to annoy the Big Yin, just accuse him of peddling comic nostalgia.
"Nostalgia?" Billy Connolly sputtered down the telephone line the other day, when indecorously asked if a 67-year-old man whose comedic career goes back more than 40 years, and who has been a major celebrity in the United Kingdom for at least 30 of 'em, now offers what one might call a retro experience. Is he not a feisty tartan oasis, as it were, in the midst of kids with mics who weren't even born when Connolly first performed his parody of Tammy Wynette's "D-I-V-O- R-C-E" on the BBC's "Top of the Pops" in1975?
"Yer think I'm Andy Stewart?" Connolly went on, warming to his task. "That's all journalese and yer know it."
In the U.K., Connolly is known as an oversized stand-up comedian, folk singer and all-around raconteur and TV personality.
In the U.S. (where Connolly has lived, unbeknown to most Britons, since coming to Los Angeles to star in the sitcom "The Head of the Class" in 1986), he is still known primarily as a movie actor.
"Half the population here doesn't even know I'm a comedian," he said, calming down a little (but just a little). "I still have to establish myself. I just go to a place and refuse to go away until people come to the theater."
Eddie Izzard, who has said he counts Connolly among his influences, now plays arenas.
Connolly is attempting something different. Something sort of in reverse.
He's not doing a one-nighter downtown (even though he played the old Chicago Stadium back in the day) but an entire week of shows at the Royal George Theatre, which seats only 447. Opening night was Tuesday.
His producer, Arnold Engelman of Westbeth Entertainment, says it's all part of a deliberate strategy wherein Connolly plants himself in a city for a while, hangs around and lets people notice that he's there. And then if they come to his show, they get an intimate experience and the kind of night the performer actually enjoys. It has worked for Connolly in Boston and is now being tried in Chicago. One suspects Broadway might be next.
And what's in store for this experience? Connolly is, unlike most of those other stand-ups, almost entirely an improviser.
"I talk about anything and everything," he said. "Religion. Politics. The news of the day. I go on intending to talk about something, and then usually I don't. I can never remember anything. I usually look at the tapes from my last show, let them rumble around in my head, and then I go out and do something completely different."
There is no music in the show though, despite Connolly's deep roots in folk and musical parody.
"You have to have this banjo sitting next to you," he said. "It's like having a big, red tomato. And people stare at the tomato all night. That doesn't work."