What’s Hot New Zealand catches up with legendary British comedian Bill Bailey about mining comedy gold out of British history, comedic censorship and everything wrong with reality TV car crash Love Island ahead of his Earl of Whimsy tour in September.
We last saw you in the brilliant Larks in Transit, what do you have in store for us with Earl of Whimsy? This is a show which is, as the name suggests, not taking itself very seriously. There’s a lot of silliness and I just thought I’d come up with a name for myself. I get called lots of things, lots of names over the years and one of the things on this tour I got called was something like ‘Britain’s foremost rock goblin’, right? I just thought ‘OK, perhaps it’s time for me to think up something to call myself’. And the idea there’s a combination of things; the Earl is a slight nod to the aristocratic kind of past Britain and pageantry and nationalism and our history and our culture and sort of sending that up a little bit. Also, what I love to do is juxtapose things to make it an interesting hybrid combination of things. There’s a lot of that in the show. For example, I do a version of ‘Old MacDonald’ in a Tom Waits crooner voice, which is always good fun. It’s sort of a country western song very much in the mould of those classic songs where somebody sells their soul to the Devil in order to get something. It’s those things that I love and I’ve loved for years. So it’s really a collection of a lot of my favourite things. One of the descriptions of this particular show was ‘it’s like being in a very messy but rather large and interesting mansion’. That is my mind apparently. So there you go. Things that I like, a collection of curiosities and really spun together with a kind of an overarching examination of what nationalism is and identity and history. So there’s a lot going on.
Just how funny is British history? It’s always been a source of great comedy and fun for me since I was a kid. Really since I was at school. I remember my dad gave me a book when I was a kid called 1066 and All That and it was a sort of a rather irreverent and very funny sort of book on British history, and it did include some genuine British history but it was sort of making fun of it a little bit. Saying here are the good kings, here are the bad ones, here’s the stuff you don’t need to remember and here’s some interesting stuff and it was published, I was amazed to discover, in 1930. So there’s a long history of the British making fun of history, so this is very much a continuation of that tradition.
According to The Guardian Guide you’re approaching the status of national treasure – what appears to be the hold up? I don’t know about that! National treasure could also be you know, like some rock, some statue, or the Lake District, or something. Obviously I’m very flattered if that’s the case but I think that it’s almost seen as a kind of veneration, that’s what you’ve done and you’re considered a national treasure. I still consider that no, I haven’t earned that place yet. I still think there’s work to be done. And I continue to write and perform new shows because I don’t think you can ever stand still. We’re always changing. And I feel the compulsion to write and perform. I think if you stop moving and moss starts to grow on you, then you’re a national treasure.
What’s the secret to great comedy? The simple things, isn’t it? You make the world laugh and maybe make them think. That’s a good start. I never forget that it’s a great gift, it’s a great thing to do, it’s a great way to make a living. But also as you write more and more comedy, you think it can be about something. You can try and make the subjects more interesting. Without letting go of the fact that you’re there to entertain, to amuse and to maybe provoke a bit of thought. For me, now, it gets more and more about what do I really want to talk about? What do I want to do? What are the things that interest me? And I just put them in the show. The trick of it is trying to get it all to fit together. I think maybe great comedy is where you and the audience are all going on this old boat of comedy and you don’t quite know where it’s gonna go and there have been moments like that when I’ve done shows where everyone is in this old giddy state and I think that’s what I aim for every night, is that we all sort of waltz out of there slightly giddy and silly. That’s my aim.
What’s your view on censorship in comedy and have you been warned off certain topics?Yeah, sure, it happens from time to time. I have to say, comedians don’t take it very well. I remember going on stage for a gig and somebody said to me “Oh, don’t mention Nazi gold,” and I went “What do you mean, don’t mention Nazi gold? I’m not doing any material on Nazi gold, but I will now!” It turns out that one of the sponsors of the whole event was a Swiss bank, and they had some murky past in dealings with Nazi gold. By telling me that, I went to research the whole thing and turned it into 20 minutes of my act! So these things can backfire badly. Sometimes you have to take a rather more reflective view on it. Recently I was performing in Shanghai and the Government (there) is quite strict about public performance criticising the Government, criticising policy, criticising China. In fact, the promoters said could you not mention the hot buttons – Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Taiwan. The three T’s. To be honest, I wasn’t doing material about these subjects anyway. So it wasn’t like I had to curtail the show. But of course, your mischievous instinct as a comedian is to deliberately say all these things and to talk about them. But the reality of it was I wouldn’t be censored, the show would go ahead. I would get some laughs and I’d move on to the next city. But the promoters would suffer. They might try to apply for their licence in a month’s time and oops sorry. It would have been irresponsible of me to do that. Other people would have suffered for it while I wouldn’t have done. Sometimes you have to take those sort of deals.
What’s the secret to slaying a Kiwi audience? Well, in my experience of playing in New Zealand, they love irreverent comedy that pokes fun at authority, which is a very British thing. There’s a lot of affinity with British audiences that way. And dark surreal British humour, which is quite in tune with Kiwi audiences, I figured that out over the years, but there are a lot of similarities between us.
What are you going to do when you’re here? Paddle boarding. We did some of that the last time we were there. Go out in the ocean and have an encounter with some wildlife. Just get out to the mountains, do some walking. You don’t have to go far. You stand anywhere in New Zealand and look around and there’s countryside beckoning. I look forward to that.
If you could chop back a beer with anyone, who would it be? Obama. Only because you know, he’s not president anymore, he could be more relaxed. And he just seems like a sane and fun person to have a beer with, you know.
Tell us about your worst day job? That would have been when I had a job very briefly delivering cakes. It doesn’t sound that bad, but it was really hard. We’d brought the cake to be delivered to an office. And you get there and they go “Oh no, they left last week”. “So what are we gonna do with this bloody cake?” “You can have it,” they said. We had a lot of cake! It doesn’t sound that bad, does it? If that’s the worst job, that’s not too bad.
What are your thoughts on reality TV? The one I’m watching now is Love Island. I’ve never seen it before. I had just finished touring in the UK, I was just at home, and I read a headline about it and I heard an extraordinary statistic, I don’t know whether this is true or not, but the statistic was more people would apply to be on Love Island than to go to Oxford and Cambridge Universities, which seems a pretty depressing statistic. With that in mind, I thought I gotta watch this! I was intrigued! It’s fascinating. These people, all they do all day is just talk about other people and whether they like them or not. I mean, do they do any washing up or cleaning or laundry? Or take out the bins, or like a job, earning money, I mean, what kind of world is that? I’m still fascinated by it. I watch it and I think, well, come on, the language they use is so brutal about each other, it’s so harsh. And I realise that times have changed. What hasn’t changed is people’s attitude towards love generally and when the producers try to sort of engineer some breakup or some big bust up, and they’re all sobbing, oh my God, and the public get real annoyed about it and say “No, no, you’re messing with people’s lives” and it’s true. It’s a great emptiness at the heart of it. isn’t it? Maybe that’s the sign of the times, Bill, just get over it!
Bill Bailey – Earl of Whimsy
Regent Theatre, Dunedin, Sept 21
Horncastle Arena, Christchurch, Sept 22
ASB Baypark, Tauranga, Sept 24
Claudelands Arena, Hamilton, Sept 25
TSB Showplace, New Plymouth, Sept 27
ASB Theatre, Auckland, Sept 29-30