Bill Bailey: ‘Keep saying funny things, that’s pretty in-depth advice’

How did you get into comedy?
I grew up in the West Country and there wasn’t much of a comedy scene back then. At the invitation of a friend I went to London and we saw a comedy performance at Archway that was comic alternative. It was like a sitcom version of what would be alternative comedy. It was in an anarchic vegetarian commune called The Earth Exchange and it was vegetarian food at the back and alternative so-called comedy at the front. I saw an act called Otiz Cannelloni doing this surreal meta magic and there were some storytellers, character comedians and John Hegley. He sang short, intense songs on the mandolin and he had a brilliant stage character. It was the first time I realized, “I want that!” It was just a matter of how I could design my life so that I could do it.

I went back to the West Country and my high school friend Toby and I started a comedy club in Bath. It wasn’t a vegan exchange, that was a bit far fetched for the West Country in the 80’s, but it was a lot of fun. We held a monthly talent show. There would be new acts and prizes for whoever the audience wanted.

Who inspired you when you were just starting out?
John Hegley was a major influence. The combination of words, pictures, music and songs. That is something that has formed the core of my own act.

Can you remember a performance so bad it’s funny now?
I did a show in New Zealand years ago and I did a song about racial harmony called Hats Off to the Zebras. It was about black and white living together in harmony, and a broadcast of Ebony and Ivory. My wife said to me, “Do that song, they’ll love it.” The gig was going great, then I did this song and the gig crashed and burned because I didn’t realize the whole night was about breaking the racial divide. They were white New Zealanders and the Maori community. It was like showing up there and giving up two fingers to the whole thing.

How would you describe your current show taking you to the Royal Opera House?
It is a report from recent years. The first half is a catch-up of what happened artistically during the lockdown. The long days, the strange obsessions, the creative rabbit holes you go through. The second half is much more about my own personal idea of ​​what normality is. For example, how I dealt with the extra exposure of doing Strictly and the limelight that comes with it. It’s really about finding a way through all of this in a creative way.

Bill Bailey with his Strictly dance partner Oti Mabuse at the Baftas in 2021.
Bill Bailey with his Strictly dance partner Oti Mabuse at the Baftas in 2021. Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

What is your material writing process?
I usually book a small tasting room. Sometimes I take a notepad to gauge the response of the story or song for a small audience. But this has been unavailable recently as no locations were open. Instead, I found myself on big stages, sometimes in an arena, trying something out for the first time. Ridiculous, it felt a bit like a pompous performance. I must confess, I have become addicted to it. It’s like skydiving or bungee jumping: there are thousands of people here, I’ve never said this in front of anyone… Here we go!

Are there pre-show rituals?
I always sit in the empty room and visualize the show. I imagine I’m in the audience watching the show. Somehow that helps my performance. I imagine what people had to do to get to the show and what their expectations were. It’s a way of reminding myself that every show is unique and should be the best it can be.

What’s an important lesson you learned from being a stand-up?
I think it teaches you a lot of self-reliance. You have to be determined, have a thick skin and be able to roll with the punches. It teaches you to be in control of your own life, because everything is yours. With standup, the benefits are that you feel like you’ve earned the good things that come your way, because you’re writing it and traveling around making it happen. But if things don’t go well, you’re on your own.

Best advice you ever got?
Bob Mills, a stand-up I worked with when I started, said, “Keep saying funny things.” It’s actually quite in-depth. Comedians are always asked, “What do you think of this?” “What’s your take on fracking?” After all, we’re here to tell jokes and be funny.

What’s next for you?
A tour of Australia. Touch wood, the monkey pox don’t put kibosh on that. I have a movie, TV series and more stand-up that stretches into the future. Who knows?

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