Billy Bailey larks around with Exposed
There’s plenty of method to Bill Bailey’s comedic madness, as Phoebe De Angelis found out in an interview with the ever-zany stand-up last month.
Firstly, I’d like to congratulate you on another year touring ‘Larks in Transit’, with an even larger list of shows announced this time around.
I’m glad it’s carrying on actually because I’ve had a short-term spell in the West End recently with it and it suddenly took on another lease of life, which was great! I absolutely love doing the show so I really can’t wait to get back to performing it again.
The name was inspired by all the fun you’ve had as a travelling comic. Do you feel a certain level of responsibility as a comic to spread positivity in these troubled times?
Well, I think comedy in itself is a good start for positivity and if you can get people laughing there’s a whole lot of goodwill attached to that. I think people feel good after a laugh, there’s all kinds of benefits and I’m sure there are physiological benefits to it.
There’s probably someone writing a dissertation about it right now, about the chemical changes that go on in your brain and the fact that if you laugh and smile there are all sorts of health benefits. But, personally, I try to never forget that it’s a great thing to be in a room with people and make them laugh, you know? I never lose sight of that and it’s something I don’t take for granted, put it that way. When I’m in a room, say the Wyndham Theatre, and everyone’s laughing and having fun I think to myself: “I have to bottle this thought and not forget because this is something that’s quite rare and it’s quite special”. I love the fact that I’ve been in this position and I’m able to do this. And I think, as you say, positivity comes from laughing, people laugh, and that’s why they have laughing classes with people sitting around in seminars like *laughs dramatically*… Anyway, I won’t be doing that, but I’ll be capering about in a sort of way.
What would you like your audience to take away from one of your shows? Is it the escapism that comedy affords or is there a deeper message to be decoded?
Not really, it’s just to be entertaining, that’s always it for me, and everything else is a bonus.
All I want is for people to come along for a couple of hours and have a right good laugh and just toddle off into the night after having a good night out. But if, amongst that, there’s the odd little glimpse of insight that maybe can be imparted then so much the better! Part of the show name ‘Larks in Transit’ is very much like the Dickensian larks like, “what larks having fun over there”, and ‘in Transit’ referring to travel and the nature of touring but also where comedy gets you and, for me, the sort of opportunities I’ve been afforded through comedy.
I’ve realised in this last run I’ve done recently that there’s another sort of side to it, which I don’t really make a big deal out of, or bring to the forefront, or make it too heavy-handed, but it’s very much the idea of enjoying the moment of having fun along the way. We are in transit, life is a transitory experience and, you know, maybe if there is something that has slightly more resonance to you it’s very much that: enjoying the moment, making the most of our time, not dwelling too much on the past, just keep moving. Life is a bit like that, life is up and down. Just keep going and keep enjoying the moment. It seems almost as if it becomes a cliché, but it’s worth repeating that life’s short and there’s no point hanging onto stuff that’s going to hold you down. Shit happens to everyone, you just have to go “meh” and keep going and keep moving on and not being burdened by too much. That’s what I think anyway. I don’t really explicitly say that in the show but I hope that that’s the impression most people get.
With this tour being inspired by the travels you’ve had around the world, did your methods for sourcing material change in comparison to your other tours? And if so, how?
The subject matter was slightly different, yes. In the past I’d not drawn on any of my own personal experience as it’s all been in the abstract, coming up with things, drawing on musical ideas and surrounding tangents and flights of fancy. The show I did before was ‘Limboland’ and one of the stories I told was about a family holiday that went a bit wrong and it resonated with people. That was an area of my life which I hadn’t really used before but I thought perhaps I should consider it more. That’s why this show is almost a continuation of that one: I looked at stories of things that happened to me and how that inspired comedy, or just really the situations that I found myself in that people can relate to. I think that’s a big part of comedy, in that it has to be something that people can identify with.
You’re known for incorporating deeper existential concepts into your shows. What is the reason behind the sparking of deep thought in the more digestible manner of comedy?
Well I guess it was a bit of experimentation in the early days and where I wanted to push it a little bit and thought perhaps we can talk about other subjects: philosophy, the history of language, or history, or people, or sociological change, to see if there’s anything there. You can find comedy anywhere but the trick of it is trying to make it into something which is accessible, but not simplified to the point of it being dumbed down. It’s something a little harder to wrap your head around, but I think sometimes those are the things which are the most satisfying when they bear fruit. It was in this last run of shows that I realised it was about history; there’s a lot about history in the show and a lot about British history – you know, how we get to be here, the history of gestures. But that’s my own curiosity which is extrapolating something into the historical context of something that’s happened to me.
So, if I give you the example of giving the finger, in a moment of madness, doing that and then researching and realising it has an incredibly long and colourful history going back thousands of years, you know? Those are the little gems that I look for. Those are the things you hope to turn up when you’re trying to write comedy, the idea of something that is almost like that of our daily lives that seems quite mundane but actually you reveal its greater rich history and it takes you off into all kinds of directions. There’s a kind of common theme in a lot that I do, that I like to contact with the past through either language or the natural world.
Your act is often categorised as a genre-defying mash-up. What’s the artistic choice and reason for the inclusion of aspects of music, philosophy and politics in your shows? So there’s something for everyone?
Yeah! Just from a practical point of view, just because history is there to be mined and there to be interpreted. If comedy is too much of the moment then it’s transitory. I mean there is some political comedy in there, it’s really hard to avoid that these days, but I don’t want that to dominate the shows. It’s something which you almost have to nod to because it’s the elephant in the room really, so people can say “good” because they sort of expect it but once you’ve dealt with that you can move on and delve into something a bit more interesting that perhaps has greater resonance. I think really it has to be less disposable, less about the moment, it’s about something, as you said, a bit more subject to talk about.
Was the inclusion of musical technique in your act always something you wanted to incorporate or just a by-product of material?
I think it’s because I just love finding those connections. When I was a kid learning the piano I’d learn scales, and there was this one particular scale which had a bit more of an Eastern feel at the end in the harmonic minor and I was like, “Why does it sound like that? It sounds Eastern.” It conjures up images of watching films like Lawrence of Arabia and it was really bugging me. It’s only when you dig around and find out more about it you get really into the subject to realise that it comes from Indian raggers, and somehow these scales, this little musical feature and motif, has migrated across an entire continent and made its way into the exams and into the Royal College of Music. Like, how did that happen?! It was just blowing my mind so I wanted to find out more about it and those are the things that I’m enthusiastic about and I hope I can convey that in the show. Hopefully, it’s my enthusiasm that makes it accessible and funny.
You’re an actor, musician, presenter and comedian, to name but a few. Do you often draw inspiration from your other career paths within your comedy, as in do they overlap or interlink in some way?
Part of what I do in my comedy is what a session musician would do, and it’s to identify any style and be able to play it almost immediately. Music is a way of getting through to people on a gut level; comedy stand-up can be quite an intense experience if you’re just listening to one person talk for one to two hours, the dynamic won’t change a huge amount. Music, however, can completely change the dynamic and take it in a different direction and I really wanted that when I started out. Like, even when I was doing an hour I thought to myself: “My God an hour, nobody would want to listen to me for an hour. They’ll be wandering off after 20 minutes so I better have something up my sleeve that will keep them interested.”
If you had to describe your “Larks in Transit” show in three words, what would they be?
Intriguing. It’s fun, there’s no doubt about that and there is a lot of singing involved, so it’s a singsong!