Billy Connolly’s last shows in Boston, in 2007, were a revelation for audiences that hadn’t had a chance to see him in years. Rambling, profane, and hilarious, Connolly has a winning confidence onstage, truly allowing himself to go wherever his brain will take him. Connolly’s confidence isn’t steeped in knowing what comes next, it’s about not knowing and pushing forward anyway.
Connolly’s charisma and inventiveness have made him a legend in he U.K., where he regularly tops “best comic” readers polls, even though he has lived in the States for nearly twenty years (he’s lived in New York since 2008, and lived in L.A. before that). He’s been a pirate in the Muppets version of Treasure Island, a zombie in Fido, and faithful servant to the Queen in Mrs. Brown. He’s also been an action star in both the original Boondock Saints and the recent sequel, and he’ll be a Lilliputian in a new version of Gulliver’s Travels. And he was almost Doctor Who once.
If that’s not enough Connolly for you, you can even get his voice on your GPS device. Or you can go see him Friday at the Shubert Theatre.
I spoke with Connolly by phone last week, a conversation that was itself rambling, profane, and hilarious.
I see the Boston dates are the only ones on your schedule.
Yeah, we’re going to start doing little sporadic raids into the country instead of doing tours all the time. The next one up is Chicago after that. It’s a terrible problem getting dates. It takes you a year and a half to set up a tour, you know? This way you can grab two nights here and three nights there.
So you don’t think you’ll do a standard sort of tour…
Oh, I will again, but they just take so long to prepare. Meanwhile, you’re sitting spinning your thumbs wondering what to do next.
It looks like you have plenty of movie roles to fill in the time.
Yeah, yeah, I’ve been very lucky that way. Aye. And I’ve been drawing for a while, and I’ve just got news that there’s a gallery in London interested in doing an exhibition of my drawings. So I’m very pleased with myself.
Is that something you think you’d release as a book?
I don’t know. Really, because I’ve never done anything like this before. I can’t draw. I’m just [doing] abstract and strange things. I couldn’t draw a cat or a mouse or a bicycle or anything like that.
It’s an interesting thing to pursue – if you say of yourself, “I can’t draw,” what do you get out of it?
Yeah… there’s just something lurking in your brain, you just let it drive your hand. It’s very strange – it’s very pleasant.
You’ve said that sometimes you forget what you do for a living and it’ll only come back to you once you’re onstage.
I do that very often.
Is it something you’ve learned to combat? It seems it came at you again in 2008.
Yeah, it’s a weird thing that I have to trust myself that it’s always there. You know? Because there’s no way to check up on it. And the more nervous you get, the less you remember. It’s a terrifying set of circumstances.
I remember, at Astoria [Theatre] once, the promoter was in the back of the car, and my roadie was beside me in the front. And we were driving up to the gate in Queensland, and I said to the roadie, “How do I start?” And he said, well, you usually say such and such. I said, “Oh yeah. What do I usually say after that?” And he told me. I went, “Yeah, yeah. What was the punchline?” And he told me and I went, “Oh, yeah, of course!” The gig was hugely successful, and I came off and he said, “My god,” he said, “I was terrified. I thought you were mentally ill, asking your driver. Was that for my benefit?” I said, “No, I was being absolutely serious.” As I get nervous, I forget everything.
You should have your driver or your roadie up onstage with you.
Oh, yeah. And I take notes and I never look at them, because they mean very little. It’s not like a diary. They’re just jottings, little dash jottings. So when you look at them, you get very, very little information. Or you get half a page of information, but you get on and talk for two hours. Half a page, a thing that says, “The army.” Thank you very much.
I remember we did a TV interview while you were here, and you pulled it out and read a few phrases and had no idea what the hell they meant.
[laughs] That’s right. I’ve got loads of those books. I actually like the books themselves, you know those wee notebooks you buy in bookshops, the wee black ones. Hemmingway used to use one. I forget what they’re called, but I’ve got loads of them tucked in pockets all over the place. They’re absolutely useless. To make anything of it you’d have to round all the notebooks up and put them together. My wife’ll publish them when I’m dead. I’ll do that for journalists. Sometimes I’ll just read out the list. I’ll take a list onstage and read out the stage, and it’s nothing like what I just did. I can’t explain it. I’ve never been able to explain it. It’s a kind of organic affair.
John Lennon said once that the Beatles would write lyrics just to see what the critics would make of them. Just to confuse tham and see how they would over-analyze them.
Oh, yeah. I remember. Because John, at the time, I was around at the time, and the Melody Maker, the weekly music newspaper, would come out on a Friday, but you could get it in London on a Thursday night around midnight, and John Lennon said, I love Thursday nights around midnight. I go down to Piccadilly and pick up a Melody Maker and see what my lyrics are about.
You should release some of those lists now to see what people make of them.
Yeah. Maybe we should make a poem of them, and a drawing. I don’t know.
It’d be a Lewis Carroll type of –
Oh, it’d be nothing as pretty as that. It’s a bit coarse. It’s kind of coarse, I think. But it’s good to look back. Sometimes I’ll read [something], my god. Sometimes you think you’re not moving along, you’ve been doing the same thing for a long time. Then you look at your lists, and you’re way beyond them. It’s kind of confusing. I’ve never really been in total control of it. And frankly, I don’t want to be. A lot of guys, you look at them and you can tell the stuff, they’ve written it. They didn’t think it up – well, they thought it up and wrote it down in a methodical way, and it’s got that written feel to it. I hate it when you’re watching a comedian and you think, he has said this a million times, these same lines.
I guess the trick is to write something and perform it as if you haven’t.
I’ve never written anything, it just happens. I’ve attempted to write it afterwards so as I might remember, but I’ve never gotten round to that either.
Do you get the feeling that what you’re doing is still rebellious, the way it was earlier on?
There’s a great deal of rebellion involved in it because there’s a great deal of rebellion in me. I’m still angry about everything, you know? I’m still angry about war, about politics, and the fact that we haven’t moved along as a species. I still get angry when I watch television and people are trying to justify being in Afghanistan and telling us it’s a corrupt regime. You’re sending your sons to defend a corrupt regime. That still makes me angry and rebellious.
How do joy and anger fit together?
If you’re relying on just the anger, you’re up a gum tree. You’ve had it. But then anger can become fun. It’s like, if you’re giving your children a lecture on how to behave and you fart in the middle of it, they won’t believe a word you say. It’s just one of those things. Everybody will fall about the room and nobody will give one shit about what you just said, no matter how important it was. Because comedy and vulgarity, like I deal in, is just like that. It takes its own stand.
You said something last time we spoke that’s stuck with me, about profanity not being cursing and not being swearing – it’s profanity or vulgarity, it’s not cursing or swearing.
A lot of people don’t know what language is, you know? To curse or swear you have to invoke gods. And I don’t. I don’t believe in them, so how can I invoke them? I’m neither cursing nor swearing. I’m merely being profane. And I don’t give a fuck what you think about it. If you don’t like it, go watch someone else. Go watch Jimmy Fallon and lose the fucking will to live.
Not a big fan?
Jesus. His next joke’ll be his first.
Were you surprised that Boondock Saints II finally got made?
No, I wasn’t. It had so much good will riding along for it from so many good people, you know? It just had to be done. And of course, it had that extraordinary drive by Duffy, by Troy Duffy. He’s just a driven man. If it didn’t happen, somebody would’ve got hurt. [laughs]
Is that kind of thing fun to play? The action roles?
It’s amazingly good to play, especially with a cast like that, where you’ve all done it before and you all know and like each other. And I can say with my hand on my heart there’s nobody in the movie I don’t like. I like them all and they all like me. We got on like a house on fire. And so we all met in Toronto to do the second one, it was like – well, I’ve never been to a school reunion, but I imagine that’s what they’re like. “Oh, good to see you! You look like you’ve lost weight.” All eating and laughing and getting on with it. And everybody was so together and knew their part so well.
Not only that, Troy had done amazing things. He had hired fans as extras. Dedicated fans who had been writing, and he said, “Do you want to be in it?” Shit, yeah. So they’d flown in from all over the place to be in it. Some of them had the actual tattoos and all that. So there was an extraordinary atmosphere about it. So they weren’t like regular extras. There was a different feel about the place.
That’s an unusual thing for a movie, would you say?
Yeah, well, often you’ll get extras that are kind of wooden. They’ve done it a million times and they’ve got kind of a ho-hum attitude to it. So even the extras were up to it. There was kind of a bright-eyed feel to it.
You’ve been named recently, yet again, Britain’s favorite comedian by AskJeeves.com and by Channel 4.
That’s right. I heard that last week. It means very little to me. You don’t even get a phone call. Do you know that? I get nothing. They don’t even phone me to tell me. If I want to know how I did I have to watch the program. Or people tell you in the street, “Oh, I see you’ve won.” “What? What have I won?”
But at the same time I’m… I’m a bit proud of it. Of course I am. But it’s also kind of a burden, and I do feel the weight of it. And it’s something that I never asked for. Like if you had to enter, I’d have never entered a competition like that. Because you can go to a bar and just see somebody being brilliant. He’s having a great night, he’s flying, he’s in the zone. And that night, he’s the best comedian in the world.
Do you get to see, in New York, there’s probably a lot more comedy that’s more accessible to you.
I tend not to. I sometimes go to Annabelle’s, but it’s very, very rare. And it’s usually to see someone I’ve no chance of stealing from.
Have you ever found yourself unwittingly –
Oh, many, many times. Because a year later it rumbles into your head and you think it’s your own.
Do people call you on it?
No, I’ve never been called on it, but it’s just dawned on me where I got it. Maybe I’ve been doing it two or three weeks and I’m like, shit! I remember where I got it now.
That’s got to be an immensely disappointing feeling.
Yeah. It is for a while, but there are so few things that are totally original. And this is the absolute truth, I can say this with my hand on my heart, and swear on my children’s lives, that I thought I’d said the most original thing ever. My wife was writing a book about me, and I’d said I don’t like going on holiday. I don’t like those kind of hotel holidays, because that’s my life – flying and going to hotels. And she said why don’t we go on a cruise? And I said, oh, you’re joking. And I swear this is true. I said to her, “It’s like jail with an option of drowning.” Right? It’s a prison with an option of drowning. And I thought it was really funny and so did she. And tra la la.
About a year later, I was reading something by Admiral Lord Nelson, and one of his guys had something almost identical. Fucking Lord Nelson! What was that, the 18th century, 19th century? Fucking hell! I didn’t know that was possible. Sometimes you think you’re being dead original and boom.
There’s also got to be some allowance for people who are outright stealing material. That’s not something I would think could be condoned.
Some people steal outright and it’s outrageous. It’s intellectual property, and it’s a crime. And I include people who tape you and stick it online. My material is none of their fucking business to do with what they wish. You can’t just take the workings of my brain and start putting them where you want to. That’s such an arrogance.
But there are other guys, and I won’t name names, who are often accused of stealing when they’re not stealers at all. They are comedy black holes, everything goes into their head and comes out a different shape. And I think you probably know who I’m talking about. He’s often accused of stealing, and he doesn’t. I don’t believe he’s ever stolen a word, consciously.
Some people, they just absorb it. They go to clubs all the time and perform all the time, and all the people they hear all go into their head and comes out as a mish-mash. I think that’s art itself. I think writers do that constantly. Novelists do it all the time.
Were you skeptical when you were asked to lend your voice to a satnav for Tom-Tom GPS?
Oh, I couldn’t wait. I couldn’t, because I had been doing a thing about it onstage. My Range Rover had a very posh woman [affects an upscale woman’s voice], “Talking like that, how do you do?” And she called roundabouts “traffic circles.” I was telling the audience about it, she goes, in a huff, if I take a wrong turn, she gives me the silent treatment. She won’t talk to me for half an hour. So I said, put me on, I’ll do one. And I did a spoof one onstage, you know. And I would say, “Turn right… I said right, ya prick.” And lo, out of the blue came the offer. John Cleese had done one.
Is the Gulliver’s Travels your in live action or animated?
It’s live. But it’s all green screen.
It’s interesting casting, making you a Lilliputian, considering your nickname is –
The Big Yin, yeah. Like the giant. What a nice guy.
The tallest Lilliputian.
[laughs] A giant dwarf. It was a kind of tiresome process, acting at a piece of plaster on a wall, or a mark or a laser dot on a wall. Talking to it. But it was made up by the fact that the cast were lovely and funny and everything, you know. And Jack’s such a lovely wee man to work with.
Do you think comedy audiences have changed much since you started?
Not as far as I can see. Although I don’t get as many hecklers as I used to, and I’m delighted to hear it. Earlier in my career, I used to get hecklers, shouting and bothering. They like to listen to what you’re going to say. They know you’re inventive and you’re going to build something. So I can only speak for myself, but I tend to get people who are there to see me because they like me. SO I can’t really judge on the broader audience the way a guy who does comedy clubs could tell you. He would be better to ask if the audiences are changing. Mine aren’t changing. They people who like me come to see me and we all have a great time.
Do you ever want to get back up on a club stage and do a smaller show?
No, I don’t, because I never did it. When I did the clubby stuff I was a folkie, I was a musician. I was in bands, and I was being funny between songs and stuff. And I have no desire to do that anymore. Although I did it Saturday with Steve Martin. We had a fantastic jam. Have you ever heard of a guy named Tony Trischka? He was there and Mark Johnson who invented this style called clawgrass. And a fiddler and a mandolin player, and a guitar and a bass player, out at Steve’s house. Oh, it was great.
Have you ever wanted to play music again?
Yes, I get the urge, but I don’t quite know what to do about it. I don’t want to be a musician again. I don’t want to be in bands. I don’t like the arena. I don’t want to go around to radio stations talking to fuckwits all my life. The music side of things is hell, talking to these music stations. These idiots who think they know what they’re talking about who couldn’t fucking play with themselves, you know?
What would it look like if you did it? It would be hard for you at this point to go onstage and just do a set of music without doing comedy.
I don’t know. I think I would be driven to make it funny. Well, Steve’s having a lovely time. Steve Martin’s out touring with a bluegrass band. And he manages perfectly. But I don’t know if I could. But over the years, I’ve been trying to work out a way of trying to put my banjo back in to my act. But I can’t find a place where I could stop talking and play. And I haven’t done that. As soon as I stop playing I start talking again.
Well maybe just bring it up with you, and whatever happens –
And just leave it on the floor or have it standing there, the way I used to. I don’t know. I really don’t know what to do about it. Then I start questioning why I’m doing it. Am I playing it just because I can, am I showing off? What am I doing here? What is the point? Should I write something funny for it or should I just play it nice. I don’t know what to do. I think too much about it. Sometimes you should stop thinking about it and do things.
Your childhood comes up often onstage. How do you find something new in topics you’ve covered to frequently?
It’s because they’re not huge chunks, really. Usually they’re just moments. They’re a story of a particular day or an event. The entire event I’m talking about didn’t take a day, and I’ve got 67 years worth.
I suppose if you tried to start at the beginning, all hell would break loose.
Bring on this huge, fat diary. “Then is was Tuesday, a rainy day if I remember. 1942.” [laughs]
Well, you are known for doing long stretches of material. You could probably beat your record for that pretty easily if you started out that way.
There’s a thing on YouTube, and if you look it up, it’s “Billy Connolly Wildebeest.” That was an ad-lib. On that night, I’ve only done it like three times, Wildebeest, and that night that’s on YouTube is I think the second time I ever did it. It was exactly the same as the first night, and it came in one piece. You might be amazed. It’s very long. Sometimes ad-libs come complete. Big Chunks.
Is there anything else you’re up to that I’ve missed?
Not at the moment, no. I’m having the time of my life just doing bugger all. Except I draw in the morning and I go for a cigar with my friends in the afternoon.