Bill Bailey: ‘Keep saying funny things – that’s quite profound advice’ | Bill Bailey

How did you get into comedy?
I grew up in the West Country and there wasn’t much of a comedy scene at the time. On the invite of a friend, I went to London and we saw a comedy gig in Archway that was comically alternative. It was like a sitcom’s version of what alternative comedy would be. It was in an anarchist 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 who did this surreal meta magic and there were some storytellers, character comedians and John Hegley. He was singing short, intense songs on the mandolin and he had this brilliant stage persona. It was the first time I realized: “That’s what I want to do!” It was just a question of how I could engineer my life so I could do it.

I went back to the West Country and my school friend Toby and I set up a comedy club in Bath. It wasn’t a vegan exchange, that was a bit of a stretch for the West Country in the 80s, but it was great fun. We compared a monthly talent show. New acts would come to perform and there were prizes for whoever the audience liked.

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

Can you remember a gig so bad, it’s now funny?
I was doing a show in New Zealand years ago and I used to do a song about racial harmony called Hats Off to the Zebras. It was about black and white living together in harmony, and a sendup 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 evening was about breaching the racial divide. It was white New Zealanders and the Māori community. It was like I turned up there and gave two fingers up to the whole thing.

How would you describe your current show that you’re taking to the Royal Opera House?
It’s an account of the last couple of years. The first half is a catchup of what happened artistically during lockdown. The long days, the strange obsessions, the creative rabbit holes you go down. The second half is much more about my own personal idea of ​​what normality is. For example, how I dealt with the extra fame of doing Strictly and the spotlight that brings. The whole thing really is about trying to find 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. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

What’s your process for writing material?
Usually I book a little try-out room. Sometimes I take a notepad to gauge the reaction of the story or song in front of a small audience. But this hasn’t been available recently because no venues were open. Instead, I found myself at large venues, sometimes at an arena, trying something out for the first time. Ridiculously, it felt a bit like a high-wire act. I’ve got to confess, I got 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!

Any pre-show rituals?
I always go sit in the empty auditorium and visualize the show. I imagine myself in the audience watching the show. Somehow that helps my performance. I imagine what people needed to do to get to the show and their expectations. It’s a way of reminding myself that every show is unique and needs to be as good as it can be.

What’s an important lesson you’ve learned from being a standup?
I think it teaches you a lot of self-reliance. You have to be determined, thick-skinned and able to roll with the punches. It teaches you to be in charge of your own life because everything is on you. With standup, the benefits are that you feel you earned the good things that come your way, because you write it and travel around performing it. But if it’s not going well, you’re on your own.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Bob Mills, who was a standup I worked with when I was starting out, said: “Keep saying funny things.” It’s actually quite profound. Comedians are always asked, “What do you think of this?” “What’s your opinion on fracking?” In the end, we’re here to tell jokes and be funny.

What’s next for you?
A tour of Australia. Touch wood the monkey pox doesn’t put a kibosh on that. I’ve got a film, TV series and more standup stretching off into the future. Who knows?

Bill Bailey is at the Royal Opera House, London, 11-14 August. His Walk for Sean Lock is raising money for Macmillan Cancer Support.

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