Attention, North America! Legendary British comic Bill Bailey is coming to visit! He'll be arriving September 14th and staying through the 20th, all the while performing his celebrated one-man show DANDELION MIND - so do tidy up!
As Bailey is a frustratingly infrequent guest in North America, it may be necessary to explain why - if you live in New York City, Chicago, Toronto or Boston - you should be snapping up tickets to see this man do his blithely brilliant thing. And this is doubly frustrating because "explaining" Bill Bailey isn't nearly as fun as kicking back and watching the classically trained musician veer from wicked parodies of Sting or U2 to off-kilter observational comedy to a silly/brainy bit on the Large Hadron Collider. I'm a newcomer to Bailey's act myself, so sifting through nearly two decades of his material has been something of a revelation. Though I was certainly aware of Bailey's acting (his bizarre intonation of "Lon-don" in HOT FUZZ is now my preferred pronunciation), the extent of his genius was unclear. Now, I can't get enough.
Referring to his wide-ranging act as "stand-up" may feel a bit limiting, but Bailey embraces it. Though his performances are a conflation of many different art forms (music, film, spoken word), he is, first and foremost, a comedian. In fact, he views his latest work, DANDELION MIND, as a way of "getting back to the roots of stand-up". This means getting away from the sitcoms (like the popular BLACK BOOKS) and panel shows that helped earn Bailey a wider U.K. audience, and finally sharing his affliction with the rest of the world.
When I interviewed Bailey a couple of weeks ago (he was in Bali, Indonesia, so he's taking this "rest of the world" thing kind of seriously), we discussed why it's taken so long for him to tour North America, how he tries out new material for his fairly complicated shows, and where exactly he came up with the idea to play Sting's "Fields of Gold" on tuned car horns. The matter of his long-running feud with Chris de Burgh was also covered. No topic was taboo!
(For those of you lucky bastards who live in one of the cities Bailey will be visiting this month, I've posted dates and ticket info below.)
Bill Bailey: I'm in Bali. I'm actually drinking a beer right now. It's late.
Mr. Beaks: It's 7:45 in the morning here. If I were drinking a beer now, that would be a problem.
Bailey: You'd be at work, you'd have your first beer on, and that would be wrong. I don't want to rub it in. Sorry. I shouldn't have mentioned it.
Beaks: It's quite alright. So why bring DANDELION MIND to the U.S.?
Bailey: I've wanted to come to the States for a long time. I performed in New York about ten years ago, and in L.A. a few years ago, but I've wanted to come back for a long time. This show is something that's evolved over the last year or so, and it was really about getting back to the roots of stand-up. That's why I wanted to come to New York. I think New York is a great place to perform: it's very productive creatively; it's got an energy about it.
Also, because I'm not that particularly well known to American audiences, there is an element of a challenge about it, which I like. In this show, I like to involve the audience, but not in a demeaning, mocking way. I like to get an audience's involvement in a sort of collaborative, fun way, where people get involved in the debate almost despite themselves. I think one of the great pleasures of doing stand-up is trying out ideas in front of an audience; you don't know how it's going to go. There's an element of risk about it, an element of danger almost. This show has all of those elements. It's one that distills most of what I do into one show, and I thought I had such fun performing it around the world, I thought this would be a show to take to American audiences. There's a lot that audiences will respond to. There are a lot of themes about living in a modern society, and about doubting the so-called establishment. There's a kind of sense of convulsion and revolution around the world as we've seen in many countries. It seemed like the perfect show to take to the States.
Beaks: Have you reworked any of the material for American audiences?
Bailey: No. There are little subtle changes you might make, but purely down to things like vocabulary; we use subtly different words for very common everyday things, and those can sometimes be stumbling blocks. But those get ironed out very quickly. Aside from that, I think the funny will hopefully carry over with the ideas and the thoughts behind it. Once the little kinks are ironed out, it's pretty much the show that I've been performing everywhere else.
Beaks: You mentioned getting back to the roots of stand-up. Most comics, when they're working on new material, can just pop into a club and try out jokes. How do you try out your material? With your shows, it seems like it might be a little more complicated.
Bailey: It is. (Laughs) It's a real effort just to try to remember it! But I think I've been through every kind of permutation of how you do it. Do you write the thing, and then trust instinctively that it'll work? "Well, no, I need to try it out in a club." But I figured out just very recently, after having done stand-up for twenty-odd years, a major leap forward in how to do it - and that is that every gig is different. You approach every gig as if it's a new experience. Even if you're doing a run of shows in a theater, each one will be different in some way: the audience will be different, you maybe had a new idea... there's a kind of immediacy and a sense of risk and a sense of the unknown about every gig. You have to accept that almost, and use it. That's the key for me, really. There are some complicated bits. There's a whole section about the Large Hadron Collider, and the search for the Higgs Boson, the "God particle", and a very detailed dissection of an inter-departmental memo between the heads of department of the Large Hadron Collider. Not the immediate subject for comedy you might think, but you can winkle it out! It's there! There's an appetite for knowledge in everyone, and audiences like for you, the comedian, to take them on that journey. I think if you stay true to your comedic principles about what you personally consider funny, there's a certain... I don't know, an energy or a passion to it that draws people along.
Beaks: Were there performers who did something close to what you do now that inspired you? I'm thinking as far back as someone like Spike Jones.
Bailey: Along the way you hear snippets of people's comedy, or you see the odd clip of someone. Sometimes you draw the inspiration in odd ways. For me, sometimes it's not just comedy; it can be films as well. There's a lot of film content in the show - little short films, animation, graphic stuff. I love to experiment with the visual as well as the musical and spoken word. It's such a part of our culture, the way we absorb culture. I probably watched some Finnish road movie by Aki Kaurismaki. "God, that was an hilariously black, deadpan scene. Quite depressing, yet also very funny." The idea, the concepts of it, the unlikeliness of the humor... I think that's what is an inspiration. Sometimes you'll see a film or hear a bit of music or hear an old stand-up, like an old Albert Brooks routine or watching Monty Python. Even just hearing something, a film or a bit of TV, like an episode of THE SIMPSONS or LARRY SANDERS, where a turn of phrase or a scenario would play out. Just a narrow little window of comedy, but it's been beautifully winkled out. I think those things give you inspiration. You think, "There's comedy everywhere." The devil is in the details.
Beaks: How much room do you leave for audience interaction and improv?
Bailey: I always like to keep a bit of room for that. My ideal gig would be where there's a combination of set pieces that have been worked on. As an audience member, I like to see stuff that's been worked on; I want to see that a bit of effort has been put in. Likewise, I like to have a section of the show where you don't know the outcome, there's an open-ended section where there's a bit of debate and you don't know where it might lead - and also a bit of audiences getting involved in the conversation. I think if you choose the right subjects and you allow people to see that you're not going to try to make fun of them or demean them - it's not a shouting contest but a bit of a forum - then, yes. I think sometimes the venue can be very instrumental in that. If you have the right place, like a small theater, sometimes that works better than a huge arena. Obviously, I'm not saying to people, "Get drunk and heckle!" I'm not saying that! Don't print that!
Beaks: Because they'll do it. If you ask, they'll absolutely do it.
Bailey: (Laughs) They don't need much encouragement.
Beaks: But that would be good. "Bill Bailey's All-Heckling Show!"
Bailey: "Free for hecklers!" (Laughs) "You idiot! You said what!?!?" "Excuse me! Cut your hair, you hippie!"
Beaks: I'm thinking you could put up chicken wire like in THE BLUES BROTHERS.
Bailey: (Laughs) Sometimes it's like that, believe me.
Bailey: Comedy Store in London. 2 AM. There are four guys in the front row that are asleep. You're thinking, "I've got a routine about Mozart. Maybe I won't do that routine tonight. I've got some less subtle material I may have to use."
Beaks: (Laughing) "What kind of material do I have that's loud?"
Bailey: "Do I have any marching band material? Is there a routine that involves a brown paper bag being burst at the end of it?" (Laughs) But they wake up at the end of the act, and just slump over and clap. "Yay! More!" "You were asleep, you moron. You don't even know what happened. I could've been balloon modeling." In fact, balloon modeling! That's not a bad idea! That's a good tip: always keep a balloon handy in case there's a drunk in the front row.
Beaks: So how did it occur to you to play "Fields of Gold" on car horns?
Bailey: Well, mainly the insufferable smugness of Sing was the main inspiration. For years I've been trying to figure out a way of having a go, trying to play "Fields of Gold" that would reflect that. And then I was lucky enough to work with an orchestra [for BILL BAILEY'S REMARKABLE GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA], and one of the things we performed was "The Swan" from THE CARNIVAL OF THE ANIMALS by Saint-Saens on the tuned Alpine Cowbells - which was a thing to behold as you can imagine. And we lost one of the bells on the tour, so it got replaced by a tuned car horn. So it was this beautiful (doing the melody) "Ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-ring-HONK!" It worked great! And I thought, "I've got to get me some of these horns!" So I had a whole two-octave range of car horns specially made. And then, of course, you think, "Well, the world's my oyster now! I've got to figure out something I can play on these things!" Gary Numan's "Cars" was the one that sprung to mind initially. But over the course of the show on the West End, "Fields of Gold" reared up as a great candidate. It's such a sort of downbeat song, and Sting's in his lovely (imitating Sting) "Nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah..." you know, that sort of whining smugness that comes out of his ears. So I figured, "Let's play the car horns over it." It's one of my great pleasures of performing actually. If I could've worked in a lute solo as well, I would've done it. There's not enough lute!
Beaks: I read that you leave two tickets for Chris de Burgh at every show. Is this true?
Bailey: (Laughing) Absolutely. One of these days he's going to show up, and I'll be ready.
Beaks: And what a blessed even that will be.
Bailey: I think so. Look, I've been through the phase with de Burgh. I used to make fun of him. I called him many names: "The Monobrowed Purveyor of Ultimate Filth" was one of them. And he's come back with all sorts of rejoinders like, "You're ugly." That reignited the whole feud. (Laughs) It was all dead and buried. I'd moved on to other targets. De Burgh was old hat. To be honest, I didn't even want to mention him; I didn't want a whole new generation of fans even knowing about him. I didn't want to even open the door. Keep it closed! So I'd moved on to James Blunt.
But the thing was de Burgh got involved with a critic [from THE IRISH TIMES]. And the critic wrote a not-altogether-glowing review of his show in Dublin - which I thought was pretty fair. When he plays "Lady in Red"... a bunch of women in the audience have worn red dresses for the occasion, and de Burgh goes up and kisses them on the hand. And the critic said in the review, "After this, certain toes will never be uncurled." I thought that was a beautiful image. (Laughs) So I wrote to the critic and said, "What a great review. Well done." Chris de Burgh then wrote the guy a five-page rant saying how annoyed he was at the review. Anyway, it all blew up into this huge thing, which resulted in me reading out all the correspondence at the 02 Arena in Dublin - with probably de Burgh and the critic present. So we kind of aired all the dirty laundry in public - which is good, I think.
Beaks: Well, just in case it's not all settled, I think you should go to a de Burgh show wearing a red dress.
Bailey: (Laughs) That's not a bad idea actually.
Beaks: By coming to America, are you hoping to perhaps get a foothold in Hollywood? Get on their radar a little?
Bailey: I love working in America. I love being there. I was at Bonnaroo earlier this year, and I had a great time. I loved driving around Tennessee. The challenge of being in a new country and a new culture is great, and it's something I've wanted to do for many, many years. Ten years ago, I was performing in New York. I was there for three-and-a-half months, and I was loving it. The audiences didn't really know who I was, so I had the challenge of proving every night my "chops" as it were. It's intellectually and creatively very productive being there, and I thought I'd love to come back. But then things took a turn in the U.K. Suddenly, my career took off, and I had TV, films and sitcoms and lord knows what. So the whole American side of things got put on the back burner for a while. But I'm sort of done with TV and panel shows in the U.K.; I want to get back to the roots of stand-up - hence, the fact that I toured around Scotland and the Highlands last year. This is really an extension of that: getting into the real essence of what the job is, and the real pleasure of what the job is, and that is to take your shows to pastures new. I think I benefit a lot from that. You get great ideas from it. Being on the road and touring around in a new country can be a source of material in itself.
I've performed most places around the world where you can speak English and a lot of places that you don't. But America is one place I haven't performed as much as I'd like. It's a country with a very rich history of stand-up. It has an extraordinary literary history, and it's a place of great beauty. It's huge as well. It's massive! It's vast! I love that when you go to the CIA World Fact Book - which I have to say is one of my favorite websites - the CIA have this fantastically deadpan view of the world. When it talks about the U.K., it's got the number of phone lines and internet sources and the mileage of all the roads - like you'd ever want to know that! But anyway, fair play, they've got to do something. But at the end of the entry for the United Kingdom, "Any Other Comments About the United Kingdom," it just says, "A major source of money laundering and South American cocaine." And you think, "Well, what about Shakespeare!?!? Elgar? The maritime history? Is that all you can say about us: that we're a bunch of drug-addled money launderers?" Maybe we are. And we've got the CIA to thank for cutting us down to size.
One of the other things they say is, "Britain is slightly smaller than Oregon." That's it! That's all we get! And you think, "Shit, we're not even as big as Oregon. Who the hell are we?" I like that. I like the dismissive nature. It's a challenge, that's what it is. I don't like to make it easy on myself. "How the hell am I going to make these people laugh?" That's what I'm thinking.
Bill Bailey's DANDELION MIND USA tour begins September 14th in New York City and concludes on September 20th in Boston. Do not miss it. Here are the dates:
NYU Skirball Center
House of Blues
House of Blues