Bill Bailey: comedy, strange musical instruments, supermarket scanners and The Hobbit

As he launches the DVD of his latest stand-up tour, Dandelion Mind, Bill Bailey spares us a bit of a time for a natter…

Not for the first time, we should say this from the outset: we love Bill Bailey. And thus, when offered the chance to interview the man face to face about his new DVD, Dandelion Mind, arms were duly snapped off. It turned out to be a lovely chat, too, where we touched on his recent tour, his new DVD, his planned TV series about sound, and a little bit of The Hobbit.

Here’s how the chat went…

I’ve got to say from the off, I love the fact that you’ve done a post-credits encore on the DVD. It felt like leaving an album running on a blank track for ages, only to have a bit of music suddenly pop up. Was it spontaneous, that you just walked back on stage as the audience were leaving, and started again?

Yeah. It happened firstly on the tour in Australia and New Zealand. I can’t remember what it was, it might have been Auckland. I did a show at the Civic Theatre there, and it was a great gig, and the audience really enjoyed it. I’d had great fun, and there was lots of banter.

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I finished the show and I walked off, and there were still quite a lot of people in the venue, and they hadn’t left. And my guitar tech, Trevor, said, there’s still lots of people out there. There’s loads of people out there. And the music was still playing. So, I just wandered back out there, and they didn’t clock me at first. Then someone said, “There’s Bill!” So, I sort of picked up the guitar and started singing a song.

Then I realised that a lot of people who had been at the show, who were at the back of the venue, suddenly were able to come right to the front.

So, it was nice for those who’d had a seat at the back, as they were now able to have a really intimate show at the front. And I thought, what a great thing. It felt really good fun. It didn’t happen every night, but a couple of nights, it did. It spontaneously happened when the audience was just hanging about.

I know myself, because I’ve been to see rock gigs and shows, and just want to sit in the venue afterwards, and take in the atmosphere. So, that’s what I did.

It happened in Dublin again [the DVD recording gig], because being the 02, there were 10,000 people in there. With the stragglers, there were still enough people there to play a gig to.

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The thing that strikes me about you is that you still have the ability to genuinely surprise an audience with your material. That’s something that’s happening less and less with comedy. We saw it with the treatment of the Tesco supermarket scanner in this gig [you can see the clip here]. Is that the real hard work for you?

It is, yeah. It’s trying to find a subject matter that is interesting, and ways of dealing with it that are interesting. Those are the challenges, really.

There’s so much comedy around, and so many comics doing lots of different things. It’s one of the things that I find takes up so much time when I’m writing a show. Trying to imagine ways to deal with subjects that haven’t been done before, or trying to think up things that I’ve not seen before. Treat familiar subjects with an unfamiliar way.

I would love to do a pastiche of Interpol, or something like that, but not everyone knows who Interpol are. And the few people who do might nod sagely and say, “Oh. yes. I see what he’s done there.” But that’s it. So, I think that’s one of the challenges of writing comedy. Finding things that are funny, but also you’re revealing something in a different way.

You mentioned the Tesco film, the scanner. That’s something which is almost a physical representation of that exact approach, seeing something from another angle. It’s a very familiar thing, the scanner. We’re all going to the supermarket and scanning our own food now. And you look into the scanner and you see, from the scanner’s POV, my face, and what’s in it.

That, to me, I suppose, is one of the duties of comedy in a way, an obligation of stand-up, to try and make sense of the world, or to try and explain it in a strange or lateral way. To see the surreal and absurd in the everyday.

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I love the little documentary you put on the disc and the way you talk about playing the Shetland Islands. There seemed to be as much a thrill in surprising yourself and finding an untapped venue for your work? That the venue was more of a resource than usual.

Yeah, certainly. I think that taking on that tour, it’s hard. It’s harder to get to these venues. You can’t just rock up there. You have to plan it, and get flights, and planes, and ferries. And also, I was aware that they might not even be that familiar with my stuff. I had to accept that.

Some of these places might not be my die-hard fans, or people familiar with my stuff, and I might have to work a bit harder. And that, to me, felt like a good challenge, the good element of it. I always think that performing comedy somewhere unfamiliar is a way of sharpening yourself up, and testing your mettle as a comic.

I remember a few years ago, I went and performed in New York. Nobody knew who I was from Adam. I was just some Limey, some English bloke coming over to do comedy. So, the first ten minutes of the first few shows were met with utter baffled silence. And then they gradually got into it. Those first few shows, I really made it so hard for myself, because I was just treating it as if they would be on my wavelength straight away. And, of course, they weren’t.

What I ended up doing, I wrote ten minutes of quite straightforward stand-up, to almost convince them that I was funny, so that they would then relax. I would do stuff about the hotel, about Soho. I was in this posh hotel. They serve this breakfast. What do they serve it with? Contempt. And they’re like “Oh, yeah. This guy’s funny.” Then I can do the stuff about science and nuclear physics, language, obscure bands.

Then, there’s a way in. There was a bit of that going around Scotland as well. Not quite as much, but there were a few places where they were like, “Oh. yeah. I’ve seen this guy on TV. I don’t know if I’m going to like him live.” I had to work that bit more to convince people, and sell the show a bit more. That was great, invaluable, interesting. That was early on, and that was the show’s conception, really.

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You clearly had a lot of fun with the scale of the 02, but you also make the point that you enjoy the smaller gigs, where you can just go in and try something. And that by the time you get to the big arenas, you’ve got less room to try things out.

Yeah, that’s right. It had to be like that. I knew, at the end of the tour, there was going to be a big gig that had to be filmed for the DVD. And I knew that this show, more than any I can think in recent memory, is about getting back to the roots of stand-up, in a way. And how it all began. Playing in small venues, convincing people that you’re funny, and knowing eventually that there would be a big crowd, with all the production things.

I wanted the show to be something I could do in a small venue. I could equally do this show in a room and that was quite important to me. Somehow you need to convince and challenge yourself, and remind yourself why you got into it in the first place.

When we spoke a year ago, you were in early talks with the BBC about putting together a children’s television series on sound. Have you got any further with it?

These things grind forward very slowly. We’re still talking to them about it, trying to find the right elements to do. In some ways, it’s the sort of thing that I’d like to try in a live context. To do a show for kids. Explaining to people about instruments, and to make a show that’s about sound, and actually take people through it in a live context, and see how we do with that.

The Guide To The Orchestra was the basis of that…

It is, yeah. And I can see the next few years being where I would like to do more of those things. Guides to film music, to jazz, to the piano, sound, how we hear it. That is something which is about trying to constantly push yourself. Otherwise you lose your keenness.

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Now, this show I’m doing right now in the West End, it’s hard. It’s not easy to do. The ideas and the concepts behind it, the words I have to remember, they’re not easy. And sometimes you have to work a bit harder to get the audience onside. But that’s part of the challenge of it, and I’m never going to lose that element of it. I have that keenness in this show, more than ever.

You got them all chanting “oud” at the gig in Dublin! [Oud as in the musical instrument, rather than Ood as in the Doctor Who characters].

I know! It’s amazing! There’s nowhere else in the world where that would happen, other than Dublin!

You saying about testing out the live music stuff on stage, there’s almost like a frustrated music teacher in you…?

Yeah. It is a bit like that. I think so. I think that in the search for subjects that are not familiar or not commonly dealt with in comedy, in my orbit will come all kinds of other things. Like instruments: medieval instruments, stringed instruments, folk instruments. Hi-tech gizmos. Things that interest me, and would not normally be seen in a comedy context.

You won’t see a celebrated oud player making jokes about it, and getting the audience to chant “oud”. And making jokes that you can’t get a purchase on! But that’s part of the essence of what I do. The juxtaposition of things that you would not associate with comedy, and placing them in a comedy context, and seeing where that takes you.

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Finally, just quickly, The Hobbit. Any news?

I don’t know, yet. I’m still waiting to hear! I’d love to be a dwarf.

Bill Bailey, thank you very much.

Dandelion Mind is out now on DVD.

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