Interview: A quick look inside the ‘Dandelion Mind’ of UK comedian Bill Bailey

If you’re an American comedy fan, I don’t think it’s unlikely that you might ask “Who is Bill Bailey?”

But if you’re a fan of English comedy, you already know the answer to that question, and no doubt you’re looking forward to his brief live tour here in the U.S., a rare opportunity to see the man work a stage.

If you’re a comedy fan in general, but you don’t know Bailey’s work, then hopefully that is about to change for you.  The first thing I would recommend is tracking down the series “Black Books,” which is available on Hulu.  In that show, you’ll get a good long look at Bailey as Manny, a sort of Zen hippie foil to Dylan Moran’s lead character, the foul-tempered Bernard Black.  Bailey is a blissed-out marvel on the show, strange and funny and almost always living in his own strange world.  You may also have seen him in a very sly and surreal turn as twins in “Hot Fuzz,” but you may not have known who he was.

The real Bailey strikes me as Manny plus self-awareness and a broad intellectual curiosity, all of playing into the type of material he does in his stand-up comedy.  And if you’re in one of the cities where Bailey is performing on a very brief and currently in-progress US tour, I envy you.  I would love to see this show.

I’ll have to settle, though, for the conversation I had with the performer a few days ago when he called my house mid-morning.

We started talking about how hard it is for American fans of English comedy to stay current thanks to availability, and I asked him how his on-stage work differs from the things we might have seen him in.  “The stand-up shows I’ve been doing for the last few years have kind of evolved from being a sort of jobbing comic working on the circuit to going to festivals where the shows developed a bit more, and then instruments were added and I started playing strange Eastern instruments and keyboards, and the shows got much more elaborate.  So there are elements here that you might see in other shows, observational comedy and some scatological shows, but there’s also some topical stuff like in the various panel shows I’ve done.  So it’s the sum of all of that, plus something else, really.  Certainly my stand-up has got a separate life of its own.  I do shows in theaters and larger rooms and small clubs, and they’re all different, and this is a combination of all of that.  The shows I tour with overseas don’t tend to change much.  This particular show is one that will travel to New York quite well.”

I talked to him about the fan club he has in the form of various filmmakers, like Edgar Wright, who has never missed an opportunity to talk up Bailey’s work to me.  I asked him about the different word of mouth energy that happens with English comics these days and American comedy, where I don’t think that is as prevalent as it used to be.  It seems like there’s a very different comedy culture in the UK.  “I find the whole thing with Bill Hicks extraordinary.  I got to know him through his recordings, and I never got to see him live.  I was in New York ten years ago performing in a theater in mid-town, and I went and played a few clubs, and I’d talk to American comics and they’d ask me who I liked, and I would mention Hicks, and they would be amazed I’d heard of him.  He was playing the biggest theaters in London.  And over here, it just wasn’t the same.  There are comics who don’t appear on TV here, who sort of shun the mainstream media, and yet they can easily perform to a large crowd by reaching out directly to their fans.  I think that has a real part to play these days for artists of all types, musicians or whatever, because they can speak directly to the like-minded without ever troubling the mainstream media at all.”

That made me think of the way Louis CK is spoken of by comics, and the way even his new FX show is still something of a cult item.  I can’t imagine Louis CK selling out a venue as big as Wembley Stadium here, although maybe I’m wrong.  In the UK, though, that seems to be a routine occurrence.  “Live comedy in the UK has just taken off in the last few years, to the point where myself and a lot of other comics have played tours where you’re playing arenas.  10, 12 or 14,000 people.  That’s surreal.  Stand-up in its purest form is about standing in a small club with a microphone.  There’s an intimacy to it.  That’s lost in an arena.  But in a place like that, there’s a feeling that you want to be part of a group of like-minded people, and that’s the truth with music festivals, too.  It’s a hunger for community, and people like to have their favorite comics and favorite bands, and that’s replaced some primal need.  We are social animals.  Someone’s probably writing a dissertation about that now at some university, about how these sorts of events and gatherings almost replace religion.  I wanted to do this in New York because I wrote it by touring around the Scottish Highlands performing it for confused fishermen, and I want to see if it travels.”

I appreciate that his material demands a certain degree of cultural literacy, and it feels like Bailey expects that his crowd will meet him halfway.  There’s no pandering to the lowest common denominator.  “I suppose that’s fair to say.  I spend a lot of time in clubs when I was starting out, and it’s a very male-dominated scene.  There weren’t many female comics.  There was this one late-night comedy jam show in London that I was part of for many year,s and I realized it’s like a bunch of stags, this testosterone-fueled stand-off where all these comics would lock horns in front of the audience.  It had that energy about it.  But the subject matter and the delivery was very similar for many people, and it was very bloke-heavy, very guy-oriented.  And one night, as an experiment, I substituted all the cursing with Olde English words, and I took on subject matter that was very different than what most people were doing.  And I realized it was getting just as many laughs, so since that point, I’ve tried to never underestimate the audience.  You want to entertain people, give them a few laughs.  But if you can make them think about something and take them on a journey, then that’s the sort of show I’d like to go to see.”

I started laughing about how even the description of his show contains a reference to cult director Michael Winner, and he started laughing as well.  “Oh, so you know him and ‘Death Wish,’ then?  His very special gift to the world.”  I told him how that’s so particular a reference, and he said, “It’s not the sort of stuff that would be adapted to a Broadway musical, is it?”

“But can you imagine the headlines about injuries during rehearsal if it were?” I asked.

Laughing, he said, “Mostly to Michael Winner himself, I’m guessing.”  As I thanked him for calling, he said that this first part of the tour is very quick, but there will be a second leg of the tour soon on the West Coast as well.  It was a short but nice conversation with a guy who is, I hope, on the first step of becoming as well known here as he is in England.

For full details of his tour and tickets, check his website.