As a comedian, actor, surrealist, musician, and panel show regular, it’s fair to say that Bill Bailey is something of a renaissance man in the entertainment industry. As he gets ready to head back to Nottingham for his Larks in Transit tour, we caught up with him to chat about satire, feminism and Nick Minaj...
Your standup has always featured a good dose of satire. If you could pick another period in history to be a satirist, when would it be?
I think that there’s always something going on that lends itself to being lampooned. There’s grist to the mill at any age, although I think now is a particularly extraordinary time; it seems there is something happening every hour, not just every week or month. It’s harder in some ways because the political landscape is changing so rapidly and it’s difficult to keep up with what’s happening. While there is selfishness, idiocy, hypocrisy and all those other flaws, then of course there’ll always be material for comedians, satirists and cartoonists. It’s just the way that we are; politics is the eternal sea, constantly flowing in and out.
I wasn’t quite sure how to phrase this next question, so in my notes I’ve just written “Feminism.” I know you’re quite vocal on that subject. Anything you want to say?
To me, it’s always been common sense really. Half of the world’s population are women and they’re very capable of doing all kinds of jobs that men do, often doing them better. Why do we even have to talk about this in 2019? I’m not really about activism or politicising it. For me, it’s just about a sensible and sane approach to life.
You are clearly a very technically proficient musician. Why did you decide to make music a part of your show?
When I first started incorporating music into the show, it was always with a guitar, as they are more portable when you’re doing gigs up and down the country. I then put on a show in an Edinburgh venue for three weeks, and it was one of the first times I’d done a longer run in one place. I realised I could leave a keyboard there overnight, and that’s when it occurred to me that there’s a lot more to be had out of music theory. Other than a few comedians like Victor Borge, that hadn’t really been tried much before.
In your latest show, there’s a section about Nicki Minaj and puffins. I’m interested in the process you go through to write that kind of material. Do you trawl through a lot of pop music and find those nuggets, or is it more passive inspiration?
It’s really quite a logical process. I’m very interested in how music plays upon our emotions – the relationship between the notes, the sound of the music and the emotional effect it has on us, and how music has a way of changing our perception of visuals.
The piece about Nicki Minaj stemmed from the sound of a birdcall in a song. There’s a bird called a northern diver loon, whose call is liberally sprinkled through many film soundtracks. It’s got this haunting call that immediately gives you atmosphere; it’s like a big button that says ‘Atmos’. It crops up in loads of songs going back about thirty years. I traced this line from 808 State all the way to Nicki Minaj, and I thought there’s something in that, the way nature is incorporated into music and used to enhance a piece of art.
I discovered you as a teenager in about 2005 when your first DVD, Cosmic Jam came out. It dawned on me later on that the show was recorded in 1995 – it must have been somewhat frustrating for you that people were laughing at jokes you’d told a decade ago.
I guess so, yes. But that’s just the way these things work out. I recorded the show just after I’d done my first solo show at the Edinburgh Festival. At the time it was exciting – I’d got a deal to make a bunch of DVDs. It’s quite hard to persuade a big company to market your DVD when nobody knows who you are. There was a period later on where I was touring lots, and it was only when I started to get a bit of a higher profile that my team thought: “Didn’t we record a show about 10 years ago? Let’s put that out.” But it’s fine, I’m quite happy with that.
I really enjoyed the Shed Game on that DVD.
Ha. Well, it’s probably the only DVD out there with an interactive Shed Game.
Were you in any bands?
When we were at school we were in a band called Behind Closed Doors. We were sort of cursed by that name, because that’s where we ended up playing most of our gigs. Another one was The Famous Five. But the band that I do off and on now is called Beer Gut 100. That’s the punk band I play in for fun.
Tell me about your time in Black Books…
We’d often just have a laugh and muck around a lot. One thing I remember vividly was the scene where I’m in a piano. The original idea was that I’d be squatting on top of it playing the spoons, but then I told the crew I owned a prop piano that I’d had made for a show. It was a baby grand piano with nothing inside it, just a shell. I got it out of storage and they rigged it up with strings, then I actually got in it and started to play them from underneath. The thing is, it was so difficult to get into that, once I was in they just left me. I remember being in there and they’d all gone out for a bit of lunch and I was just stuck there, abandoned.
On one of your billboards for the new show, Larks in Transit, you are quoted as the Mozart of comedy. How do you feel about that?
It's a great compliment, obviously he was a bit of a prodigy. I guess it’s meant in a nice way and not that I’m going to die ill and in penury. I love the fact that he was a great performer, a bit of joker with an affinity for music. He was a populist and his music has endured the test of time. If I can apply any of that to my comedy, I’ll be happy.
Bill Bailey’s Larks in Transit will be at Motorpoint Arena on Friday 24 May.