What makes comedy funny?
That’s not a question that’s part of a normal everyday conversation. But while speaking to comedian, musician and actor Bill Bailey, the man described as “the brainiest comic of his generation” almost unconsciously analyses how his act has changed to keep in step with comedic trends.
His current show Larks In Transit which is flying into Derby Arena this month contains more personal material than his earlier tours and many humourists are moving in a similar direction.
He tells me: “In the last ten or 20 years I’ve noticed that comedy has become much more confessional. People like to talk about themselves and their own feelings, and that’s very much reflected in us generally as a society.
“We’re almost guilty of over-sharing on social media and the internet plays a big part in that. So there’s a little bit of that in the show but a lot of silliness as well. I get the audience to sing You Are My Sunshine in German which is always a delight to hear.”
Bill doesn’t aim to be an educator but he points out: “You might learn something at my show – you might go home with a fact and say ‘blimey, I did not know that and I’ve had a laugh over a couple of hours’. If I can do that, then my job’s done.”
We discuss other ways in which comedy has changed. I note how comedians who tell joke after joke seem largely to have disappeared, except for the odd exception like Tim Vine. Bill admits he still likes one-liners and includes all sorts in his act so that you can’t really classify his brand of comedy.
“I like the well-turned phrase to describe a politician or a person in power. The use of language is very important to me because English is such a subtle, interesting language, lots of shades of meaning that can be used to great effect in comedy.”
Larks In Transit is billed as a “compendium of travellers’ tales and the general shenanigans of 20 years as a travelling companion”.
Bill elaborates on the content: “It’s almost a musical spoof lecture about how different kinds of music affects us in different ways, how you can change the nature of familiar tunes by playing them in different keys, exploring lyrically how songs work.
“I like to incorporate music, stories, anecdotes, all of that goes into the mix. But really it’s a reflection of where comedy has taken me over the last 20 years.”
Bill, a Labour Party supporter, makes references to politics during the show and makes no apology for that. “You can’t avoid it really. It’s dominated the national conversation for three years and there’s no getting away from it. I think it would be weird if you didn’t talk about it. But it’s not the main focus of the show by any means.”
Mark Robert Bailey was born on 13 January 1965 in Bath. His father was a medical practitioner and his mother a hospital ward sister. He remembers liking comedy from an early age.
“When an elderly aunt died we had a wake at the house and I was making people laugh. I told a joke – I wasn’t very old – and my dad spat his tea out because he couldn’t believe I’d said it. Then my mum swore because my dad had spit his tea out. I’d never heard my mum swear. It was like a chaos bomb going off in the house and I thought ‘wow, this comedy lark is very powerful’.”
While he was at school his music teacher gave him the nickname Bill because he was able to play the song Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey so well on the guitar. Later he became a classically trained musician.
But his individual style as a comedian got him noticed. He was nominated for a Perrier Comedy Award for a show he took to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1996 and won the best live stand-up award at the British Comedy Awards three years later.
Since then Bill’s trademark hairstyle and goatee have become familiar through television appearances including Have I Got News For You, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI. He has also appeared on the small screen in Black Books, a Channel 4 sitcom; the E4 teenage show Skins; and a series of programmes about wildlife and natural history.
He loves the variety that comes from the different challenges presented by different sectors of entertainment.
“Comedy is my main love and what I’ll continue to do so long as I’m able to stand up – and perhaps even beyond that. Acting is good fun to do now and again because it’s a collaborative process.
“Stand-up’s very solitary – I write it, perform it, direct it, pretty much produce the whole thing myself. It’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of expectation. It’s very rewarding but it’s also extremely labour-intensive and exhausting.
“Being in the cast of a TV show is less pressure because someone else has written it, you’re performing other people’s words so there’s not quite the same pressure on you. You can relax a bit and concentrate on the performance. It really hones your performance skills.”
In 2003 I saw Bill on stage in Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men at the Edinburgh Fringe. It featured 12 comedians. Some of them had never been in a play before. It was an unforgettable production, one that Bill recalls fondly.
“I remember at the time everyone thinking there was no way we’d get a bunch of comics to be in a play and the whole thing would be a complete disaster – you could never trust comedians not to try and outdo each other.
“The fact that we even got together at the same time to rehearse was a minor miracle. So no one had any real expectations. Not only did it work very well, it was a big hit and spawned a whole bunch of other shows with comedians in. It was a terrific thing to be part of.
“I got to play juror four. It was a really good role to get my teeth into. And also I got to wear an unbelievable wig. I went to the National Theatre, you go into this wig store and all the wigs are on the wall. It looks like a poacher’s hut, a bunch of weasels, rabbits and stoats nailed to the wall.
“I wore glasses as well and I was physically utterly transformed, not just my face but my whole demeanour, the way I moved, everything. It was brilliant.
“People who came to see the show said to me in the bar afterwards ‘it was a shame you couldn’t be in it’. People I’d known for years didn’t know it was me. It was a compliment I suppose.”
As befits a man of his talents and popularity, Bill has a full diary after the UK tour. He will take Larks In Transit to Europe, Scandinavia and Asia until Christmas and in the new year is planning to tour Australia and New Zealand where he has built up a huge following.
His ambition is to write and perform in a film. He has been shooting a comedy drama, In The Long Run, created by Idris Elba for Sky, but feels his own film would be his legacy.
He is also looking into a project about “bird songs and the celebration of the outdoors as a great resource for our well-being”.
Most people, though, will hope he’ll continue with the quirky comedy and musicality which prompted the New York Times to describe his humour as “a treat for the funny bone, the brain and the ear”.