Billy Connolly's Funny, But Not Clever, Comedy

Nov 22, 2012
Originally published on November 26, 2012 2:49 pm

Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly has been performing for over 50 years, and says he has no plans of stopping.

He starred in the '80s TV sitcom Head of the Class, co-starred with Judy Dench in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown and the 1999 film The Boondock Saints. More recently, he stars in Dustin Hoffman's film Quartet and he plays a dwarf king in The Hobbit.

What he loves to do most, is stand-up comedy. He summed up his style of comedy to the San Francisco Chronicle: "I believe in funny, not clever.... If I hear someone described as clever, I won't buy a ticket."

He talks with NPR's Neal Conan about his signature style and the aspects of humor that don't translate between Scotland and the United States.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Scottish comedian and actor Billy Connolly has been performing for over 50 years now. His TV credits include the sitcom "Head of the Class." He co-starred with Judi Dench in the movie "Mrs. Brown." New projects include Dustin Hoffmann's directorial debut, "Quartet," with, among others, Maggie Smith. And he plays a dwarf king in "The Hobbit." But what he does, as he puts it, is standup comedy.


BILLY CONNOLLY: Algebra was a mystery to me.

Connolly, 1A plus 1B?

You take the first (unintelligible) you can't count letters. You can only count numbers, silly. Unless, of course, I was absent the day we did the B times table.

1B is B. 2B is a couple of Bs. 3B is a couple of B's plus the one we spoke about in the first place.

CONAN: Billy Connolly is on tour with a new show, "Billy Connolly: The Man Live," with performances coming up in San Francisco and New York, and joins us now from the studios at the Radio Foundation in New York City. Thanks very much for being with us.

CONNOLLY: It's a delight, thanks. It's lovely to be at NPR.

CONAN: Thank you so much for that.

CONNOLLY: I'm a big fan.

CONAN: Thank you. I know that you've been recently honored with the Outstanding Contribution to Television and Film Award at this year's BAFTA Awards in Scotland. Congratulations.

CONNOLLY: Well, thank you very much. It took me by surprise.

CONAN: Really? They took you by surprise and took you all the way there?

CONNOLLY: Yeah. (Unintelligible) I'm in a very strange position because I'm almost 70 and I - people are giving me sort of good attendance prizes...


CONNOLLY: Well, that's what I call them. Good contribution prizes or something they call them, I don't know, you know, for your outstanding achievement over the years. I think it really means you're getting old, go away.

CONAN: And that we're expecting you to make only one more headline.


CONNOLLY: I think I've got one left in me.


CONAN: But turning 70, that's got to be a bit of a shock.

CONNOLLY: No, it isn't. Really, I keep wondering what everybody's amazed about it. You know, I feel excited the same as I did when I was 37 and that has carried on pretty much the same all those years. I feel no difference at all. Somebody's told me, or I heard in the radio or something, someone said that Mark Twain said age is a case of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter. So I just amble merrily forward. I don't care. I don't hide my age. I think hiding you age is a bit as sensible as acting(ph) your street number.


CONAN: Well, acting, let's go to that for just a moment. I want to ask you about that Dustin Hoffman movie where...

CONNOLLY: That was a smooth maneuver.

CONAN: Oh, thanks. We're professional seguers here at NPR.

CONNOLLY: You took my breath away there.


CONAN: Well, speaking of age, though, you're - you play a geezer in this picture.

CONNOLLY: Yeah, but I'm the youngest in the cast.


CONNOLLY: Really, I'm the baby.

CONAN: Maggie Smith...

CONNOLLY: It's lovely. And I was trying to think of things that old people do that I should do, you know, like sticking my tongue out when the spoon is only halfway to my face and stuff like that. But in actual fact, if you just behave yourself absolutely normally, you become like an old person because they're exactly the same as us.

CONAN: You've gotten the opportunity to work with two of the great actresses our generation, with Judi Dench in "Mrs. Brown" - I think a lot of people remember that - and now with Maggie Smith.

CONNOLLY: Yeah, and an absolute delight it's been, yeah - and not only that, but with Michael Gambon, as well.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. He's a great actor.

CONNOLLY: I was really desperate to work with Michael Gambon. I'd have so many great stories - not so much to work with him, but to be with him. He's a lovely man to be with, because he's funny. He's got lovely anecdotes and - he's just a joy.

CONAN: People will, of course, I guess - most prominently as the "Harry Potter" movies, but he's been in so much else.

CONNOLLY: Yes. And Tom Courtenay's in it, as well, whom I remembered from "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner..."

CONAN: "Long Distance Runner." Right.

CONNOLLY: ...and "Billy Liar."

CONAN: You write you're one of the youngest guy in the cast.

CONNOLLY: So, I'm the youngest guy, and even Pauline Collins is older than me. So it's lovely.

CONAN: Dustin Hoffman, his first film as a director. What was it like working with him?

CONNOLLY: It was an absolutely joy. I personally don't think it's his first film he's ever directed. You know, there's all these stories about him being a perfectionist and all that. I think that was him directing. I think he would say: Can I do another take on that? And he would do it his way and just kind of direct himself. I have not right to say this. I just imagined that. But he is an absolute delight, because he's such a splendid actor himself, that you never find yourself in a position where you're dangling, you know, with nothing much to do.

You know, a lot of people write scenes were one person has all the action and the other one is kind of hanging there, like an extra. Well, you never find yourself in opposition with Dustin. It just goes out the window long before you - it arrives at you. So that's lovely. He did a lovely thing one day. He was going through the script, and just 10 pages out and throwing them away and saying, we've said this. Why is it still there? We've said this already. And he looked up, and he said: That's the difference between the Americans and the British. The Americans make movies, the British make talkies.


CONAN: That's good stuff. Americans most recently remember Maggie Smith from "Downton Abbey," where she is...

CONNOLLY: Oh, boy.

CONAN: ...tart-tongued, I think, might be accurate. Is she anything like that in person?

CONNOLLY: She's exactly like that.


CONNOLLY: She's exactly like - she's very, very funny. And I wish to give you examples, but I would be accused of defamation of character. Character assassination is just her specialty. She's very, very good. She's a delight to be with. I love her company.

CONAN: It doesn't sound like this is one of those films where you're 10 minutes on the set and the rest of the day in your trailer.

CONNOLLY: No. We all hang about. That's exactly the same as "Mrs. Brown." People will call you, amazed that - you know, you read all about actors who stay in character all day and hide in caves, and then only come when they're called for and get the family to behave as a fill-in character.

Well, I have found with the vast majority of those great British actors, that they stand, telling stories at the side of the set, and they're called for. And they say, oh, look. The light's one. We've got to go. And they go and get straight into character. It's like stepping into an old shoe. And it's lovely. It's - especially Judi Dench. You know, we used to just stand screaming well after and then say, right, lads. Get yourself together. Right, then, action, and we'd be into it again.


CONAN: And there she's queenly again.

CONNOLLY: And then she's a queen, yeah, and I'm a scruff.


CONAN: Well, scruff - you were born to play that.


CONNOLLY: Oh, yeah. You're lucky you're not in this room...


CONNOLLY: ...with your fancy segues. Segue this...


CONAN: Let me...

CONNOLLY: ...springs to mind.

CONAN: Let me ask you another question. When I say you're performing in a new show in New York and San Francisco, does that suggest that somebody who sees it in New York at the theater there, the Beacon Theatre, is going to see the same show when you perform it in San Francisco?

CONNOLLY: It'll be same-ish. It's never the same choice. It's - I'm incapable of doing it the same twice. I'm not on any crusade to do new material all the time. I am on crusade to try and remember the material we got.


CONNOLLY: And I can never remember it. So I know the theme of it, so I walk around it and make it up.

CONAN: And I wonder, were you in New York during the storm?

CONNOLLY: No, I wasn't. I was in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. And I - we only had two hours of electricity down there that day. That didn't seem to bother anybody, but we had no Wi-Fi, and our telephones didn't work. That was son and I. So we go to Cancun Airport, and I was getting messages about Stanley - not Stanley. Who - what is the storm's name?

CONAN: Sandy.

CONNOLLY: Sandy. Sounds like a London window dresser. Kenneth Williams used to have a great character - a gay character on Sunday morning on British BBC radio, "Julian and Sandy." They where - My name's Julian. This is my friend, Sandy. Hello. And they were always window dressers or interior decorators or hairdressers. And I never thought I'd hear of a hurricane called Sandy.


CONAN: See, you're reminding me, I was in London for four years as the NPR correspondent there, and went over on a sort of scouting trip. And my first night there was New Year's Eve. And I saw you on TV doing a Hogmanay show. And I looked at that, and I said: I am never going to get this country.


CONNOLLY: You're not the first. But, you know, it works in reverse. I went to - many, many years ago, I did the Arab Emirates. I did Dubai and Oman. You know, Oman. Well, I did Oman, although it isn't an Emirate. I did Abu Dhabi and Kuwait. And I had a lot of Arabs in my audience. And I asked them how they had picked up on my stuff. And they had been to Strathclyde University in Glasgow, where they specialize in chemical engineering because of the oil industry. And they had girlfriends, and they couldn't understand the language. So they have had given albums of mine as tutorials.

CONAN: Language lessons?

CONNOLLY: Yeah. To learn street - Glasgow street language.

CONAN: They must have - well, a few particular words must have stuck to their vocabulary.


CONNOLLY: They spring to mind immediately, don't they?

CONAN: Our guest is Billy Connolly. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. And there is a lot of material, it would seem to me, that would go over better in Scotland than it would here. How do you have to change to adapt to audiences?

CONNOLLY: Well, there's a funny you can do - it actually gives you extra material, explaining the material you've got, you know. And it actually pads the thing the thing out rather nicely. And sometimes it's rather pleasant to explain your culture to other people, or just words that you refuse to change, so you explain what the word means. You refuse to change it, just because it's comfortable in your mouth.

CONAN: Right.

CONNOLLY: And so - like, for instance, sly, when a person is sly like a fox. There's a Scottish word called slicket(ph), which I love, you know. It's sleek, oily. Slicket - I couldn't vote for him. He's got slicket eyes.

CONAN: That's nice.

CONNOLLY: You know, and so I refuse to change it. But I'd rather explain it to you than change it, you know. And Scotland has such lovely words, too, like a turkey, for instance, it's a bubbly jock.

CONAN: Bubbly jock? I've not heard that.

CONNOLLY: Bubbly jock, and that's exactly the noise the turkey makes.

CONAN: It's perfect.

CONNOLLY: Yeah, bubbly jock. And an owl is a hoolet. And that, again, is based on the sound that it makes. And - but my favorite is a wood pigeon, is a cushie-doo.

CONAN: That is an absolutely dead-on approximation of its sound.

CONNOLLY: Isn't it lovely? So a frog is a puddock and sparrow is a speug. So I've never used speug in a sentence, but when I was a boy, we used puddock. So I don't go around trying to convince everybody that my culture's better than theirs, but sometimes it suits my face better. It sits nicely in my mouth.

CONAN: And explaining your culture, it goes with the way you do your material. You don't tell jokes, per se.

CONNOLLY: I don't - well, sometimes, if I find a good joke, I take a great delight in telling the audience, because if you sit through two-and-a-half hours of me, the weirdest thing happens. It erases itself by the time you get home. You know, I've covered such a many subjects as the evening has gone on. By the time you got home, you can't remember anything. So I say, here's a little something you might remember.


CONNOLLY: You can give them a joke, as proof you have been here, like you're not having an affair.


CONAN: So you could actually tell a joke as sort of a something you can take away. It's cheaper than buying the t-shirt in the lobby.

CONNOLLY: It certainly is. And, you know, I say it, you know, your baby suddenly ask you: Was it good? And you'll say oh, yeah, it was good. I was wetting myself laughing. Oh, really? What did he say? And you say, well, I can't remember. So this little joke gets you - tides you over.

CONAN: We should also ask you, you are coming up again in performance in the film of "The Hobbit," and through the miracle of technology, you play a dwarf.

CONNOLLY: I do. And all of the dwarves are normal size. Well, they're not all. There's some wee dwarfs, too, and some big ones. But the vast majority of the dwarves are normal-sized people with fat suits on. They made us fat and wide and big hands and extra bits on my head and different ears, and you just shrink, virtually. When you're all together, it's quite hard to believe.

CONAN: Have you seen the film?

CONNOLLY: No. I've seen little bits of it.

CONAN: And how do you come off, do you think?

CONNOLLY: Oh, I come off great. I'm a great character, Dain Ironfoot. I don't have much to do. It's, like, in a cameo role. And I'm not really sure how much I'm allowed to say, but the king dies and I step into his place in a very violent way. But I'm a ruffian, you know. I ride a wild pig and I wear iron shoes and I use an ax as a weapon, and it's - I've got hair down to my waist, and my beard down to my waist and tattooed face, and it's an extraordinarily appearance. It takes two-and-a-half hours to get me ready.

CONAN: Well, that can't have been fun.

CONNOLLY: I was the wheel(ph) in a Volkswagen.


CONNOLLY: I've got so much stuff on.

CONAN: Well, Billy Connolly, we wish you a happy birthday. I understand you turned 70 in two days?

CONNOLLY: I do, yeah. Can't wait.

CONAN: And what are you going to do to celebrate?

CONNOLLY: I'm having dinner with my wife and some friends.

CONAN: Well, have a great time.

CONNOLLY: Well, thank you very much. Look, it's been a real jolly joy being on your station. I'm very proud of it. I love it.

CONAN: Well, we'll have you back.

CONNOLLY: And I give you money. If you check back your (unintelligible), I donate.


CONAN: We check those lists for every guest, Mr. Connolly.

CONNOLLY: All those never-ending (unintelligible) that you do.


CONAN: Well, thanks again. Good luck with the show.

CONNOLLY: Thank you so much. It's been a joy.

CONAN: Billy Connolly is on tour with a stand-up show "Billy Connolly: The Man Live." He performs next week at San Francisco's Marine Memorial Theatre and at New York's Beacon Theatre in early December. He joined us from the Radio Foundation studios in New York City. Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with a look at this year's Ig Nobel Prizes. Happy Thanksgiving, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.