During the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few years ago a cab driver asked me who my favourite stand-ups were. I mentioned Billy Connolly amongst the usual international top ten. The cab driver explained that he hated Billy Connolly because he was ‘too English.’ I didn’t know what this meant exactly. Was it perhaps that Connolly had given money away to charity, rarely ate shortbread, and was no longer an alcoholic? Whatever, I understood being ‘too English’ was not a good thing. Nevertheless, ‘too English’ or not, Connolly remains one of my favourite comics, though as stand up comedian myself, and also as the son of a Scottish man I have never met, perhaps I see in Connolly some kind of idealised father figure, and would forgive him anything. Either way, even in the light of recent events, we Scotts should be proud of Connolly and rally around him in his hour of need.
If the tabloids are to be believed, in the last week Connolly has committed an even worse crime than being ‘too English’. Two inopportune comments about the Iraq hostage Ken Bigley have incurred the wrath of both his audience and a far more important group, namely journalists and opinion formers who weren’t actually at the Hammersmith Apollo gig where the outrage occurred. The assumed funniness or non-funniness of Connolly’s comments is of course, further complicated by the subsequent unconfirmed reports of the death of Ken Bigley himself, adding an especially bleak coda to a previously not especially significant story that would perhaps otherwise have blown over. Remember, it is not Billy Connolly’s fault that Ken Bigley may be dead. Don’t make The Big Yin the receptacle for your misplaced anger. Given that we went into Iraq in defiance of UN regulations, international opinion and common sense, to transfer blame to a stand-up comedian whilst Blair and Bush remain in power , even when the WMD excuse has been entirely discredited and the subsequent liberation of Iraq so terribly mismanaged, is patently absurd. When writing comedy about real events, whether serious or trivial, there is an inherent risk of those same events overtaking you.
In 1999 my one time double-act partner Richard Herring and I filmed a dozen sketches for BBC2 in which Rod Hull kept suffering fatal accidents due to having a false arm permanently wrapped around his Emu puppet. Three days before the first one was due to be broadcast Rod Hull fell off a roof whilst adjusting a TV aerial and died. Luckily we had time to re-edit the show to avoid sullying the memory of a comedian we both greatly admired and looking like we were chasing an adolescent notion of deliberate bad taste, but it was a close thing. Admittedly, the likelihood of Ken Bigley being killed is more significant than Rod Hull’s sudden and unexpected expiry, but it is important not to judge Connolly’s comments of last week in the light of this week’s news. Before pontificating on the rights and wrongs of what Connolly may or may not have said, let’s remember what a special comedy case Scotland’s best stand-up comedian actually is.
Many comedians feign spontaneity. The actor, comedian and transvestite Eddie Izzard is a master of it, and one cannot help but be impressed by the way he makes tried and tested material sound as if it had literally just occurred to him. Personally, I like prepared material and have a huge admiration for the beautifully constructed routines of Victoria Wood, Reginald D Hunter or Glasgow’s own Arnold Brown. But I also love seeing comics caught in the actual act of creation, and Connolly is one a very small sub-section of stand-ups, including Ross Noble and Johnny Vegas, who will actually go on stage with no specific idea of what they are about to do. I doubt any of the above even own a pencil, let alone a word processor. But this often ill-prepared spontaneity is both Connolly’s major strength, in that you genuinely feel caught in a once in a lifetime experience when watching him, and his major weakness, in that his stand-up shows are all far too long, lack any shape or structure and, as with the Ken Bigley lines, sometimes charge headlong into complex areas that might have required more preparation.
Apparently, the Bigley material was a bit Connolly had been toying with on previous nights during his London run. Whenever I am working up a new routine, especially if it involves controversial subjects, I try it out in small venues, within the context of new material nights. I have a piece at the moment wherein I hold the crisp advertiser and footballer Gary Linneaker accountable for the deaths of hundreds of obese children, and chased the idea around from many directions before it settled into an acceptable shape that drew disgust and laughs in equal measure, rather than just appalling everyone. But as a relative unknown with a sustainable and small cult following I have the luxury of anonymity denied to Billy Connolly. Nothing I say will make the news. Nevertheless, I don’t believe that the literally thousands of fabulous hours of stand-up Connolly has generated out of thin air are compromised or undermined by this one apparent error. And arguably, the Bigley lines were not an error at all, but actually an essential part of what comedy is for.
There are jokes to be made about the Ken Bigley situation. The sickest, stupidest and most inexcusable ones are already being made by you, the public, privately, to each other, drunk, in bars, or via emails at work, whilst you simultaneously maintain a high moral tone in judging a professional comic’s attempt to cover the same ground in a more intelligent and responsible fashion. And you know it. Cast the first stone, I dare you. The best Ken Bigley jokes, like Chris Morris’ Brass Eye paedophilia special, tell us something about our own hypocrisy and that of the newsgathering services we put our trust in. I believe that Connolly’s lines, as reported in the press, allude to both these areas. In opining, “Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this … aren’t you the same as me, don’t you wish they would just get on with it?”, Connolly is referencing our inability to stick with a story, and the media’s self-sustaining interest in spinning one out. Afghanistan is still a wreck but we rarely see it reported anymore. It’s old, boring news. And global tragedies that unfold over years, rather than days, suffer a lack of public interest that aid-workers and fund-raisers identify with the phrase, ‘compassion fatigue’. The line, “What is it with him and that young Asian wife?”, I believe, deliberately addresses the fact that whenever we see an elderly British businessman on TV with a young Asian woman it’s usually in the context of a story about mail order brides. This isn’t to suggest that the Bigleys’ marriage itself was anything but loving and genuine, but at least let us admit that an image our inherent racist suppositions have made us suspicious of is currently being represented to us as the emotive, human interest angle in a bigger story.
Of course, Bigley’s family, Connolly’s audience and the press have every right to be upset by these lines, but Connolly has every right to say them. I directed Richard Thomas’ Olivier-award winning, blasphemy-musical Jerry Springer The Opera, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002. At the moment, Las Vegas hotels want to stage it but are caught in an unprecedented legal loop. After Linda Rondstadt criticised the Bush administration onstage in Vegas earlier this year to some audience disapproval, casino owners are seeking to indemnify themselves against the responsibility for showcasing acts their customers may be offended by. Is this reactionary American cowardice a mood you want the UK to be engulfed by? Inevitably, it ultimately appears challenging work won’t get shown. There at least appears perhaps to be some righteous moral anger behind Connolly’s comments, and an intelligence in identifying a danger area.
You don’t have to be a student of comedy to realise that if the same lines had been said by the nation’s favourite Ricky Gervais, in the character of David Brent, with a small posse of office workers looking disapproving in the rear of the shot, they would have been consumed and analysed in an entirely different way. In The Office, Gervais’ David Brent character is a pantomime burlesque of the unacceptable in all of us, but we appreciate that it is a character. To his credit, Connolly didn’t gloss the lines, put them in inverted commas, wear a costume in order to deliver them, or diffuse them with the dramatic conceit of having some authority figure on stage to condemn him. He merely offers them up for our consideration, and in so doing credits us, wrongly it might now appear, with intelligence, judgement and some sense of irony.
But to get to bogged down in justifying Connolly’s lines morally and intellectually is to miss a bigger point. Namely, should comedy need to be morally and intellectually justified anyway? What Connolly did at Hammersmith, and did brilliantly, was to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. He has a genius for inappropriate behaviour. It’s not such a long journey from what journalists are already calling Bigley-gate, back to Connolly’s 1975 Parkinson appearance when he joked about a Glaswegian man burying his wife with her bum sticking out of the earth so that he would have somewhere to park his bike. Parkinson wept. My mum wet her pants. And, the stirling work of The Beatles and Monty Python notwithstanding, it was finally clear that the 1950’s were at last over. It is moments like this that bring the stand-up comedian close to the status of the Holy Fool.
In the year 2000 I finally brought a mild obsession with Native American clowns to a close, having stayed on the Hopi reservation in Arizona and seen the pueblos and plazas where they would have performed. I’d been researching a novel set in the region but became sidelined for two years by a fascination with the pueblo clowns, part holy-men, part fools. Soon after, I gave up stand-up for three years due in part, though not exclusively, to anxieties about my own role raised by my reading. The Hopi clown’s function was to manufacture inappropriate behaviour. The clowns would spend months studying the social tensions of their pueblo before, on special feast days, exploding them with carefully considered transgressive acts – simulated sexual assaults, absurd interruptions to sacred ceremonials, parodies of their oppressors’ Christian services, incoherent reinterpretations of the life of Christ, and obscene scatological acts. The American army officer John G Bourke’s 1881 pamphlet The Urine Dance Of The Zuni Indians Of New Mexico was one of many texts that led to the invading powers’ active suppression of the pagan comedians of the pueblos, driving the clowns literally underground. Likewise, in 1975 Connolly, who had previously urinated on stage whilst dressed as The Pope, was escorted to a Belfast theatre by armed policemen. And now he’s under siege once more. But look at the Native American model. In those close-knit communities, perched on the high mesas, the pueblo clowns pushed at the limits of socially acceptable behaviour and showed the people, for better or worse, what lay beyond. Great comedy can act as both a social barometer, and a social pressure valve. Connolly, more than any other performer in recent months, has shown that.
Our sympathies must go out to Ken Bigley’s family. But we must also back Billy. Increasingly, opinions are manufactured and distributed by the same giant media machine, broadcasters like Fox are in bed with the Bush administration and the BBC ran scared from the might of the Blair government. On some small level, people like Billy Connolly stick a spanner in the spokes and, just for a moment, make us aware of the mechanism. Nowadays we need him more than ever. Support your local wiseman.