If comedians are the new rock stars, there is probably no comic more up to the task than British comedian and actor Bill Bailey.
Anglophile comedy fans may have seen him on the sitcom Black Books — where he played Manny (what he calls "an enhanced version" of himself), the foil to the misanthropic, alcoholic used bookstore owner Bernard Black played by Dylan Moran — or on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, the British music/comedy show that became, in his words, "a harsh, sarcastic scourge of the music industry."
But he's best known for his stand-up, predominantly masterful music-driven performances that he says are reliant mainly on juxtaposition, noting that he has been referred to previously as "The Jedi of Juxtaposition." (For the music geek, his performance of German electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk's version of the "Hokey Cokey" is essential viewing.)
Despite selling out enormodomes such as Wembley Arena in London and the O2 in Dublin, as well as performing at Bonnaroo this past June, he creates the material to work in venues of any size — he began touring his current show, Dandelion Mind, in smaller venues throughout the Highlands of Scotland.
And though you may not see him playing "Dueling Sitars" with a full Indian orchestra, his live shows in New York, Chicago, Toronto and Boston over the next week will include films, Middle Eastern instruments, Japanese technical gizmos, and of course, his one-of-a-kind takes on popular music and more.
Have you been doing music-related routines since you started?
Yeah, pretty much. I started out using a guitar, because it's a lot more portable than a keyboard. Then I used a piano for the first time in the Edinburgh Festival. And that was a bit of a revelation. Suddenly that opened up a lot of other opportunities and options in terms of what kind of music you could pastiche or use as comedy.
Have you noticed a lot of other musical comedy acts coming up over the last 15 or 20 years?
Sure. When I started it was deemed to be very uncool. It would seem to be, like, "Oh, you're just like a prop comic, with a keyboard…" And I was always very hurt by that because I thought, well, it's more than that. I'm not just coming on with an inflatable chicken or something. You have to know how to play this — you can't just bring it on and expect comedy to ensue. But I doggedly stuck to the task as it were. And now, of course, it's cool again. So I feel vindicated.
Can you remember the first musically-themed bit you ever did?
It was a musical observation piece, which I suppose has become kind-of the thing that I do. I identified the "stakeout music" in Starsky & Hutch. Not the main theme, but the incidental dramatic music during the episodes where the guys would be sitting around in the car on a stakeout. There was this kind-of wah-wah'd guitar, slow sort of moody music. And that was a real revelation because for me, because it's quite a specific piece of music, but people instantly recognized it. There is a subconscious level of recognition of a lot of music that people aren't aware of. And if you can find those styles, and those songs that people connect with, it's another level of observation. That was a watershed moment.
When you're doing bits, do you ever worry that the audience won't get the references?
Clearly I'd like to use the most arcane and esoteric references possible, but there is the slight tyranny of the fact that it is comedy and a show, so people have to "get it." I tend to pick musical styles that, for whatever reason, have infiltrated into the wider consciousness of culture. I did a trip-hop version of "Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah" and by that time, Portishead and that kind of slowed-down woozy, slightly out of time, psychedelic hip-hop had already filtered into the mainstream. And people immediately got on to it, so I think things have to reach a certain level of public awareness before you can use them in a show.
How often have you played in the United States?
I played here in New York 10 years ago. I did a run down on the Lower West Side that transferred to a theater Off Broadway. I lived in New York for about six months… and I thought, this is the kind of thing I'd want to do every year. So my plan was to come back to the States every year and tour around. Then I went back to the UK and I got a TV job on Never Mind the Buzzcocks… so that took over a bit, and then I did a lot more tours in the UK and around the world. I never really got round to coming back to the States. Now I don't do so much TV — I concentrate more on the live stuff — so this is kind-of overdue.
Are there any noticeable differences to you about performing in the UK versus performing in the US?
Not really. Maybe the spelling.
Get tickets for Bill's Dandelion Mind U.S. tour here:
Wednesday, September 14 – Saturday, September 17
New York, NY – NYU Skirball Center
Sunday, September 18
Chicago, IL – House of Blues
Monday, September 19
Toronto, Canada – Panasonic Theatre
Tuesday, September 20
Boston, MA – House of Blues
Videos from his many comedy specials can be seen on Bill's YouTube channel.