Bill Bailey, an English comedian, musician, singer, actor, TV and radio presenter and author, chats with Kevin Cooper about his favourite comedians, performing at Knebworth, freedom of speech and his latest tour of the UK, Larks In Transit.

Bill Bailey is an English comedian, musician, singer, actor, TV and radio presenter and author. He is well known for his role in Black Books and for his appearances on Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Have I Got News For You and QI, as well as his extensive stand-up work.

Bailey began touring the country with comedians such as Mark Lamarr and in 1984 he formed a double act with Toby Longworth and it was then that he began to develop his own style. When Longworth quit, he was briefly replaced by Martin Stubbs.

In 1994 Bailey performed Rock at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with Sean Lock, which was a show about an aging rock star and his roadie. This was later serialised for the Mark Radcliffe show on BBC Radio 1.

In 1995 he went solo with the one man show, Bill Bailey’s Cosmic Jam which was eventually released on DVD. Since then he has performed fourteen tours, the last being the present one, Larks In Transit.

Whilst on his current tour, Bill Bailey took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Hi Bill, how are you today?

I’m very well thanks Kevin, how are you?

I’m very well thank you and before we move on let me firstly thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

No worries.

And just how is life treating you today?

I have to be totally honest with you and say that at this moment in time life is pretty good actually. The sun is shining, the birds are hopping around the garden, and I have just got a cup of tea on the go so in general life is not too bad.

I suppose that we had better speak about your latest tour Larks In Transit hadn’t we?

Yes, indeed (laughter).

What I would like to ask you is, where did the name come from?

Well I wanted to describe just what it was like to spend twenty years of my life travelling around the world doing comedy (laughter). So I was trying to think of a phrase which would sum all of that up. Whilst I was driving I saw a sticker on the back of a car which said ‘Show Dogs In Transit’ which rather tickled me because I thought ‘why are you telling me this, do you think that I am going to drive any differently because you have got some pampered poodle in the back of your van’ (laughter). The idea of being a Show Dog really struck me as I thought to myself ‘that really is what I am, isn’t it’ (laughter). I now see myself as some sort of performing thing that travels around.

So I squirreled that idea away and then when it came to writing this show I remembered that sticker and thought ‘maybe not Show Dogs but maybe Larks as in fun like silliness, revelry, shenanigans, whatever you want to call it, and then Larks as in the Dickensian Larks as in ‘what larks Pip’ from Great Expectations. And I suppose that it is also a nod to the birds I guess but please don’t take it literally; this isn’t going to be a story about carting some birds around the country in a white van. It most definitely is not that (laughter). Having said that there is actually a bird quiz within the show, which I have to say has become a major feature of the first half of the show. I test people’s knowledge of bird calls, and I have to say that I am pretty impressed really with the standard of identification here in Great Britain. People here really do know their birds.

The tour is set to run for thirty-six days. Are you looking forward to being back out on the road?

Yes I am actually because for the last few months I have been filming and the thing about filming is that they are long days which start very early and they are usually finished by eight in the evening. After that, the evening really is just all about winding down, having a bite to eat, crashing out, waking up at five am and doing it all over again. So the energy during the day is completely different to the energy when I am on the road doing one of my stand-up tours because I really am very much a night person. Don’t get me wrong, I love to get up at five in the morning and doing stuff during the day but my energy levels are usually geared towards performing in the evening.

So as you can imagine, this week I have had to try to reset my body clock a little. It is now all about the focus of the evening and me being on point for that. I recently did a warm-up gig in order for me to get back up on stage and run through the show again, trying to remember it, and I have to say that I really did enjoy it. This show really is a lot of fun to perform. The show in its current form is quite new really because it has only actually got to this point when I performed it in the West End in London over Christmas when I did a small residency. Over that period the show changed quite a bit as I began to tighten it up and change a few bits here and there.

Also over that period I actually managed to adapt the show from being more about Australia and New Zealand, because I actually wanted to make the show much more about Britain; Britain’s history, the British experience and just what it is like to be British and all that kind of thing. So all of that came back into the shows and I have now got the show to the point where it really is a lot of fun to perform. As I said I have performed the show a little bit over Christmas so a lot of it is still quite fresh for me and when it is at that stage, it really is good fun for me to perform. So yes, I really am looking forward to it.

You bring the show to Nottingham on Friday 24th May, without giving too much away, just what can we expect?

There will be tales of my own personal recollection about things that have happened to me such as being stopped by the police, people recognising me in odd places, strange conversations that I have overheard in Britain, together with tales about the Nutella riots. So really, all of the things which fascinate me (laughter). I sing Old McDonald in the style of Tom Waits; I play lots of tunes that people know but in either the minor key or the major key. I actually play the American National Anthem in the minor key which I have to say seems to work really well. There is some Country and Western in there and there is even a song about me selling my soul to the Devil.

There are some new instruments which I will be playing at some point during the show, together with some tales about my travels through Borneo and the East of Indonesia in search of the Bird of Paradise, and just where that got me (laughter). There are stories about me making wildlife documentaries here in Britain, so I will be talking about Otters, Badgers, and Weasels, all of the usual stuff really (laughter). There really is something for everyone (laughter).

You have mentioned having to reset your body clock; do you manage to get any down time when you are out on the road?

Hopefully yes. Having said that, this tour is a bit of a whistle stop tour but hopefully there will be a bit of time during the day. I always like to make time to get out during the day otherwise you tend to get a little bit stir crazy if you stay in the hotel all of the time. I try to make it a bit of a feature of my tours that we all go out. I tend to get all of the crew out as a group and we try to find something that we can all do together. Whether it is just a walk somewhere, or perhaps we will get the bikes out and do a bit of mountain biking, or we may take out the binoculars and do a bit of birding. It has to be something that involves getting outside otherwise you can start to get cabin fever being holed up inside. You find yourself talking to the trouser press and when that happens you really do need to get out (laughter).

How long does it take you to write and put together a show of this size?

Well it takes a while because the initial ideas start to come randomly. For example, when I read the stories about the Nutella riots and then after that I read a story about Iceland, the country, suing the high street shop of the same name (laughter). I just thought ‘what’ (laughter). Those are the things that you put together. You then find links between those and other stories and then I start to remember things that have happened to me on tour. After that I will then start to noodle around on the piano whilst I come up with an idea. At that point they are just little isolated ideas and then gradually, gradually, slowly, slowly you come up with other ideas and you find similar ideas, that then becomes a little section and you then find another section.

However, the really tough bit is when you try to link it all together and make it actually flow and that is where the show is right now. Having gone through various incarnations of touring in different countries and having to make little changes and adaptations here and there, and then I’m writing new stuff. When the show was running in the West End for a bit it was at that point that the show became a little tighter, a little more dynamic, a bit more refined, and that is really where it is at. So I would have to be honest and say that the whole process of getting to this stage is a couple of years really.

Taking on board the fact that you have spent two years putting the show together, does it not offend you that with today’s technology the whole show can be seen around the world in a matter of seconds?

I know exactly what you are saying but it is simply a case of having to accept that it is part of the modern world these days and you have to acknowledge that fact. There is nothing much that you can do about it really. Speaking on a personal level, the way that it has affected me, and this applies to a lot of comedians is that the sale of DVD’s is over now. That is pretty much it. You have to accept that we now have to find new ways of putting our shows out there. Whether that is streaming, online or through some other platform simply because that is where people are watching comedy now.

People are watching comedy on their laptops as much as they may watch it on their TV, their mobile phones or tablets. So we simply have to acknowledge that it is happening. It seems like a paradox really but what that has meant is that a lot more people will want to go and see comedy live because despite the fact that you can probably see more comedy now than any other time in history, just a couple of clicks on YouTube and you can find a comic and you can watch their show, people really do still crave the live experience and there is no real substitute for that. For me, still now, it is one of the great thrills, performing live in front of people or even going to see comedy live.

I’m a big fan of it so I regularly go out and watch comics as well when they play locally. There is something quite unique about it; there is something unique about being in a room full of people laughing at someone and sharing an observation which sparks a recognition amongst a whole audience. I honestly believe that you cannot replicate that in any other way. And now the idea of trying to monetise your comedy online is just becoming harder making it harder to make a living. However, boring comedy ironically is on the increase.

You mention going out to watch comics perform so I have to ask, just who make Bill Bailey laugh?

I see lots of comics and I have to say that I really did love watching Louis C.K. when he came over to the UK to perform here. I think that he is unique and has a brilliant comic voice. I like watching people who are friends of mine perform, people like Shawn Locke who is an old friend, Demetri Martin who is a very interesting and quirky American comic, and Bo Burnham who I think is a brilliant musical comic. I also love to see the real rye American satirists, people like Rich Hall and Will Durst together with some of the newer comics like Aparna Nancherla who has a very interesting and quirky take on her own life, together with her own anxieties so her comedy is very personal and very confessional.

It is quite different to the comedy that I grew up doing. That is why I very much notice that a trend has emerged in the last ten or twenty odd years in comedy where it has become much more personal, much more confessional and it is now very much about people’s experiences whereas when I first started out there was none of that really. It really was very much about gags, silliness, being daft and in general just mucking about. So for me it is interesting to be able to recognise those trends and to see exactly where comedy is going. For me, comedy is always changing but in a good way. Comedy is so diverse nowadays that there is every kind of comedy for everyone really. There is sketch comedy, personal comedy, confrontational comedy, surreal comedy, character comedy, so I really do think that it is in good shape.

You mention confrontational comedy; from your own personal point of view, is any subject off-limits?

I always say that stand-up is the last bastion of free speech. We are all able to get up onstage and say whatever we want, and I never forget that. I became very acutely aware of that when I was performing over in Shanghai. I was performing there for the first time and I was told, in no uncertain terms, that there are certain things that you simply cannot talk about. You can’t mention Tiananmen Square, you can’t mention Taiwan and you can’t mention Tibet; basically you cannot mention the three T’s. They were very serious when they said to me “this will not affect you, you can get up on the stage and do gags about the three T’s but we will suffer because of it. There will be repercussions” and that is very real.

Bjork was over there recently and during her show she made a comment about Tibet and a month later her promoter lost his licence. In fact it was not only the promoter but all of the people who provided services, such as the merchandise stalls and the food outlets; all of them suffered from it. Such is the power of the State so I am very aware of that. We almost take that for granted, the fact that we can get up on stage and say anything that we like about anyone whilst performing here in Britain. That is one of the great freedoms that we have. You have to use that freedom wisely, and don’t simply squander that freedom.

Be careful about what you say, yes we have a freedom of speech but we do not have a freedom from accountability. Yes, of course you can get up and say what you want, but you have to be accountable for it. Sometimes people will use it recklessly in a way to make a statement or just to get a reaction. I feel that, in a way, comedy simply becomes gratuitous then. If you are making a point or you have something meaningful to say, then yes, I don’t think that any subject should be off-limits but it is all about the way that you approach it; that’s where the real care has to come in.

Taking you back to 2011 and in particular the Sonisphere Festival at Knebworth where you performed to a crowd of sixty thousand people. How did that feel?

(Laughter) well it was absolutely extraordinary. It really was absolutely mental (laughter). It was the biggest gig that I have ever done. That really is the largest crowd that I have ever played to. What can I say; it really was amazing, absolutely mind-blowing. Whilst I did enjoy it I have to say that it really was intimidating, terrifying really. I kept on thinking to myself ‘if I go over my allotted time, then I am going to annoy the Slipknot fans and god knows what is going to happen to me then’ (laughter). It really was an amazing experience.

On that point which do you prefer, the smaller intimate gigs or the larger arena tours?

I quite naturally think that comedy grew from being performed to small audiences in little clubs. That is where I started out and that really is where the grass roots of comedy are. However, because of its popularity and because of this desire for people to see comedy performed live, comedy has grown exponentially to the point where it is performed to thousands of people in arenas. I’m now performing to numbers that I could never have possibly imagined that I would ever be performing to. But that’s not to say that it cannot be fun. It turns into something else, it’s a spectacle, and it’s an event then rather than a small intimate gig.

I agree that yes, they are different shows, they most certainly are, but I try to make them as much as if I am doing a show to a hundred people even if it is a thousand or ten thousand. In my opinion they both should be the same; you shouldn’t try to turn it into a different gig. When I first started doing those big arena gigs I think that I made the slight mistake of thinking that I had to put on a different show, and that I had to be a big spectacle, and that there had to be lights, whistles, bells and so on. And then I realised that actually no, you simply treat it like another gig with more people. There just so happens to be thousands of people there rather than hundreds but even so, the show should be played in exactly the same way.

You have toured all over the world; do you ever come up against barriers with regard to language?

There used to be places that were not on the touring schedule simply due to the language difficulty. And so as a result touring used to be in places where English was spoken; America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and so on but now, literally in the last few years, that has all changed. I guess that in the last five years really, suddenly I find myself just touring in Europe. Plus I am touring in countries that I would never have imagined. Places such as Eastern Europe, Eastern Bloc countries, and former Soviet Union countries. Scandinavia has always been very receptive to British comedy simply because the people speak very good English there and their understanding of English is very good.

In fact they understand everything about the English language, the nuance and the subtlety of the language. However, before that I was performing in places such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland and all of these places that I could never have imagined that I would be touring. What you have to remember is that British comedy is one of our greatest exports, plus through the power of YouTube, plus how people have grown up watching comedy and are now fans of comedy, you can perform anywhere now. Comedy has now become global which is great. It means that suddenly there is a whole new area for me to tour in rather than me having to think about these other places.

That’s why touring in Europe for me is fantastic, it is a real joy. At one point I found myself thinking ‘I really should go over to America as it is really important for me to tour America. I really do need to crack America’ but then I thought ‘hang on, wait a minute, there are five hundred million people just an hour away, who all want to go and see British comedy’ (laughter).

On that note Bill let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me today, it’s been brilliant.

Thanks Kevin, you take care and I will see you up there in Nottingham.