One of our best-known comedians, Bill Bailey tells Chris Bond about a change in style for his new show Larks in Transit and why he still enjoys stand-up.
He’s been described as looking like a Viking god caught in a wind machine, and has become a recognisable face thanks to his unique blend of surreal comedy, stories and musical interludes.
For his latest tour, though, Bill Bailey has opted for a change of tack. “I did a tour a few years ago where I talked a bit about going on holiday with my family which I hadn’t done before. I don’t tend to mine my personal life for comedy but this seemed to go down quite well and it wasn’t something I’d really tapped into. Plus I realised I was missing an opportunity for laughs.”
So with his new tour – Larks in Transit, which lands takes in Hull and Leeds before finishing in June – it takes centre stage.
Bailey says the show is a compendium of tales and anecdotes drawn from his past 20 years as a travelling comedian.
“It’s not about rock ‘n’ roll debauchery and it’s not a confessional, it’s more about the kind of odd situations that comedy has led me to, like presenting wildlife documentaries and being up a tree in Borneo and thinking, ‘how the hell did I get here?’
Regular appearances on TV shows like QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks, where he was a team captain, have helped make Bailey a household name. But it’s his live tours that established his reputation as one of our most creative comic talents.
Not that he was an instant hit. The road to success was both long and slow. He spent the early 80s touring with a Welsh Experimental theatre troupe before going on to form a comedy double act called the Rubber Bishops, and it was only when he started performing solo in the mid-90s that his career gained traction. Since then he’s been an integral part of comedy’s renaissance. “Stand-up used to be a fringe thing on TV, something they found a space for late at night. For a long time it was all about cabaret and variety but then stand-up had a resurgence and it’s transformed the comedy scene.”
He puts this down to a growing appetite for live performances. “We crave a communal experience that comedy can give us. There’s something exhilarating about being in a room where everyone’s laughing at the same joke.”
Bailey sees the role of the stand-up as part of an ancient tradition that dates back centuries.
“I’m a modern incarnation of the troubadour, the old travelling performer who went to taverns and entertained people with humorous poems and poked fun at the local lord. It goes all the way back to Chaucer. You’re saying the things the audience want to voice.”
He still enjoys the frisson that stand-up gives him. “J K Rowling said one of the great fears of writing is the empty page, but it’s also one of the great thrills and I think it’s the same with comedy. You might never write anything funny ever again, or you could write the world’s greatest joke, you just don’t know and that’s what’s so compulsive about it.”
Bill Bailey plays Hull City Hall (April 25 & 26) and First Direct Arena, Leeds (June 8).