May 30, 1990

Talk About Laugh

Filed under: Archive,Comedy

Billy Connolly

Festival Theatre

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Despite disconcerting colour pix in TV Week recently revealing that Billy Connolly had sheared off his hair and beard for a filum, his familiar trademarks were mostly back for his return Australian tour. All the same, he was still a bit dubious about the reduction in fungus- I look like a fucking social worker, he roared and then off he went for two and a half hours of rumination, digression and comic microscopy.

Not only does Billy Connolly see the world in a grain of sand but he finds every speck of it hilarious as well. There is no division for him between things that are funny and things that are not -anything can get a serve and mercilessly at that, but the effect is always to confirm and embrace never merely to deride.

It was Terence who said I am a man and reckon nothing human alien to me. The same is marvellously true of Connolly. He is busting to tell you how daft we are and to catch us at our covert worst – farting inopportunely  in public, gaping into blown  handkerchiefs, pretending to be more in command or accomplished than we ever are. But he is always first to confess, to declare his own unmentionables with a laugh so ferocious that he single-handedly alters the Scottish stereotype.

Billy Connolly makes the business of telling stories look so easy you would swear any fool could do it. He has a rhythm, punctuated- he will tell you himself- with the copulatory expletive, which turns ordinary speech into something almost like blank verse. And he has a narrative technique which has him hauling six main plotlines at fifteen or twenty minute intervals. He never falters, stammers, forgets the point, doubts the joke or misreads the audience. In short, he doesn’t miss a beat.

For subject matter anything will do – the new backdrop, a series of giant photos of Connolly taken at various angles and sliced into cubist strips gets some ironic attention, so does someone in the third row trying to duck out for a quick slash. He always has something topical and local -the state of the Town Hall organ, people in Perth telling you how far away they live, the `talking blazers’ at the Commonwealth Games, the pilot’s strike -`Do yew really want ta fly with e disappointed pilot ?’

But it his native Scottish Isles and his native Scottish childhood that provide the richest vein- and like other comedians, John Clarke included, he finds a sweetness and truth in recollection that is like comic balm. This time a peroration on the Australian Iron Man and the Games led to the cold waters of the Scottish coast and memories, frozen in time, of the beaches of his youth. Like Aberdeen- Scots Gaelic for `hyperthermia’- and the maroon woolly bathers with the  belt and pocket that when you’d braved the brine, filled with water and dragged you under permanently. Connolly the reluctant aquanaut describes his father calling him a Big Jessie as stood in the Arctic Sea (the Scottish Tourist Board cunningly renamed it the North Sea) with the waves a shudder away from his scrotum.

It’s a very strange word scrotum he will suddenly muse- and repeating it ad nauseum becomes ad absurdum. Like a child weighing words and rolling them over, Connolly reveals how perilously our meanings hinge on the silliest sounds.

And despite the fact that he is really as nice as pie, Billy Connolly will recall his days as a hard man in the Clyde shipyards, when he used to drink like a drain and polish the bottom of his shortbread lunch tin and shine it in people’s eyes on the double-decker bus home. The drunk jokes have a touch of the reformer these days as Connolly describes having once had two memories and then paces up and down the stage demonstrating how inebriates pretend to be sober, tripping and glaring back at the carpet as if it was somehow its fault. The very idea has him in paroxysms. There are very few comics who can get away with laughing at their own jokes.

There are even fewer who can make a fart funny. Having restrained his sphincter jokes for two hours he presented his set piece on the varieties of farts, producing arias of similitude that left an audience of well-socialised citizens insensible with laughter. Suddenly looking at his watch to find it was already eleven Connolly then took another half hour to talk about Scottish tea rooms and the Duchess Argyle’s recipe for pheasant.

The word  Chaucerian seems to describe Connolly. Somehow he manages steer right round the seaside postcard nudge- nudge wink- wink school of tiresome innuendo without relinquishing the chance to discover how impossibly comic we and our uncontrollable orifices really are. He can take  any audience to common ground without becoming featureless in the process. He has a fierce accent and is obsessionally regional but if you are in his audience, wherever that might be,you are included. No-one gets thrown to the piranhas to make everyone else feel good.   There is  something extraordinary about Billy Connolly’s artistry-  in a world full of shit and spite, it is a kind of benediction.

“Talk About Laugh” The Adelaide Review, No.73, Festival edition, 1990, p.32.

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