Hearing Mark Trevorrow on ABC 702 Sydney a couple of weeks ago made me want to dig out this old interview with him. I’d interviewed him previously, during one of his many University of Sydney performances as a stalwart of student entertainment. He was always appearing at beginning or end of term celebrations, it seemed, and one time or other, while working for the University of Sydney Union, I got to interview him for the Union Recorder (as opposed to just producing advertorial – or ‘Dombo Journalism’, as I used to call it – as I did for most Union events back then).
This inteview was pretty special, however. It really came together well. I finally worked out, in my head, who ‘Bob Downe’ was, even though I was interviewing Mark Trevorrow again. I found, in fact, interviewing Mark Trevorrow several times subsequently, that my image of Bob Downe became clearer and clearer, as Mark Trevorrow became more and more distinct as a personality apart from Bob. Indeed, I suspect Trevorrow was finding Bob Downe a more defined character as he continued to define himself more boldly as a separate but no less public, performing entity.
For some reason I found it helpful to compare and contrast, to a certain degree, Trevorrow’s Bob Downe with Barry Humphries’s characters. Interestingly, Humphries was my first real interview, ever, forHoni Soit, the newspaper of the University of Sydney, produced by the Student Representative Council. It was a breakthrough for me. The Bob Downe interview below was my first interview for Revolver, a free entertainment rag. I vividly recall trying not to talk too loudly in my office – the Publications Department (ie my cluttered office) of Cranbrook School (for that was my ‘real’ job, Publications Co-ordinator at Cranbrook School) – as I conducted the interview sans recording equipment or speakerphone, furtively scrawling barely legible notes on a legal pad. As soon as the school newspaper,The Cranbrook Chroniclewas being printed, I’d feverishly complete this interview, setting the standard: every week for the next five years (failing to meet the odd deadline here or there; that is to say, occasionally being so late that no piece ran; mostly being late but still in time for one to be published) I presented a different comedy-related interview. In addition to being a crash course in stand-up for me, I felt I was also educating an audience, and all the while, helping educate up-and-coming comics. If Sydney’s stand-up scene eventually got the jump on Melbourne, it was because, for a while there, there were people who had a clear idea what they were doing, why they were doing it, how it ought to be done, who for, and where it all fit in, in the greater scheme of things. Over five years, I pretty much found my voice and an ability to interview.
I have interviewed Trevorrow a number of times since this was written in 1998 (it was 1998, so forgive the dated political outlook; who was to know Kim Beazley’s best impression of a Statesman would be in conceding defeat in an election he should have had no trouble winning, and handing over leadership of his party, in 2001?). Trevorrow continues to be an interested and engaging interview subject – responsible for increasingly involved and ever-more-funny live shows. And for the record, I’ve watched him go from taking the piss out of the Tony Bartuccio Dancers, to working with Tony Bartuccio. I hope to eventually dig out later interviews where Trevorrow discusses all of this.
For more info on Bob Downe and Mark Trevorrow, in his own words, plus updates on tours and performances, and access to heaps and heaps of clips, check out his YouTube page. Meanwhile, here’s the interview.
Bob Downe for Revolver
“You’re talking to Mark Trevorrow rather than Bob Downe,” a jet-lagged voice announces. “Did my manager explain it to you? Bob Downe’s not a real person.”
“What?” I demand, worried. “I suppose you’re going to tell me Good Morning Murwillumbah, the breakfast show he hosts, isn’t a real television program either…?”
“Well,” the voice replies, “I don’t want to break your heart…”
My first conversation with Mark Trevorrow took place in 1995 when he was frequently dashing between England and Australia consolidating Bob Downe’s success. Having been effectively ‘on tour’ with Bob for seven years, 1995 was an important year; Bob Downe met the Queen at The Royal Variety Performance. ‘Yeh Yeh’, a cover of the old Georgie Fame number, had just been released as the lead single from Bob’s then-forthcoming album Jazzy. The album featured the track ‘Je T’Aime’, a duet with Julian Clary. If Jazzy failed to entice as wide an audience as it ought to have, it is only because it arrived too soon, the cocktail music revival failing to take hold for at least another six months. Not that Jazzy was a calculated attempt to exploit a trend; Bob Downe exists beyond genres. He always was and always will be and his kitsch appeal has no beginning or end.
Yet, speaking to Mark Trevorrow then, it was as though he didn’t know this. Bob would rarely speak for himself in interview, and apart from the broad facts as to when and how Bob was conceived, Mark didn’t have much to say about him. Not like — and I loathe the ‘critic’s way out’ that this comparison presents — Barry Humphries. The characters of Barry Humphries all seem to have lives of their own. Dame Edna Everage and Sir Les Patterson are frequently interviewed in character, and they make reference to the nebulous Humphries. And his creations have a thriving inner life that enables Humphries to talk at length about them. In performance, Bob Downe would tell us more about himself during between-song patter, but he only existed on that stage.
Within the few years that have passed, things have changed. All Bob Downe, Bob’s autobiography as written by Mark Trevorrow, has been published by Penguin. Bob’s universe has been fully fleshed out, so much so that the most recent Good Weekend’s ‘The two of us’ column featured Mark and Bob being interviewed about each other. Clearly then, when I rang Trevorrow out of the blue to request “an interview some time,” his response of “how about now” took me by surprise.
“Bob’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid to make everyone laugh,” says Mark Trevorrow of his alter ego. Influenced by the high-camp artifice that was day-to-day television programming in this country, as well as film and radio, young Mark had “a little fantasy show-biz empire” with his sister and the kids next door, putting shows on in the back yard. “I never dreamed that it would be something that I’d do professionally,” he says.
After completing his schooling at Murrumbeena High in 1976, Trevorrow pursued (or perhaps ‘fell into’) a career in journalism. Beginning his cadetship as a 17 year-old copy boy at Sun News Pictorial in January 1977, by its end in 1981 Mark had served as a daily pop columnist. However, broader interests were already drawing him in other directions. His years of avid television viewing may have prepared him for his production post on Channel 10’s Together Tonight (a magazine-style show than ran nightly for six months).
Irrespective, Mark was already developing a cabaret act within the comedy group Gloria and the Go Gos. Featuring Wendy de Waal in the role of Gloria, the act was largely “thrown together” as a party turn.
Renamed ‘The Globos’, the band had its first hit in 1982 with the song ‘Tintarella Di Luna’. Pre-empted back into existence by Joe Dolce’s pontificating ‘Shaddup You Face’, the sub-genre of wog novelty discs fell into (or perhaps ‘pursued’) its late-80s nadir courtesy of Con the Fruiterer’s ‘Cuppla Days’. The genre’s zenith was definitely ‘Tintarella…’, which made it into the top twenty charts. When you listen to the song (the high-camp artifice that is contemporary advertising has led to its recent use on a television commercial, but I can’t for the life of me remember what was being flogged) you will hear Wendy and the band give their all. As with Bob Downe’s Jazzy, there are times when you are not entirely convinced that The Globos know whether they’re taking the piss or not.
A second single, ‘The Beat Goes On’, made it into the Top 40 in 1983 and was followed by a national tour with the Total and Utter King of Rock and Roll, Cliff Richard (who, like Bob Downe, is a ‘committed bachelor’). When The Globos broke up in 1984, Trevorrow resumed his career in journalism. Joining Vogue Australia as a staff writer, Mark eventually rose to the position of freelance Arts Editor. However, it wasn’t long before he was once again writing and performing, this time in a double act with Cathy Armstrong. Consisting of sketch comedy, the duo devised a show, A Nice Young Couple, which they performed in 1985. They also went on to write and perform for ABC Radio’s comedy unit. It was from this work that Bob Downe was created, initially as a parody of Entertainment Tonight. Bob Downe went solo in 1987, launching his career at Sydney’s self-proclaimed nursery of comedy, the Harold Park Hotel. A brief internship at Melbourne’s Last Laugh — “it was sort of ‘Comedy Central’ in those days,” Mark explains — gave way to Bob’s foray into Britain in 1988.
I must admit that my first real introduction to Bob was via his work with the Doug Anthony Allstars, particularly in the series Daas Kapital. “I think I started working with the Dougs in ’87, at the Last Laugh” Mark recalls. “They showed me the festival ropes, how to go about doing the Edinburgh Festival. Then we did a lot of touring. I used to support them a lot whenever they were playing in London.” Bob, of course, remembers the proceedings so much more vividly than Mark. In an episode of Daas Kapital, a mermaid (played by Khym Lam, partner of Dougs’ guitarist Richard Fidler) sums the group up thus: “Paul [McDermott]’s the one you want to do it to, Tim [Ferguson]’s the one you think of while you’re doing it, but Richard’s the one you want to marry.” Bob takes us a step further in All Bob Downe: “Tim — like all the pretty ones — just lay there, vaguely sort of indicating. Richard? We just talked all night. And Paul… like a stinky little jackrabbit. In the end I let him hump my leg while I read TV Week.”
All Bob Downe marks a coming of age. Bob Downe has always exploited television. On stage, his Tony Bartuccio Dancer-moves (running directly at the camera and peeling off to the side at the last moment) are exactly how they were done on The Don Lane Show. His version of The Theme from ‘Fame’ bore the garbled lyrics as learnt from the crappy monaural television that you and I used to watch it on in the 70s. Daas Kapital contained the brilliant TV-advertised album commercial — “Jesus loves me, and you will too when you hear Bob Downe for Jesus”. All Bob Downe brings this acute level of parody to the print medium. Bearing the bold and flamboyant typefaces and colour scheme (beige and parrot shit green) of a 70s annual, the chapters of All Bob Downe open with fraudulent newspaper headlines taken from archival issues of the Murwillumbah Irrigator. It also contains all the name-dropping references and photos of Bob’s brilliant career thus far.
Mark Trevorrow recognises the position Bob is now in as the beginning of a new phase. “It’s gotten to the point where Bob is someone you can always depend on to get up and do a silly song. But after 15 years, Bob is ready to host a show, rather than just make spot appearances.” Indeed. Bob’s hosting of the Mardi Gras telecast is testament to his ability and suitability. But that is the very least we should expect from Bob Downe. I put it to Mark that perhaps Bob Downe ought to be the first President of the Australian Republic.
“Bob would leave that to the Ray Martins and the John Farnhams,” Trevorrow advises. “Bob’s civic duty is strictly limited to shopping centre appearances and cutting ribbons at the openings of fetes.” Fair enough. Bob is already acquainted with public office, what with his having been presented to the Queen. Which leads me back to that loathsome comparison again. Edna Everage had reached about the same point in her career as Bob is at now when Gough Whitlam bid her ‘Arise, Dame Edna’. Don’t be surprised if, at some point in the near future, Prime Minister Kim Beazley utters a similar dictum: “Arise, Bob Downe.” That’s if Kim heeds the advice of his physicians to ‘arise, bob down, arise, bob down, arise…”
My interview with Bill Bailey, in preparation for the Australian leg of his Tinselworm tour. We covered a lot of ground, but I failed to ask about the current show’s title or content, and how they relate. I read elsewhere Bailey’s response regarding the title, that a ‘tinselworm’ was a cheap type of silkworm – which hasn’t revealed much more about the show than my interview does. But then, Bill Bailey isn’t the sort of comedian you go to see after finding out what his topics are this time round. You go to see him because he is Bill Bailey and he will be funny, with a lot of brilliant musical material, to boot!
This is the second time I’ve had a long chat with Bill Bailey. The first time was on the eve of the first ever Sydney Comedy Festival, in 1998. This was a time when both the Comedy Store and the Harold Park Hotel – later briefly known as the Comedy Hotel, before being sold to finance the Comedy Cellar and the inaugural Sydney Comedy Festival - were two massive and important venues for the development of local comedy. Ten years later, neither venue currently exists. Oh, but in a good year, Sydney has two comedy festivals: the Big Laugh and Cracker. Pity they have to compete with each other… None of this has anything to do with Bill Bailey’s tour, however….
That first time we’d chatted, all the interviews prior to mine ran over time, and I was being forced to keep it short – so I snuck Bill into a pub in order to talk for as long as possible without getting interrupted. This time, I told Bill up front that I wanted to cover a lot of ground – the main thrust would be forGQ– for the ‘Words for the Wise’ back page section – but I was also going to get half a page inFilmInkand I wanted ask a bunch of ‘comics on comedy’ questions, as usual. Bill told me that he was home from work and had nothing else to do. I insisted that he tell me when it was time for last question. An hour later, I wound myself up. All in all, a good job, I thought, until the following day, when the publicist informed me that I’d prevented the Daily Telegraph from securing their interview. Oops. Sorry. I’ll try to be less selfish when I speak to Bill again in 2018.
What was brilliant this time around was that, when I reminded Bill of the last interview, in the pub, interrupted mid-explanation on the differences between beers in England, he was able, ten years later, to pick up the interview where he left off. I remember being impressed when Wil Anderson was able to do callbacks to earlier gigs at the Falls Festival one year. Callbacks across separate gigs over four nights is pretty cool. But Bill Bailey has called back a decade. That’s a pretty high bar for any other comedian to come and jump.
Dom Romeo: Hi Bill, it’s Dom Romeo here. How are you?
BILL BAILEY: I’m very well, thanks.
Dom Romeo: You may not remember this, but nearly a decade ago I spoke to you in Sydney. I smuggled you into a pub so that we wouldn’t get interrupted before time. Do you remember that interview?
Dom Romeo: And a sense of rural despair, of course. So I think we should just pick it up from there, more-or-less.
BILL BAILEY: Well, nothing much has changed in the ploughman’s lunch. It’s still there, but it’s probably on a bill of fare with a bit of couscous, and some Thai sea bass. Maybe our palette has moved on a little bit and the standard bill of fare in a pub is a little bit more varied, but the ploughman’s lunch is still going strong and rural despair has only increased. And a general sense of agricultural malaise is probably worse than it’s ever been. So, yeah, things are okay!
Dom Romeo: So a decade on, we have more sophisticated palates. What has changed comedically?
BILL BAILEY: Comedically? I think that televised comedy has certainly changed in that time inasmuch as that naturalistic performances are the norm now and the kind of subject matter is very much about embarrassment and a sense of cringe-making and “I can’t bear to look at this… Oh god, what are they doing now…? Oh, Jesus!…” It’s actually just a mirror to what we feel about our own society. That’s what it is. Very much a self-reflexive, very personal comedy that’s the norm now.
Dom Romeo: How does that work with what you do? A decade ago, you had a lot of musical parody in your show. How has the change in televised comedy affected you as a live comedian?
BILL BAILEY: I think that the two have actually diverged quite a lot. There’s an appetite for performance of live comedy that has increased hugely in the last ten years, because the TV stuff is very different. The TV stuff is quite small and it’s quite studied. There’s no audience laughter. It’s quite theatrical. It’s moved away from what stand-up is. I’ve noticed the numbers of live comedy audiences have gone up. More people want to go see it and it’s taken on the role that used to be filled by musical audiences and festival-going crowds – people who want a different kind of performance. They like to see comedy in a different environment.
It’s quite claustrophobic, the comedy that you see on TV. It’s become very self-reflexive and very dark, and certainly there are elements of that in stand-up, but it’s become almost a sort of celebration, live comedy. And people like to see performance – they like the fact that my kind of stuff and other people’s stuff is almost a hybrid of a lot of different strands of comedy – a lot of music and parody and personal recollection and anecdote and observation – all that stuff you pick up on the way when you’re learning a trade, and it’s all fed into this performance which is live and spontaneous and happening right there, and it’s – hopefully – always a joyful occasion. You hope people are going to laugh.
That element of it is the key – people want a sense of community when they go out. TV is very much people sitting watching it at home, or watching it on YouTube, or watching it on the Internet, or sharing files at home… People not going out, people staying in and having their own personal connection with TV and the programs that they like and sharing them around. The live stuff is a different kind of need – people wanting to be part of something: a larger crowd, be it a sporting event, a rock gig, or in this case, a comedy gig.
Dom Romeo: So hit comedies are the acute studies of humanity at its most discomforting – versus a room full of people sharing the experience.
BILL BAILEY: It’s almost as though the two can co-exist quite happily, but they’re very different – they feed on different parts of people’s comedy appetite.
Dom Romeo: You’ve mentioned in the past – and you’ve done comedy about – coming from the West Country. But you don’t seem to have a West Country accent. Why is that?
BILL BAILEY: Well the thing is that – I suppose – my parents didn’t really have the West Country accent. My father was from the north of Britain, so he had a slight northern twang to his accent, and my mother was Welsh, so she spoke with a slight welsh accent. So I suppose, really, it was so hard to do; I’d be really hard-pressed to do a combination of Welsh/northern/West Country.
I was trying to adopt a very simple, very straightforward non-inflected accent that would do where ever I went – particularly when I went to London. When I left school, I went and lived in London and I was at college there for a bit and people make assumptions as soon as you open your mouth in Britain. We’re still riddled with class. And riddled with preconception. You open your mouth and you talk with a certain accent, people immediately – almost within the first sentence – they’ve already pegged you for background, social standing, tried to figure out how much money you’ve got, what kind of place you live in…
All these things come out in the accent, and it used to really bug me. And so I suppose I tried not to have an accent when I first went up to London. Inevitably, I did. There’s no way around it. You think you don’t; you think you’re talking without any accent. But people recognise various lilts and phrases. So I thought I was talking like this: “Hello, I’m from the West Country and it’s an awful pleasure to be here in London,” whereas what I sounded like was “’Ello mate, alroight?” like some blithering yokel. I resented that. I resented that preconception. I resented people thinking, “you’re some idiot yokel from the west country”. So I kind of tried on the idea of not having an accent and people have no preconception then. People have to take you as you are. It’s a simple thing, but if you don’t have an accent, people can’t quite figure you out.
Dom Romeo: It’s true. Traditionally, English comedians came from Liverpool because they were naturally funny, but to get work in London, had to lose the Liverpudlian accent. Your choice to ‘lose’ the accent is significant.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah. Now, of course, regionalism is encouraged and celebrated. People are encouraged to keep their accents and celebrate where they come from. For me, it was about the whole package – what I looked like; my appearance as well. If you look like a hippie, people assume you’re going to be like this, or they assume you’re gonna be like that. Most of the time, it’s not that. And I suppose there’s a bit of devilment, where I quite like that. I quite like people thinking it’s going to be one thing when it’s going to be something else. Already you’ve got a bit of an angle.
Dom Romeo: Isn’t a lot of comedy and show business like that, though? The professional misdirection. You think it’s going to be happening here, but it’s actually happening there, and part of the joke turns on the fact that it takes you by surprise.
BILL BAILEY: Well, for me, yeah, I think so. I quite like that. I quite like to be surprised by someone. You’ve worked out who this person is and what they’re gonna talk about – okay, this kind of thing… this is why, yeah, yeah, yeah, I see where we’re going with this – and then it’ll be somewhere different. It’ll be taken in another direction. or it’ll be confounding, or it’ll be surprising or enchanting… That I like. It’s a healthy exchange that you’ve had. Generally, in life, it’s a good thing: not to get drawn into pegging people, or things, or ways of thinking; not getting into a rut about things.
A great compliment was paid to me in a very downbeat, off-hand, almost-not-a -compliment-at-all way, in Los Angeles. I was doing a show there, and this head of a studio came to a show. He came backstage afterwards with his entourage and he couldn’t think of any sort of compliment like a normal person would say, like “well done” or “I enjoyed it” – that wasn’t in his vocabulary. He said, “I stayed to the end”. That was the greatest compliment he could think up. He’d obviously been trying to think: “What am I gonna say to this guy? ‘I liked it?’ No. ‘I loved it?’ No. ‘I thought it was funny…?’ No, I know: ‘I stayed to the end!’” And that was it. “I stayed to the end,” he said, “because every time I thought it was going one way, you went another way.”
And so an hour and twenty minutes went by. Maybe this guy watched the first five minutes going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah… Okay, your girlfriend, something happened, you came out, she told you, you spun it round, blah blah blah blah blah… Right, let’s go…” It took him an hour and twenty-five minutes and he just couldn’t figure me out. “I can’t believe it, I’m still here!” That’s what I’m aiming at.
Dom Romeo: That is a compliment in the end, though, from that sort of guy.
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, I suppose. I take it wherever I can get it.
Dom Romeo: You take the mickey out of a lot of music and you do it very well. It's said that at the heart of every parody is a kernel of tribute. So considering ChrisdeBurgh and Kraftwerk just for a moment – is there a part of you that likes these people that you claim to dislike?
BILL BAILEY: Well, certainly, it’s the truth of Kraftwerk. I saw a live show. It was terrific. It was a brilliant kind of weird art installation-like gig. It was unlike any other gig you’ve ever seen. Four guys who looked like bank managers, operating machinery, were hardly moving for two hours, and people would go nuts. Of course, you never see that – it’s so different and it’s so studied and it seems so incredibly modern and futuristic, the fact that they’re not moving or seeming to enjoy it in any way or imparting any emotion into it at all. In two hours, they just operated machinery. Who knows what they were doing? Was it a tape? Were they checking their emails? No-one knows. At the end they were just, ‘thank you!’ and that was it. Fantastic.
I was kind of getting slightly hysterical watching them. A kind of hilarity washed over everyone because you couldn’t figure out whether they knew how funny it was, or whether they didn’t know how funny it was, or thought they were really taking themselves seriously, or they were sending themselves up… There were all sorts of layers going on and you couldn’t figure out… whichever one you picked was great. They know they’re in on it… they’re playing it… they don’t know they’re in on it… Ah! I’ve got a big glob of affection for them. I’ve been a fan of their stuff over the years.
I don’t know about Chris De Burgh. It’s very hard for me to say. That is a serious accusation saying that I secretly like him. I don’t know if I can go that far. That’d be too far. That’s insane. I’d be rambling or raging, like some lunatic.
Dom Romeo: Of course. I apologise for that one. Take a step back then – consider other musical entities you’ve made fun of like Peter Gabriel and Genesis.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, okay.
Dom Romeo: A bit of admiration or none whatsoever?
BILL BAILEY: A bit. I do have a prog rock sensibility that I caught the tail end of in my early teens. That was my first experience of big rock gigs: people in cloaks and make-up and people playing trilogies with masses of keyboards with gongs and smoke and dry ice. They’re very powerful images, steeled into my teenage brain. Better get ’em out. I was also blown away by punk, when I was older.
But you have to get to the nub of what it is that you’re making fun of, and in order for it to work, you have to really understand it and know what it is. Same with de Burgh: you’d have to know the kind of chords he would play and the turns of phrases and the mentality behind it. I think they become more affectionate tributes, in a way, like the Billy Bragg one and the Bryan Adams one. In the new show I’ve got a modern folk song and a tribute to emo – you know, the kind of overwrought sort of black fringed, goth, hand-ringing: “Why me? Everything’s gone wrong.”
Dom Romeo: So the danger is there: for you to make fun of it as well as you do, you have to know it very well, and it’s only a small step then – you might slip over and start to like aspects of it.
BILL BAILEY: Very true. It’s a risk, there’s no doubt about it. You have to be very, very disciplined. If you find yourself downloading the whole album of Evanescence ‘for reference’ – “Oh yeah, that’s ‘for reference’, is it, Bill…?” – then you have to get a grip on yourself. And if you wear black too often… You need someone keeping an eye on you, some sort of ‘parody buddy’ watching you, checking your moves.
Dom Romeo: Earlier on you used to wear black, way before emo. But it had a different meaning then – when you had the Bastard Bunny t-shirt… you did come from a purely musical background. How did you make the transition?
BILL BAILEY: I was in this band in the West Country. We were gigging around the area in little clubs and pubs. These guys I was in the band with, they were wanting to take it more seriously. I was just a young kid, really. I was in my teens and I didn’t want to take it too seriously; I was only really in it for a laugh. And then I realised that these guys really, really wanted this thing to work. It was like a big deal for them. One of them was a hairdresser and another one worked in a garage and the band was a big thing.
I just wanted to have a laugh – turn up for a gig in a pub somewhere and then fall asleep on the pool table – which is what I did. The seriousness of the muso element was really starting to bug me – people arguing about who wrote what riff in what song. I thought, “oh god, this isn’t what I wanted to join a band for – arguing over chords”. So I started doodling around with a mate. One night we did a comedy sketch and it was so liberating. I realised that you get locked into a kind of a routine in a band, if you’re not careful. It was like, “you are the keyboard player, this is what you do”. It was too limiting as a form of expression. I remember thinking, “Is this what I'm gonna do? Dance around behind a keyboard to try and make it look interesting, and not say anything?” I wasn't the singer… I realised quite luckily, very early on, I’d get bored and frustrated just doing that, and chucked it in very early. I made a conscious decision and I very clearly remember it. I was really young, 19 or 20, and I remember thinking, “Do I really want to struggle on with a band for years and years and years, or should I try my own thing?” It was very much a gut instinct that I had, and it turned out to be right. Although I would have loved to be the keyboard player in TalkingHeads, I must admit.
Dom Romeo: Is there a form of music so base and so beneath you, so abhorrent to you, that you wouldn’t even download a version in order to send it up?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah, certain kids’ TV themes. Most music I can listen to, I can absorb and go, “yep, I can see what you're doing there but it’s not for me”. But if I hear ‘Barney the Dinosaur’, or any one of them, it’s like nails down a blackboard. I suppose it’s because I've got a four-year-old and heard them that many times now that I start to get a Herbert Lom-style twitch when I hear them. Just the eye – like when he says, “Clouseau? Clouseau? He’s here?!”
Dom Romeo: What about in comedy? Is there anything that makes you feel the same way?
BILL BAILEY: It’s probably an occupational hazard of all comics. It’s hard to enjoy it as a punter because it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday: “I like the structure of that; nice joke; ooh, that’s a nice joke, wish I’d thought of that…” If you start to analyse it, rather than just enjoy it, it stops being fun. That’s why I’ve always enjoyed American comics – they’re coming from a different cultural background, you can switch off that analysing button a little bit and enjoy it as part of the audience because of the ‘otherness’… the ‘differentness’. Can you say that? The ‘difference’… The ‘otherness’ of it.
But I suppose any comedy that’s just old retreads that I’ve heard for years that isn’t really moving it on at all, or the lack of ambition of it all – the leaden “here comes the punchline, clip clopping over the hill like a big, shy horse. Here it comes, clip, clopping, BONG!” That’s what’s depressing. You think, “but I heard this joke when I was 12…”. That’s what bugs me, I suppose.
When I hear jokes I grew up with, I think, “has someone gone over everyone with a neuraliser?” Maybe they’ve forgotten whole swathes of their childhood. Perhaps it’s endearing to be reminded of jokes. They like familiarity and something they can relate to. You can’t deny that and it’s no less valid if people are laughing – that’s the ultimate stamp of approval.
And the trouble is, naturally, I want to move it on and reflect more about where I am. You get older and think about things in a different way than you thought about them twenty years ago, and there are other things that you want to talk about and you want to keep things fresh so that you’re not getting bored with it, and you want to stay interested and stay challenged by it and at the same time you’re thinking about the audience…
“Avoidance of cliches” is the mantra I try to adhere to. You think of a joke, you think,“Has this been done before? Who might have done it? Is it new? have I heard it before?” You think “Maybe not,” so you move it along and try to mould subject matter into something that’s succinct or in a funny way or subject matter that isn’t really spoken about. Stuff like that is what keeps me going.
Dom Romeo: Do you consciously think of that when you’re coming up with material, or do you just find that if it makes you laugh, then it’s pretty much safe that it’s going to make your audience laugh? I mean, do you ever look at your material and think, “gee, all I’m really doing here is ‘the difference between cats and dogs’”?
BILL BAILEY: Am I now just doing the similarities? That’s the way! Let me just find the commonalities between all things…
It’s really just what’s going through your head at the time – what’s bothering you or what’s going through your head, and I’m hoping and trusting that my audience will be going with me on that. They’ll be the ones I’ve grown up with over the years, and they’ll know that this is the kind of subject matter that they’ll be talking about. You have to trust a little bit and take a risk, that’s the real trick of it.
If you’re not enjoying it, the audience will cop onto that pretty quickly. It’s in the eyes – if theres nothing in the eyes [they know you’re over it].
Dom Romeo: So what is the secret to longevity in comedy?
BILL BAILEY: I think you have to really want to do it. You’ve got to have the will, the appetite for it. Certainly with stand-up, you do. Because it only gets harder. It gets harder and harder as the years go on. Expectation gets higher, sitting down to write and focus on what is essentially a reckless, foolhardy occupation… your time gets squeezed.
There are other things to think about. There’s a family and responsibilities and reflection and all kinds of other things that crowd in the time you used to spend – the months you’d luxuriate in the time that there was to fashion an act and hone it to this beautiful, polished gem that could keep you going for a few years, and then you’d fashion another one, to be a show. The time’s just not there anymore. You kind of have to be very focused on it and know what you want to get out of it, but be sure that that’s what you want to do. That’s the key.
And don’t get distracted. If you really want to keep doing comedy, you have to keep working at it. You can’t let it go for a second. You don’t want to get distracted doing too much for TV or other things.
All of that’s fine, it’s all part and parcel of it. If you’re a comic and if you’re reasonably successful, TV offers come battering through the door and you can’t stop them. Eventually you give in and you say, “alright, I’ll do some of this” and “that’s good” or “that might be good”. Undoubtedly, it can be a blessed relief after being on tour for years and years, working a solitary profession. Suddenly you’re on a team of people and it’s like turning up for work. You can kid on that you’ve actually got a job, you know: “I check in and get a special pass and then I go to my dressing room and people bring me pudding. Yeah, I get pudding, and there’s free fruit I can take – it’s free, have that – and there are biscuits and little sandwiches and a microphone and lots of lights…” It’s like having a holiday from your life.
It never felt real to me. I felt that stand-up was the real job; it’s the real graft. That’s you! Your thoughts. Your life processed into your – your reputation, whatever you want to call it. It's mentally stable as well. Don’t get carried away with it. That's the other thing.
Dom Romeo: Right. Given that, what do you do to relax? How do you maintain your mental stability? How you know when it’s time to take a step back from something?
BILL BAILEY: It’s good having a family. I think that’s great. I have a wife and a child and great friends and we have a great life. We travel a lot and go to great places. I think you have to go and get out of your little world you’re in. It can get a bit too claustrophobic sometimes. You have to get out of it and do something else – something that’s totally different from writing comedy. Something simple, physical… rafting or climbing… you find a lot of comics are into real ‘adrenaline’ kind of things. You need to get a hit from somewhere.
Dom Romeo: So what do you do?
BILL BAILEY: What we do is we go trekking in the jungle and white-water rafting and volcano climbing. That tends to knock the shit out of your head.
Dom Romeo: Are you serious? Is that really what you do to relax?
BILL BAILEY: Yeah.
Dom Romeo: If that’s the case, that you need a burst of adrenaline from those kinds of activities before you can relax, what sort of things actually scare you? What do you fear most?
BILL BAILEY: Losing my wits. Literally and figuratively. Not being able to be funny and actually starting to lose my mental facility terrifies me.
Dom Romeo: What or who inspires you most?
BILL BAILEY: I’m a bit of magpie – I pick up different bits of inspiration from different sources, sometimes from places I wouldn't imagine I would. From political leaders or writers and/or other comics, or even sometimes sporting figures who go through great strife and find some sort of mental strength to get them through it. And even people I know who have actually had to do that. Your friends and family who have gone through some strife and shown some sort of tenacity and not given up, who make you think, “god, that’s what I want to be like”. I don't know how that applies…
Anything like that I draw strength from because sometimes you do think about giving up – you’ve had a bad gig or your can’t think of anything new – and you think of someone who’s been in that situation in their own walk of life, and that gives you a bit of a sense of tremendous achievement that people have gone through.
Dom Romeo: When you have those moments of doubt, who do you think of? Is it a close friend who has been through those things, or is it a hero from history?
BILL BAILEY: You just think about some footballer who had an injury and was out for half a season and then he gets his chance in a game and it’s a big cup game, and suddenly he’s taking a penalty that could mean the difference between them being relegated or promoted. There’s a great honesty about sport where you can see the emotion. It’s right there on the face. Sometimes I vicariously enjoy that, that twirl of acting out and thinking through the mental process of that.
Dom Romeo: Are you a follower of sport? Do you barrack for a football team?
BILL BAILEY: Not really, no. I enjoy it in a more general sense of what it does, how it can elevate people. I love the fact that there’s a sense of community about people going to see sport and how it draws people together. There’s a tremendous sense of belonging that people crave. As humans, we need that. We need some sort of spiritual catharsis that sport can give us.
Dom Romeo: But if you don’t actually engage in that activity, what do you do for that spiritual catharsis, that sense of community, when you feel the need? [Duh! He does stand-up comedy! - Autocritic]
BILL BAILEY: I suppose huge events – huge, mass gatherings of people. You can draw on that. It could be a sporting event or a big gig… I suppose the big anti-war march in London is a good example. There was an incredible sense of shared feeling. That, I find, is inspiring. You get out there and see what people can achieve and you feel part of it. You think, this is great! There is hope! You can effect change! You feel helpless as an individual – what can you do? But thousands of people, millions, together – you feel empowered by it. You feel part of something. I always feel that that’s a very primal, human need. We’re very community-based animals, we like to be in a group. Modern life prevents that.
Dom Romeo: Can we talk about your television and film career? When you were first here ten years ago, you had just made a television breakthrough with the previous year’s Is It Bill Bailey? which involved sketch and stand-up. We’ve never seen it out here. Is there any chance it’ll be released on DVD?
BILL BAILEY: We were just thinking about that fairly recently. The director of that was Edgar Wright, who’s gone on to direct a few films like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. And SimonPegg was in it, who’s gone on to do these films. I was talking to Edgar when we were doing Hot Fuzz and he said he’d like to get everyone together to do cast interviews and gather together deleted scenes and really spend a bit of time on it… making it into a proper thing, rather than just banging it out as just another BBC bit of merchandise. So that’s hopefully what we’ll do.
Dom Romeo: I’m really glad to hear that, and now you’ve also put everything into perspective, including the Simon Pegg relationship which I thought had begun with Spaced.
BILL BAILEY: Simon and Edgar and Jessica [Hynes, nee Stevenson] who wrote that thing, thought up this character and wrote it with me in mind – this kind of comic book purveyor. It’s great when something’s written for you. You just have to turn up and speak.
Dom Romeo: How much is that character like you in real life? Are you into comic books? I know you’re into Bastard Bunny to some extent.
BILL BAILEY: Yes, it’s one of those things that you think, “oh no, that would be too much of a cliché if that’s what I was like”, and then you think, “no, I’ll resist that…” and then you realise, “no, actually, I have bought some comics and I am quite into it”. And then people send me this stuff. I get sent all these kinds of graphic novels and stuff, and I guess I love it, really. But I’m trying not to become these characters.
Dom Romeo: I think I knew that. But you must have liked the role, seeing as you were there for three seasons and each season was better than the previous one.
BILL BAILEY: Well I think it was just one of those rare moments where there was a great chemistry between the actors and there was a very good relationship with the production team. Everyone had a very sympathetic and very supportive climate going into it. It was very much a case of the broadcasters letting the production team get on with it. There was no meddling, there was no interference from broadcasting. “You do it your way.” You were encouraged to be as individual about it. And from what I’ve experienced from television over the years, that’s quite rare. It was a very happy time.
The rehearsal period was great fun. A lot of things happened in the rehearsals that then ended up in the show. It had quite a rough and loose feel about it. It was never quite set in stone; it wasn’t rehearsed into the ground. We would rehearse it up to the shoot, then shoot it in front of a live audience and then something would go wrong so then we’d just improvise a scene then something else would go wrong with that scene – someone would put a coffee cup down in the wrong place – so we’d improvise another scene. There’d be four different versions. It was a very fertile environment to work in and it was great fun working with Dylan [Moran] and Tamsin [Greig].
Dom Romeo: You also appeared in Wild West, a strange little comedy vehicle for Dawn French which also featured Catherine Tate before we knew her here. It was set in the West Country, so it’s right up your alley. How was it to be a part of that?
BILL BAILEY: That was a project that Dawn French had been thinking about for a long time. It was very edgy and again very personal to her and quite different – a departure from what she’d done before. Quite dark and slightly surreal – it was actually a lesbian couple living in this sort of rural idyll. That’s a classic case of where there was a bit of meddling – the BBC getting involved and the focus groups having a go at it – “no, no, no, don’t do it like that, do it like this…” One of them had boyfriend and it was all a bit wacky – it didn’t have the same clarity of what the thing was gonna be.
It was great fun to do it because obviously, we were filming in Cornwall, which is beautiful. And I had to try and speak with a Cornish accent, which is always a challenge.
Dom Romeo: You were in Hot Fuzz, on one level a send-up of The Wicker Man. What was it like working with Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright again, on that? Fun, I’m sure…
BILL BAILEY: Oh yes. What larks! It was terrific fun and it was a double-wigger for me, which is always a joy. Two wigs. “‘Wigs’ Bailey”, I was known as. And they’re great guys. Edgar is such a film buff. He knows so much about films and scenes and lines from films. You know that every scene he does, he’s thought about a hundred different ways – how he can reference some other film into it. And that, I think, particularly for myself and Simon who have absorbed so much popular culture into stand-up, it’s such a rich source of material, you’re almost speaking the same language as him.
Dom Romeo: Bill, I want to give you back to your family and your life – but I have one last topic to cover. Do you know what a ‘skullet’ is?
BILL BAILEY: I do, yes. I have knowledge of that and I’ve seen it mentioned with my name attached to it. I am delighted that somehow tonsorial laziness has actually now got a name. It’s actually been enshrined as a kind of a hairstyle. I didn’t even know it was a ‘style’, but now apparently it is. So I’m delighted.
Dom Romeo: Well, there are a whole lot of us, when our hair starts to go, we now have something to aspire to.
BILL BAILEY: Absolutely. It’s no longer just a bloke going a bit bald with his hair long at the back… No, it’s a ‘skullet’! It’s perfect. And also it’s an instruction to people to drink.
Dom Romeo: I’ll drink to that!
Bill Bailey, thank you so much for your time. I look forward to seeing you live again.
BILL BAILEY: You’re welcome. See you then.
For more details of the Australian leg of the Tinselworm tour, almost totally sold out before it begins, check out the website of Adrian Bohm Presents.