- Tuesday, March 11, 2014, 8 p.m.
868 Fourth Avenue,
$32.50 - $52.50
Scottish funnyman Billy Connolly, The Big Yin himself, is coming to town. The actor, singer, cartoon voice artist, and comedian will perform live at the Balboa Theatre on March 11.
With a guy like Billy Connolly, 15 minutes simply isn’t enough. Talk of some of his smaller jewels (White Oleander, Still Crazy, The Boondock Saints) will have to wait for a future interview. Instead, the conversation turned how his apprenticeship as a welder helped to forge a career in comedy, his "body double," John Cleese, and, as it must whenever a great comedian speaks of his influences, Jack Benny.
As I told Billy, I’m not very good when it comes to the serious stuff, but I had to ask about the announcement last year that he is in the initial stages of Parkinson’s Disease and how he thinks it will effect his comedy.
Tickets for Tuesday night’s performance are still available. We begin with Fido, my favorite of Billy’s performances.
Scott Marks: Here’s a sentence you don’t hear every day: In the annals of film history, you have a lock on zombie dog performances.
Billy Connolly: Ah, Fido!
SM: None other. It made my ten best list the year it came out. One look at your performance reveals a gifted physical comedian. How big a challenge was it to play a character — and one that demands a large amount of screen time — who is mute throughout the entire picture?
BC: It was kinda’ strange. I remember the first day asking the director, Andrew Currie, how zombies walk. I don’t go to zombie movies, you know. He demonstrated that little shuffle for me and I just took it from there. It was a lovely thing. I decided to bump into everything I came into.
SM: Bumping into furniture was your motivation.
BC (Laughing): Yeah. I behaved as if I was blind. Something very strange happened on that film. A guy showed up who was to play my body double. He’s working the machine behind me in the factory scene and he died during lunch. It was really weird, a very strange feeling.
SM: Wow! That’s creepy. What a great way to begin an interview with a comedian. Let’s move forward. Speaking of body doubles, you are rocking a very unique look. Who do people mistake you for? Paul Greengrass? Wim Wenders?
BC: You will not believe this. Hold onto your hat! John Cleese.
SM: John Cleese?! Are you kidding me? Other than the fact that you are both incredibly funny men, I look more like John Cleese than you do.
BC: I look nothing like him.
SM: The closest you came to looking like him was when you cut your hair for Fido.
BC: I remember the first time I shaved for the movie. I looked in the mirror and said, "Jesus, I look like John Cleese!" From there on in it happened. People would come up to me and compliment me on my work only to have them ask how the rest of the Python gang is. And I’d mutter, "Shit, another one of these.”
SM: (Laughing): You apprenticed as a welder for five years. How did that help to prepare you for a job as a standup comic?
BC: It did in the strangest way. In a big factory situation like the one I worked in when the door closes people become very profane. They swear a lot. And the guys didn’t tell jokes, they just tried to be funny to whoever was around them. It was kind of an apprenticeship. Everything goes. It was lovely.
SM: Will there be a followup to Billy Connolly’s Route 66?
BC: No. I just did a little series on death.
SM: What were your findings?
BC: I just went to the all the places where people get embalmed, and buried at sea, and interviewed people who get their bodies worked on by surgeons, and those who leave their bodies to science...all of that. I went to Jewish graveyards and Islamic graveyards...it was very interesting.
SM: Where will it air?
BC: It’s for a British station, so I don’t know who will pick it up here.
SM: I asked my Facebook "friends" if they had any questions for you, and here’s one that I really like. Does anyone call him William, and if so, who?
BC: Never! Shopkeepers hand me back my credit card and say, "Here you go, William." That’s it. My father was called Billy, so he was Big Billy and I was Wee Billy. There was never a William except for official documents.
SM: Another question from a Facebook fan. Have you ever worn a Mohawk?
BC: No. Strangely enough I never have. Same for a shaved head. Never had neither.
SM: So the closet you came to wearing your hair short was for Fido. Normally we think of you with a flowing mane.
BC: That’s right. I’m in full flow again.
SM: This week, I finally sat down and watched The Impostors. What a funny movie! Was it one of those shoots that was as much fun to make as it is to watch?
BC: Wow! You’ve seen the good ones. It was hysterical and the reason for that was Stanley Tucci. He encouraged us to be ourselves. Someone showed up with a farting machine, the one that’s kind of puffy stuff in a glass that makes a sound when you press your finger in it.
SM: I own several.
BC: As soon as everyone saw it, they all rushed out to buy one. Even Stanley got one for himself. He joined in the merry club. We did it for days on end. It was great. With all those people, the film couldn’t help but be funny.
SM: Comedy teams have gone the way of the laser disc. Harold and Kumar is about as good as it gets nowadays. Why do you think there are no contemporary equivalents of The Marx Bros. or Laurel & Hardy or even Allen & Rossi, for that matter?
BC: There will be. It comes and goes in cycles. There is a lull and then it comes back again.
SM: It’s been a long lull. Growing up, who made you laugh?
BC: A bunch of Scottish guys you never heard of. Except for Jack Benny. I always found Jack Benny to be extremely funny.
SM: It’s funny. Every time I ask a comedian who is our age to name their influences, Benny’s name always comes up.
BC: He’s credited with getting the longest laugh on radio. It went on for five minutes. Benny had a reputation for being notoriously cheap. He’s in an alleyway with a mugger who sticks a gun in his ribs and says, “Your money or your life!” There’s a long pause and Benny says, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!” Stunning! He’s absolutely stunning.
SM: You’ve played San Diego in the past.
BC: Sure. I’ve been there a couple of times. I think I played a college.
SM: Well, now you’re at the Balboa Theatre, a glorious old single screen movie theatre that was transformed into a performance venue. I think you’ll be impressed. I’m not very good when it comes to the serious stuff, but this is something I want to bring up because it saddened me deeply. You announced last year that you were in the initial stages of Parkinson’s Disease.
BC: I am indeed, yes.
SM: A very close friend of mine has Parkinson’s and she’s doing an incredible job fighting it back. How has it affected your comedy and will we be hearing more about onstage at the Balboa Theatre?
BC: I really don’t know because I haven’t been on stage since I was diagnosed. (Laughing.) It’s a bit like being stalked in an alley by a dangerous guy who is going to win in the end.
SM: I’m so glad to hear that it hasn’t affected your sense of humor. I admire your work. Whenever I see your name in the credits, I know I’m bound to laugh at least as long as you’re on screen. Thanks for all the joy, Billy.
BC: That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you very much indeed. See you at the Balboa!