SCOTT SIMON, host:
Most people in the United States know Billy Connolly's face and Scots Irish brogue from the television sitcom, Head of the Class, and movies like Mrs. Brown, The Last Samurai and Lemony Snickets: A Series of Unfortunate Events. But in the United Kingdom, Billy Connolly is the great national comedian. He's also been a welder, an oil rigger, a Royal Army paratrooper, a folk singer and of course a stand-up comic who prowls the stage.
Mr. BILLY CONNOLLY (Comedian): (On stage) My advice to you, if you want to lose a bit of weight, don't eat anything that comes in a bucket. Buckets are the kitchen utensils of the farmyard. There's nothing more discouraging than sitting waiting for your movie and somebody comes in with a big arm full of (bleep) stuff and a bucket of Coca-Cola to go with it. (Unintelligible) (bleep) popcorn bucket. Can I have more butter in my bucket?
SIMON: Billy Connolly is bringing his stage show to the States this month. It's called simply Billy Connolly Live. He joins us now from New York City. Thanks so much for being with us, Mr. Connolly.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Thank you very much, Scott. I've got a big smile on my face. I don't do that anymore, so it's like meeting an old friend.
SIMON: You just prowl the stage and you start talking as if you're...
Mr. CONNOLLY: I do, yeah.
SIMON: So but...
Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, no, it's not, I don't go on with nothing though, you know. I have a basic structure that I go on with. It changes all the time, the structure, you know. But I could do automatic pilot. If I didn't have any ideas, I could do stuff.
SIMON: Is it true that you may swear more on stage than you do in ordinary, private, everyday life?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Pretty much, yeah, because I'm allowed to and I swear rather well.
SIMON: How do you swear well?
Mr. CONNOLLY: It has rhythm. You must stick to the rhythm of the words. It must, if it doesn't have rhythm, it comes over uncomfortable to people, and usually middle class people aren't so good at it as working class people. (Unintelligible) do it so often, but it should go, I should either go (makes percussion sounds). Go F yourself, you know. Why don't you go and take a oomph to yourself (percussion sounds). That sort of rhythm.
SIMON: Can we, for the umpteenth time I'm sure for you, talk about your childhood a bit?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes, anything you like.
SIMON: Well, 'cause you know, when we, this old truism, we talk, we toss off and say that many comedians have had unfortunate or sad, even tragic...
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes.
SIMON: That doesn't begin to cover the kind of childhood you had.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, it was pretty rotten.
SIMON: And if I might state it just this bluntly for the benefit of our listeners, you had a mother who left you and a father who abused you and molested you.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes.
SIMON: Well, how does that wind up in your routine? A lot of people wouldn't talk about that for the rest of their lives.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes, well, there are many ways to deal with awfulness that happens to you. Like grief. Your mother dies, your father dies, your lover, your wife, whatever dies, you're gonna have to deal with it to stay alive. So all of these things you have to encapsulate and put in your mind in a place where you can access it when you want to, but ignore it when you want to. And, and, but let me tell you something else. I loved my father then and I love him now. Now, that I find, people find hard to deal with.
Mr. CONNOLLY: He's dead now, you know...
Mr. CONNOLLY: ...but I think of my father very fondly. I don't think of him as the guy who molested me. Forgiveness is like that. It's not just saying I forgive you, there you go. You have to think it too. You have to think that was a rotten thing and it was a rotten thing for you as well to do, and you must feel rotten about it. But let's cut around that and go on, and that's what I did. And I went to see a shrink though, and he helped me. And I think it should be, more people should do that.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Everybody thinks it's horrendously expensive, but it needn't be. There are, you know, there are cheap, cheaper ones, maybe they're not so good or something. I don't know.
SIMON: You have the advantage of being married to a shrink, though, too, don't you?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes, I married...
SIMON: You must get a family rate at least.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, well, she specializes in sexuality, which is really weird, you know?
SIMON: Or really fortuitous, yes.
Mr. CONNOLLY: If you ever want to feel inadequate, marry a sex therapist.
SIMON: I'm sure she doesn't think of it that way.
Mr. CONNOLLY: She certainly does not, but she specializes in gender-crossing people, cross-gender, transsexual, cross-gender, and you get to meet brilliant people. You know, she brings them to the house and everything. It's lovely. I remember she brought some people and they were slave and master people, and they were such a jolly bunch. I couldn't believe it. And of course, you know, why not? Because they weren't actually doing it, you know. They were just having a cup of tea, and you never think of them having a cup of...
SIMON: Even slaves and masters get a little thirsty, don't they, yeah.
Mr. CONNOLLY: You never think of them having a cup of tea and a biscuit, you know. You think they're in leather all the time beating seven colors of whatever out of each other.
SIMON: You know, we listed some of the careers that you had before you became a performer, and this wasn't just like three months you were a welder. You were a welder from the age of 16 into your early 20s.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Sixteen until 23.
SIMON: Oh, my word.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, you do a five year apprenticeship.
SIMON: That's a tough way to make a living.
Mr. CONNOLLY: It is, but it's very good and it was also very good for comedy, 'cause there was a lot of very funny men in the shipyard and they weren't telling jokes, they were just being funny. When you're funny like that in the shipyards in Glasgow, they call you a pattern merchant, you know, and it's a great thing to wear. You know, people say, he's a pattern merchant. Your people really respect you. You know, when I was generally regarded as that in the shipyard, I was very, very proud. I was as proud as I was when people in the newspapers said I was a good comedian.
SIMON: You're a paratrooper.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah.
SIMON: Boy, but all I've read about your career as a paratrooper has to do with your performances in taverns, and I'm not sure we can recount them here.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, yeah.
SIMON: You had a special gift, didn't you?
Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, yes, the dance of the flaming (bleep).
SIMON: I guess that's how you put it, yes.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, you put a rolled up newspaper in your anus, two of you, and you set them on fire, the papers, and then you dance a kind of belly dance and the one who pulls it out last is the winner. And your friends all go (hums snake-charmer tune). You know, there were hundreds of guys doing it. It was very, very funny.
SIMON: I've read you were, was it 50 before you would turn the light off at night?
Mr. CONNOLLY: That's right. The dark and me didn't get along. And then I was thinking about it one day and it came to me that everything that can eat you can see in the dark. Lions and...
Mr. CONNOLLY: ...snakes. And I think it's a primal thing, fear of the dark. It's sitting at the fire and looking around at the darkness behind you.
Mr. CONNOLLY: If you've ever done that, it's, the darkness is quite profound behind you. And I was, I had a (unintelligible) in Scotland and Eric Idle was with me and we were sitting, because we play, he plays guitar and we have a good laugh. And we were sitting at the fire and he says, You know, this is the most primal thing you can do, sitting at fire. This is the most eerily human thing that you can actually do that we know anything about. And he was talking about the light of the fire and the darkness and the world and its threat behind you, you know. And I think, of course, they were frightened of saber tooth whatevers that were creeping around there. I think everything had saber teeth in those days, you know. There were saber tooth earthworms. There were saber tooth ladybugs, saber tooth daffodils, you know. The world was a much more violent place.
SIMON: Yeah, asteroids got rid of them.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yeah, and I think fear of the dark is that. I think it's a primal thing, and it went away as easily as it came. And my house in -- I was just thinking about this the other day 'cause my Scotland is a very big place. It's a baronial house, you know. It's where the lord of the manor would live. And people always, Americans particularly, always want to sleep in it. And so I let them and then in the morning I say, How did you sleep? And they say, oh, wonderful, you know, the silence and the big thick walls and la, la, la, la. And I say, oh, that's kind of odd, you know. People often complain of a presence and they don't understand. And of course, I'm making the whole thing up. And they've come down the following morning: I felt that thing, this presence in the room. A woman's face, you know? It's amazing what you can be talked into, isn't it?
I said, and the local guys, where'd you hear this? I was in the village and an old guy said, have you seen the dog yet? I said, I've got two dogs. He says, no, the one that haunts your house. And I said, what? It's a headless dog, he says, haunting it. Now, that's a really useless ghost, isn't it? It can't bark, it can't see, it can't smell. I said, it's probably in the cellar trying to work out how to get out of there.
SIMON: I just want to wind up with a couple of things. You open May 9 in New York City.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Yes.
SIMON: Are you, God forbid, rehearsing? Do you know how you're going to begin?
Mr. CONNOLLY: No, I don't rehearse. I don't rehearse at all. I just go on and get on with it.
SIMON: So you don't know, you don't know now how you're going to begin?
Mr. CONNOLLY: No. Well, you see the funniest thing about being solo is you can't, you just can't rehearse. You can't be funny with no audience in the room, and look at when you, if you rehearse in a meadow, you're looking the wrong way. So there's no -- it's the same as my theory about critics. They're all looking the wrong way. You know, they shouldn't be looking at you, you know, the performer. They should be looking at the audience to see the effect he has on the them.
Mr. CONNOLLY: You know, he's not there to tell you whether the guy's good or not. That's a given. That's why there's thousands of people sitting there with tickets. He's supposed to look at the effect you're having on the audience, not on his sensitivities or his wasted life, you know, overweight, drunken bore.
SIMON: Yeah, I know you have great respect for critics. (Laughter).
Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, I love critics, yes. They should be interfered with and burned.
SIMON: Mr. Connolly, it's been a delight talking to you.
Mr. CONNOLLY: Oh, the pleasure's mine, Scott. It's been a real delight.
SIMON: Billy Connolly Live runs for 20 performances in New York City beginning May 9. For a longer excerpt of this conversation, come to our website, NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
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