For more than a quarter of a century, Bill Bailey has been peddling his distinctive brand of intelligent whimsy and surreal comedy that often packs a killer punch.
But for the first time in his new show Limboland, he turns his focus on himself.
The show looks at the gap between how we imagine our lives to be and how they really are.
From his countless global travels, he recounts the hilarious saga of a disastrous family trip to Norway to see the Northern Lights. He rails against a world that doesn’t match up to our expectations and contemplates the true nature of happiness.
‘It’s quite a personal show,’ Bill tells WOW247, ‘a lot of recollections of my own personal experience, family trips, my own kind of experience going out to shows, holidays, it’s different to a lot of shows I’ve done previously.
‘It’s less of a technical spectacle – some of the shows I do tend to turn into these big multimedia, whizz-bang things with LEDs, back projection, front projection, film and all of that.
The first time I went to see comedy I was completely riveted by it – I found it intoxicating, this combination of thoughts and ideas, the freewheeling nature of it appealed to meBill Bailey
‘There’s none of that this time. It’s kind of going back to the roots of stand-up in a way.
‘There’s a lot of me in it, a lot more so than in the past.’
And of course there are the songs which Bill is famed for – so we have his version of the protest song, a heart-rending country and western ballad played on a Bible, and a fabulously downbeat version of Happy Birthday.
‘There is a lot of music,’ he adds, ‘and it’s more like the shows I used to do but with the intervening years of experience seeded into it.’
Has he found it more difficult to write this more personal style of comedy?
‘Yes it probably is harder, in a way. This kind of comedy is a more long form state, it’s not just short gags and set pieces which have a thing like fireworks,’ he makes the noises: ‘pfffft, bang! There goes one, wuff-wuff-wuff, there’s another one! It’s harder to keep a longer form structure to it and still keep it funny and still keep the dynamics going and keep it punchy. That’s the challenge of that kind of comedy. But on the flipside of that, it seems to be more natural to talk about these things now.
‘The motivation, the idea came quite easily because it seemed like the right time to talk about it. It’s a balance between putting in stuff which is quite personal and drawn from my own life and maintaining the rigour of a stand-up show and the fact it has to be funny.
‘There’s a kind of a tyranny of laughter and the jokes that you have to have in a show, and you have to succumb to that.
‘You have to keep it bubbling along – keeping it rattling along and trying to make it have a point and a narrative and the thing to flow, that’s the most important thing.
‘Of all the elements of the show, making it flow is the hardest part. Thinking up funny stuff, hopefully by now, you’d like to think you’d be able to do that, that’s a sort of given. Making it a more rounded, flowing piece, that’s the hardest thing.’
Bill’s previous shows have had such fantastical-sounding names as Part Troll, Tinselworm, Dandelion Mind and Qualmpeddler, and Limboland follows that sort of theme. Some comics name their shows first – is that how Bill does it?
‘There’s a real danger in that approach that you’re making a rod for your own back. You end up with a great title and then you’re going: “I’ve got five minutes on this, now what?”
‘I was fortunate, There’s a lot of serendipity for this show. I had no timeline, I had no idea what it was going to be called, I was just writing ideas, and putting together thoughts and stories, and then it occurred to me that this was how I thought.
‘I had this sense of weightlessness almost, when you’re in the middle of your life: You think ‘‘is this it? Where am I going? What do I do now?” Looking back a little bit, looking forward, things are great, but I don’t know, things aren’t as I imagined they’d be.
‘As a kid we were sold this idea of certainty and a glittering utopia where we’d walk hand in hand and there’d be peace.
‘And of course there most definitely isn’t.
‘If anything we’re in a state of limbo – our relationship with the rest of the world, the union, where the perceived threats are coming from, the dehumanisation of social media against the positive aspects of an interconnected world.
‘There’s almost like a contradiction to so much of our lives, it occurred to me that these things were sold to us as certainties that just aren’t there.
‘I thought this is quite an interesting area to explore and it became a more personal exploration of things like, well, how did you think your life was going to turn out? Did you have high hopes for it, and it didn’t quite work out as you imagined?
‘The gap between those two things, that’s where the comedy was and what I wanted to explore.’
For those who know Bill from his TV work on the likes of Nevermind The Buzzcocks or QI, or guesting in Dr Who or the sitcom Black Books, it may be a surprise to discover that Bill is a bit of a political beast – and this features in Limboland.
‘I’ve sort of found myself in this position just through, again, a bit of luck where I’m seen as a, I don’t know, benign musical comic or whatever.
‘But the reality is that there’s a lot of politics in there and I have a lot of opinions that get snuck under the radar in a way. I’m quite happy with that.
‘If you get labelled as a political comedian then there is a kind of baggage you have to carry around and it’s very difficult to shake off these monikers.
‘Once you’re lumped with a certain tag or label it’s hard to get out from under that, and I’ve managed to avoid that over the years because I do a lot of things – politics, music, pop culture, serious culture, history, language, everything is grist to the mill.’
But it was the music that was Bill’s first love – and he knew that was the path he wanted to follow from early on. As he talks about it, you can feel the sense that it all ties neatly back into his overall theme for Limboland.
‘I found I had a facility to play the piano and music came to me very easily. And so I thought maybe this is it, this is where I’m destined to go and I did pursue it.
‘I thought this was it, but I didn’t quite know what it was – it was all very well saying you’re going to be a musician, but being a working musician is a really tough life, it’s a very hard career to pursue.
‘Musicians who often start up with very high hopes end up as third violin in a regional orchestra thinking: “Is this what I wanted from my life?” And it becomes a job.
‘As a piano player, it’s not an orchestral instrument, so are you going to be a soloist? Are you going to be a teacher? What are you going to do? I was always slightly anxious about where this musical career might lead.
‘And then it was during that time I went to see comedy and I was completely riveted by it – I found it intoxicating, this combination of thoughts and ideas, the freewheeling nature of it I think appealed to me.
‘I realised then, as I do now, that I have an equal love for the spoken word as I do for music. There’s something quite extraordinary happens – there’s a weird alchemy when you put written words on a page and then you speak them in front of an audience and something else happens, and that’s what I wanted to pursue.
‘Luckily I’ve ended up with this job where you can pursue both to an equal degree.’
n Bill Bailey’s Limboland is at Portsmouth Guildhall on Thursday, June 9. Doors 7.30pm. Tickets £27.50. Go to portsmouthguildhall.org.uk