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Scotch on the rocks

Billy Connolly perseveres with his ad-libbed life
By JIM SULLIVAN  |  May 31, 2007

VIDEO: a clip from Billy Connolly's standup

Billy Connolly regularly has sex with farm animals. Okay, that’s not actually true, but he’ll never know we wrote that about him, since the Scottish actor and comedian — who’s played all manner of material, from the TV sit-com Head of the Class to starring opposite Judi Dench in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown — says he never reads anything written about him, figuring “the good is more dangerous than the bad.” Sitting on a couch in the American Repertory Theatre offices, he briefly considers whatever public perceptions, or misconceptions, might be floating around before concluding, “No idea. Haven’t a fucking clue. I’m 64, so I don’t give a fuck. Before I was 50, maybe I would have been bothered; now it just irritates me like a stone in the shoe. Fuck off. It’s too late to dislike me.”

Lest you sense antipathy, let me assure you there’s not a whiff. Connolly — tall, with long gray-blond hair and round glasses — establishes fabulous rapport and has boundless energy. It’s not unlike his act — which is unscripted and has been compared variously to Robin Williams, Eddie Izzard, and George Carlin. When he’s performing, he says he’s driven by three things: “adrenaline, anger, and coffee.” A hugely popular stand-up comic in Europe, he brings his one-man show (which played last year around this time Off Broadway) to the Loeb Drama Center, June 12-16.

When did you play Boston last?
Uh, I can’t remember.

You’ve sold more DVDs and CDs than any non-American comedian in the world. Are you trying to crack the US market now?
It’s not really important to me. It would be nice, but I’m not on some cause to conquer America. I think America takes you when it’s good and ready. Or not. I play all over the world. I have a pleasant life.

You never write material down.
I’ve never written anything down.

How many hours of material do you have to call upon?
Great huge lumps of it disappear. I did one [bit] on the Crucifixion and the Last Supper [years ago] in Britain and I couldn’t do it now with a gun to my head. I know people who know it all by heart, and I can easily ask them. But I have no interest. The show constantly moves along. . . . Those big story bits that I do, they’re born of ad lib. I’ll be talking about something and ad-lib on top of that. If it goes well, it stays in. If it ever becomes a bit unwieldy, sometimes I’ll lop a big chunk off it.

Ever lose the main thread?
Oh, all the time!

The British tabloids have been having a run at you for a while, now, since you had the temerity to (a) leave the country, and (b) become very successful.
Yeah, they don’t like either of those things. I don’t know what it takes for them to like you, and I don’t care anymore.

It’s amusing to look back, though.
It is. Eventually, time and distance give you a certain clarity. You think, ‘Why was I worried what they thought of it?’ When I started, I was very original and kind of unique. There was this Glaswegian language I used very deeply, all the slang. I chose various off-the-wall things to talk about. I got into hemorrhoids and venereal disease, and I dwelt very much on this little bit here, between the belly button and the crotch. It’s where I lived. Back and front.

Your upbringing sounds like Oliver Twist.
It does, yeah. It’s pretty unfortunate. I seemed to meet 12 assholes in the road as I was going through life, one after another — a nightmare at home and you’d go to school to meet this other fucking nightmare. I would go to other kids’ houses where there was so much life. Mine just happened to be fucking hellish, for no reason of my own. My mother fucked off when I was four with another guy. . . . I would be 15 when I left school. Worked in a bookshop. Then I delivered bread, then I became an apprentice welder. I went to shipyards and started to become a man. It was another world, a whole world full of adults, funny, weird, sad, wonderful people. I’m sure I discovered the comedy that I now have.

Did drinking fuel your humor?
It did certainly when I was young. I was a funny schoolboy, but I’d been drinking six years, and then the hippie thing started. I thought I was the luckiest man on earth. I had long hair, I was in a band. [He played banjo in the Stumblebums.] I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then, drink came to the general melee that was going on in the ’60s, the new morality, the make-love-not-war — or get drunk and fall around and be a crazy man. The more crazy you got, the more people wanted to watch this craziness. When I got in my 30s, the fun went away. That was the first symptom.

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