Opinion: Robin Ince On Billy Connolly – The Yin That Remains Windswept And Interesting

This piece first appeared on Robin Ince's blog. Read more posts here.

I’ve just been to a screening of Billy Connolly’s High Horse Tour Live.

As we now know, mutation, heredity and natural selection are unable to make the best, but they do lead to the least worst. In my mind, Billy Connolly is undoubtedly the least worst comedian in the history of stand up. In fact, his perfection as a stand up may almost persuade me to be a creationist.

Why is Billy Connolly considered the greatest stand up comedian by so many people? In the Brexit language of Brexit is Brexit (how dull dictionaries will now become with the this new definition of definitions), funny is funny.

But that gets us nowhere.

What has made Billy Connolly so fabulously alluring for so long. Alan Bennett once said of Morrissey’s face, he looks as if he has a story to tell.

This seems true of Connolly too, though unlike Morrissey, he has changed the stories.

I have rarely rung phone-ins, but when I was 15 or 16, Connolly was on a lunchtime LBC show. I rang in and asked him what he thought of these alternative comedians that I so adored. He explained that he had always though they were comrades in arms, comedic definitions change, but the actions were the same.

I am not sure when I first really knew of Billy Connolly, but being a comedy obsessive, I would gather together any pocket money I had and rightly squander it on anything comedic. I bought a cassette of Connolly’s Wreck on Tour at the Cheltenham Our Price, and then I played it over and over again, laughing in that way that seems no longer available to you once you have left childhood behind.

It was the sound he made when he retold the shock to the genitals when bathing in the North Sea.

It was the way he pronounced jojoba.

It is the projection of vitality that makes Billy Connolly so utterly alluring. Like David Bowie, he is something potently vivacious to my generation and the generations either side. This is why hints at mortality, the illnesses that have crept on him, seem so preposterous.

He is Billy Connolly and he is a life force, for the sake of our sanity he must remain so.

How ill weaker humans survive if these fountains of puckish spirit can be tainted too?

Those pondering about seeing Billy Connolly’s High Horse DVD may be worried they will be witnessing a shell of a man who has recently suffered prostate cancer and has Parkinson’s disease, but do not worry, this is not a carnival sideshow of staring at the remnants of a man who once was. The movement may be reduced, but the mesmerism is not.
There were no sympathy guffaws from the screening audience I saw this with, many of them comedians. This is a very funny show, the swearing may be sparser than peak swear days of Connolly, but it is still used with delight and twinkling venom when necessary.

The use of sound effects is as achingly delightful as the caterwaul of the North Sea, in particular the beautiful rendition of the futtering suspense of a minimalist plane flying over Mozambique. The stories of his own illnesses, brought up so we avoid spending our time “symptom spotting” are devoid of self-pity and bulging with wanking and wet patch jokes mixed with the absurd. You will also be armed with the finest arguments for consuming white bread over brown.

I am not a habitual quoter of Bono, but after seeing Johnny Cash’s Hurt video, he commented that Cash was now doing for old age what Elvis did for youth in 1956. Connolly is doing this too, but without the melancholy, he gives the finger to the infirmities of age. The energy of his mind more than makes up for any loss of physical dexterity.

He is the Richard Feynman of comedy, a perpetual and unfettered curiosity and a desire to communicate it.

He is still impish with his fury. Some people say it’s like your funniest mate in the pub, but who the fuck has a mate this funny in the pub. His lack of affectation may delude some into thinking it is easy to make it look this easy.

There has been no departure of mischief. Some of my favourite moments of Billy Connolly are with Kenny Everett. Their sketches as the two bearded ladies, in which Kenny, another overlord of mischief, adeptly leads Connolly to corpsing. Or the repeated corpsing in the toilet attendant sketch where Barry Cryer can be heard from the side telling Billy to keep it together. And few, when facing up to a sprinting and bra-less Liz Hurley at the BAFTAs could say so much without saying almost anything and somehow avoiding to be seedy or prurient.

Sometimes Billy Connolly DVDs are called masterclasses, but the trouble with calling something a class is that you may imagine you can learn to do as the teacher, I think Connolly is the most one-off of all the stand ups who have been called one-offs.

Now I’m going to listen to the welly song and that joke about the wire brush and Dettol.

74 years old and with Parkinson’s and he’s still better than the whole damn rest of us.

High Horse Tour Live is released on 7th November

Josie and Robin’s Book Shambles series 4 has begun – all 35 episodes, including Mark Gatiss, Stewart Lee, Sara Pascoe and Noel Fielding are HERE.

Plus a new volume of Dead Funny is out with stories by Rufus Hound, James Acaster, Alice Lowe, Josie Long, Isy Suttie and many more.

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