Bill Bailey: En Route To Normal
Sunday, March 14
Bill Bailey is one of the first big-name international comedians to perform in New Zealand since our lockdown; certainly he’s the one undertaking the biggest tour. “Just me and the Wiggles”, he jokes. All entertainment bases covered. Bailey is a much loved and respected comedian, musician and documentarian and a regular visitor to these shores over the last two decades. He was last here in 2018, I last saw him perform around 2013/2014 and this is at least the third time I’ve seen him.
It’s also the best.
Something was in the air – right from the start. That hint of smugness that we can host such events. That sense of freedom to congregate, to be able to scan in and attend, to welcome an international guest prepared to do his two weeks in solitary confinement/MIQ – in this case using the time to dream up imagined techno backings for the Zoom-call chime and the latest iPhone ring. And slowly going mad on the overflow of daily muffins. And the feeling of being a part of true fandom, so many in the audience there for a repeat-performance, some had attended the night before, so many clearly had seen him on previous tours. (Plural).
Bailey’s comedy is perfect for right now. I mean, it usually seems perfect anyway. But this tour allows him to play all his usual tricks and brilliant gimmicks (You Are My Sunshine sung in German, Old MacDonald reimagined as if by Tom Waits, an Appalachian stomp about beating the devil at cards) and to comment on Covid, to discuss the politics of Brexit and how lucky New Zealand is to not only be – currently – nearly virus-free but to also have Covid-19 as the main threat and fear to daily life as a whole; in England there’s a governance of stupidity threatening the lives of so many. And England’s saving grace right now appears to be simply that it is not America.
Bailey’s brilliant leaps in logic to discuss love poems one minute and then be caught in an improvised Celtic foot-tapping nonsense-ditty are hilarious; the kind of hilarious you can neither ruin nor adequately explain. But you had to be there to bask in it – there is no articulation that takes you to that place. It’s something that happens in and of the moment. And so it lives there.
But I’ll just say that there was a moment where I believe – and possibly by fluke, that plus the quarter-century of timing, instinct and craft of course – he was actually channeling the distinct and disparate comedic forces of Billy Connolly and Andy Kaufman at the very same time.
Yes, there was praise for our Prime Minister, which is an easy butter-up of a crowd attending a comedy gig on a Sunday night. And we laugh at the musical novelty-pieces while marveling at the serious musical skill beneath. But perhaps on this night Bailey’s best streak was when he was seemingly free-forming; taking the crowd on an extended ad-hoc Q&A to try to understand Bitcoin, his way with an audience is so gentle – never putting anyone on the spot uncomfortably but masterfully weaving audience interaction and casual banter into his main prepared pieces. This is something that cannot be taught. This is the skill that has made Bailey what he is – his endless curiosity, his brilliant comedic timing, his trust and faith in the audience, and his knowledge that all you put out comes back. We trusted him. Had full faith. And boy did he deliver.
I hadn’t been to a gig in that venue in over a year. I hadn’t been to a comedy show with an international act in a lot longer. I haven’t laughed as much, as often, in simply ages.
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