Sunday, July 24, 2011

British humor 7: Bill Bailey

When I last wrote about the British musical comedian Bill Bailey on this blog, it was in the context of my discovery of a whole raft of brilliant English (and Irish) comics. At that time, there was very little of Bailey’s best work available on YouTube. But in the past few months the floodgates have opened, thanks to the appearance of an official Bailey channel. In honor of that fact, and also to salute the fact that Bill will be venturing back to these shores to play NYC (at the NYU Skirball Center, Sept. 14-17) with his show Dandelion Mind, I hereby offer this “update” of my tribute to him.

First, a little context for those in the U.S. who haven’t yet heard of the gent: Bailey is an expert musician who mixes music and absurdist observations — that’s the nearest I can come to putting a label on the kind of surreal verbal comedy he’s best known for. His act is, of course, better seen than described, but I will note that the best point of comparison for U.S. viewers is mid-period George Carlin, when George was doing an odd, trippy variant of standard observational humor. Add in the musical component, and you’ve got a very unique act indeed.

There are some rare clips of Bill before his act was honed here (check out those outfits!) and here. The single best quick intro to Bailey’s style is a clip from the special “We Are Most Amused,” where he’s introduced by some guy who looks very familiar:

Bailey has done quite a bit on British TV, but the first blossoming was probably his series Is It Bill Bailey? (1998). The show is not available on DVD over there, which is odd, since it not only is fondly remembered, but was directed by Edgar Wright and costarred Simon Pegg. The whole series is available on YT here, but here’s a sample of the sketch humor found in the show:

Bailey does not tell conventional jokes. Well, he does tell them, but a bit… differently. Here’s one of his many original takes on the old “three guys walk into a bar…” gag, from his Bewilderness (2001) performance DVD:

Bailey is a brilliant fellow and is unashamed to move his act into “higher” areas of speculation, while still keeping the tone extremely light. Here is his routine on Hawking’s Brief History of Time, where we get Bill’s take on the same notions that Carlin tackled in the link above:

Of all his DVDs, perhaps the best set of material is Part Troll (2003). He hits all the marks in that show, including more surreal flights of imagination…

musical absurdity…

and joyful musical parody (with Kevin Eldon, who does appear to be a through-line in all of the best recent-vintage British TV comedy):

Bill has done quite a lot of British TV, most notably the popular gameshow Never Mind the Buzzcocks. Here’s a talk show appearance, where he introduced host Jonathan Ross to the wonders of the theremin:

Perhaps Bailey’s most successful TV role was as accountant sidekick Manny in the Dylan Moran/Graham Linehan series Black Books (2000-2004). I have absolutely no idea why we have never seen this series in the U.S., since The IT Crowd crowd has proven to be such a success, and at its best Black Books is delightful. Here is our intro to Bailey’s initially uptight character:

Bill’s best work, though, is done on the stage. Here is a routine about the creation of the universe and Satan from his performance DVD Tinselworm (2008):

One of Bailey’s specialties are unconventional reworkings of old musical numbers. Here he adds an Indian flavor to “Dueling Banjos”:

His most ambitious undertaking to date in terms of live performance has been his Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra (2009). Here his rumination on the bassoon and its relation to Seventies pop:

A most recent creation, his ode to the intricacies of romance via Twitter:

Finally his Web-only videos, made from his “bunker” where he is planning to avoid the upcoming 2012 apocalypse. A few thoughts on the Mayans:

And the Bailey clip that has been ringing in my head in the last few days (in a good way): his discussion of the “devil’s chord” in heavy metal music and his brilliant take on a Metallica anthem. Spike Jones lives!

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