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Billy Connolly: Britain’s Famously Juvenile Grandpa 

Wednesday, Apr 9 2008

Since forsaking folk music for stand-up comedy back in the early 1970s, Billy Connolly's career has taken on superstar dimensions. He's one of the most revered stand-up comedians in Britain, frequently selling out major venues. He has also been the subject of countless documentaries and TV specials; become a major TV personality in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand for his "World Tour" programs for the BBC; and starred in many movies, including Mrs. Brown and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events.

Yet when it comes to making sense of his latest standup show, Billy Connolly Live!, one of his more obscure achievements springs most readily to mind: his performance of the theme song from Supergran, a British children's television show from the 1980s. The series focused on a feisty Scottish granny who performs daring feats atop a magic flying bicycle, and nothing characterizes the 65-year-old comedian's rapacious stage show quite like its discombobulating mix of the superhuman and the senile.

Connolly's very physical appearance embraces these two seemingly opposing forces. His flowing gray locks and goatee make him look like a Gaelic Gandalf, or an aging King Charles spaniel. Yet whether pacing and swearing angrily or clutching his stomach in mirth at the memory of some hilarious incident from his past, Connolly belies his bardic looks. He makes us feel we're in the presence of a naughty, prank-playing urchin rather than a Commander of the British Empire and the father of five grown children. Then there's his outfit. The sober black clothing says one thing; the leopard-print shoes boasting one-inch-thick crepe soles scream another. Even Connolly's plain T-shirt gives off mixed vibes. Though it looks ordinary enough from the front, its long, flowing "tail" at the back suggests a superhero's cape and a geriatric's hospital gown simultaneously. It's a puzzling combination.

The content of the show similarly counterbalances vibrant youth with slackening age. The old and infirm make innumerable appearances during Connolly's routine, often providing the butt of many of his jokes. In one of his most memorable — and merciless — anecdotes, he talks about visiting his dad in the hospital following Connolly Sr.'s seventh stroke. Contorting his jaw and bugging out his eyes in imitation of someone who has lost complete control of one side of his body, Connolly dissects with no small amount of glee the only word his father is able to utter from his hospital bed, which sounds very much like "fuck." Connolly was sexually abused by his father as a boy, and this sketch betrays more than a hint of filial rebellion.

But the elderly need not have molested Connolly to bear the brunt of the comedian's humor. In another skit, his Aunty Agnes comes under fire simply for smelling odd and knitting him an ill-fitting balaclava helmet (a tight-fitting form of headwear often favored by skiers). Elsewhere, a woman walking her dog gets her comeuppance, apparently for no other reason than being unattractive and old. Connolly, describing his days touring the U.K. as a musician on a clapped-out tour bus, merrily recounts how he and his cronies caused the woman to leap into the air (and her pooch to turn itself inside out) when the vehicle's malfunctioning exhaust let out a cacophonous bang.

In many ways, Connolly's sense of humor is that of a schoolboy's. He delights in the sound of the word "fuck" (which he can't stop himself from repeating to the point where you wonder whether he might be suffering from Tourette's), devoting about ten minutes of stage time to contemplating how satisfyingly the word rolls off the tongue. He rails against authority figures and institutions of all kinds, from his father to preachers to the antismoking lobby. He giggles intermittently at his own silly stories, often having to pause to compose himself midflow. He even makes jokes about poop.

At the same time, Connolly's delivery is in many ways reminiscent of that of a drunk old man regaling listeners in a pub with yarns from his past. He'll start talking about one thing, and before you know it, he's off on a wild journey through ever-perpetuating tangents. A section which begins with the merits of keeping your eyes open while sneezing suddenly veers off into an anecdote about a handsome one-eyed acquaintance from Connolly's youth who drove a puce-colored Porsche. This eventually evolves into a discussion about the most flattering way to wear bandages before heading into a brief interlude about Mozambique. But despite the many demented perambulations the veteran comedian makes throughout his show, he clearly has his wits about him. No matter how far Connolly veers from his course, he manages to steer himself back to his starting point without skipping a beat. This is no mean feat when you consider the fact that the verbal tirade lasts for more than two hours without intermission. Most comedians half Connolly's age would balk at the thought of going on for so long without a break.

There's nothing witty or even coherent about Connolly's comedy, yet somehow the man manages to be excruciatingly funny. In fact, he seems to get more hilarious with each passing year — maturing like a particularly ripe block of Scottish Cheddar. The slogan "Too old to die young" is painted on a backdrop depicting a graffiti-splattered brick wall, and it's hard to think of a more fitting a statement for this supergrandpa of stand-up. Ultimately, there's something to be said for the tension between the childishness of Connolly's humor and his steadily escalating age. That Connolly is a walking contradiction is partly what makes him so endearing, not to mention enduring, in his golden days.

About The Author

Chloe Veltman


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