"When I was a schoolboy I wanted to be a comedian. But by the time I got around to it, I was hairy and hippyish and was considered too risqué for nightclubs, most of whom were dressed in blue mohair suits and haircuts like Perry Como and were doing jokes about their mother-in-law or Pakistanis or something. So I didn't fit. I saw Pete Seeger on television and decided to buy a banjo."
– Billy Connolly
Guy MacPherson: Billy Connolly, how are you?
BC: Great, how are you?
GM: I'm good, thank you. Where are you, by the way?
BC: New York.
GM: That's where you live?
BC: I live here, yeah.
GM: How long have you lived there?
BC: Oh, about eight years, I think.
GM: Do you get back home much?
BC: Oh yeah. I get home about two or three times a year.
GM: I saw you here in Vancouver a couple years ago, I think it was.
BC: About three or four years ago.
GM: I was at your show. Are all your shows three hours?
BC: Well, they vary a great deal.
GM: Yeah? Depends how you're feeling on a given night?
BC: I aim for two.
GM: But sometimes you can't help yourself.
BC: Sometimes I look at my watch and think, 'My God! What am I doing?'
GM: I think you said that night you always try to aim to get off the same day that you got on.
BC: (laughs) That's right! The same day I go on!
GM: And you just got in under the wire before midnight.
BC: Well, that's great.
GM: This time you're playing two nights here. Different audiences, obviously, unless you have some real keeners who come back the second night.
BC: Well, the audiences vary a great deal depending on the weather and all sorts of stuff. I remember doing seven nights at London Palladium and there were seven completely different nights, you know, because of what was on the news or how the weather was and whether it was warm or cold or windy. Everything affects the audience.
GM: Does it affect you? Is what you talk about different, too?
BC: Maybe the way I talk about it changes. I'm not really sure. I've never really studied it much. I don't look that closely at it because it's a kind of organic thing that I do. I just go with the flow.
GM: You sure do. A thought here will take you on a tangent somewhere else.
GM: Have you always worked that way?
BC: Always. I'm incapable of doing anything else.
GM: I know you started as a folk singer. There are a few comic acts that started out in music. Was it a case of you just talking more between songs?
BC: Yeah, well that's what I've always said but in actual fact I became a folk singer because I didn't know how to become a comedian.
GM: Was that even an option?
BC: When I was a schoolboy I wanted to be a comedian.
GM: Who were you looking at that made you want to be that?
BC: Oh, they were Scottish guys you wouldn't know.
GM: I might.
BC: Jake Murray.
BC: There you go. I told you. But there were Scottish guys I'd see in local theatres. We still had vaudeville theatre in Scotland at the time. But by the time I got around to it, I was hairy and hippyish and was considered too risqué for nightclubs, most of whom were dressed in blue mohair suits and haircuts like Perry Como and were doing jokes about their mother-in-law or Pakistanis or something. So I didn't fit. I saw Pete Seeger on television and decided to buy a banjo.
GM: And learn it from there?
GM: You got pretty good at it, though.
BC: I got quite good, yeah.
GM: Do you still play?
BC: I have Parkinson's Disease and it has affected my left hand so I don't play as much as I did.
GM: You're able to go out and tour and perform for hours at a time.
BC: Oh yeah.
GM: Is a tour something you look forward to or do you get a feeling of dread?
BC: I have a feeling of dread at first and then as soon as it gets closer and closer, the dread gets worse and then suddenly it (peaks) into enthusiasm.
GM: As the tour progresses, do you get more enthusiastic?
BC: You relax into it.
GM: You're one of the first Scottish comics – maybe even British – to make inroads into Canada, anyway, and maybe even North America. What year were you first playing over here?
BC: It was in the seventies. I think it was about '74 or '75.
GM: How did people know of you here? Or did you just come and say, 'Here I am. Get to know me'?
BC: Well, I just came and said, 'Here I am; get to know me.' But I think in those days I got an audience from Scotland. Canadian Scots. Ex-pats.
GM: Ah, yes. Well, my name is MacPherson.
BC: I noticed that. Guy MacPherson, that's a very good name. That's a show business name, if I've ever heard one.
GM: Really?! That's good to know. I made the wrong choice then.
BC: I know a guy, he's a songwriter called Bill Martin. And he's Scottish. And he told me one day it's not his real name. I said, 'What's your real name?' He said Wiley MacPherson. I said, 'Jesus! That's a brilliant name! Why did you change it?!' Can you imagine being called Wiley MacPherson? I mean, Wile E. Coyote, you know.
GM: Wiley anything, I think, would be good.
BC: Yeah, it's a great name.
GM: You were always Billy Connolly, though.
BC: I was always Billy Connolly. So was my father.
GM: Oh, you're a junior.
BC: I never was a junior but I am a junior, if you get my drift. Nobody ever called me junior.
GM: Did you come to Canada first or the States?
BC: America. I was doing a funny deal. I was playing a place in Massachusetts called The Harp and Bard [?] in Boston. It was a kind of restaurant with a cocktail bar that had entertainment in it. I didn't do very well. But you did the two gigs at the same time. There was a gig in Toronto. I forget the name of it. There was an Irish pub. And I went straight there afterwards and went down a storm.
GM: In a winter storm, did you say?
BC: I went down extremely well.
GM: Oh, I get it.
BC: And I've never really looked back in Canada.
GM: I was just visiting an aunt in a convent and there was an old nun there who moved to Canada from Scotland when she was 15. She's in her eighties and she still has the Scottish brogue.
BC: Yeah, well I don't think I've changed very much and I've been away from Scotland for twenty-odd years.
GM: It's amazing how it sticks with you.
BC: I think I don't listen.
GM: Is that it?
BC: Yeah, I'm like an old broken radio. I'm on transmit; I'm not on receive. It's a terrible feeling, really, but I don't care.
GM: Is there a theme to your show?
GM: A lot of times now, comics will name their show.
BC: Well, mine is named. It's High Horse.
GM: But there's no thematic thread to it.
BC: No, because I draw as well and I've done the backdrop and it's a self-portrait with High Horse.
GM: So you did the backdrop to the show.
GM: That's impressive. With your right hand?
GM: You are right-handed, right?
BC: I'm right-handed, yeah. What made you ask that?
GM: Well, because you said you were having trouble with your left hand.
BC: Oh, yeah, of course.
GM: Yeah, that is an odd question just on its own. There's a local comedian in Vancouver who has cerebral palsy named Ryan Lachance, who speaks highly of you. He met you a few times.
BC: Well, that's great.
GM: You were very supportive of him and asked to hear his CD.
BC: I always am. Not to people who are some way less than brilliant when it comes to ability, but the desire to be a comedian is a precious thing. I'll always try and treat it nicely.
GM: George Carlin was like that, I understand.
BC: It's a brave thing to want to do, you know. Because you're walking onto the stage and you're saying, 'I'm the funniest guy in the room.'
GM: 'Listen to me.'
GM: 'You be quiet. I'm going to talk now.'
BC: Absolutely. That takes a bit of cajones.
GM: But comedy has really exploded, especially in the last five years.
BC: Oh, my God, it's enormous!
GM: It's almost too big, isn't it?
BC: No, I don't think it's too big. I think conservatism's too big. There are some other things we have to deal with that are too big before you get to comedy.
GM: Conservatism. Politically?
BC: Yeah, especially conservatives who don't believe in conserving anything. They need to be closely watched.
GM: You'll be up here shortly after our federal election.
BC: Yeah. You know, it's a funny thing, you never hear about Canadian politics.
GM: No. Well, we don't matter much.
BC: I guess they're a bit like Scottish politics – they don't make the big league. Which is a good thing. Maybe it shows they're paying more attention to home than pushing their image further abroad.
GM: Possibly. We have a Conservative government that many people would like out but will probably get back in.
BC: (chortles) What happened to the many people then?
GM: Well, as in Great Britain, there are many parties. So if you take the votes that aren't Conservative, they far outnumber the Conservative votes.
BC: Oh, yeah. Get the buggers out.
GM: Are you still acting?
BC: Oh yes. Whenever I get the opportunity.
GM: You've been in so much. It's interesting because you have a unique look that you haven't really changed, with your hair and the beard, and yet you manage to get all these parts.
BC: They usually chop me up for the movie, with my hair. Or sometimes whip my beard off. As a matter of fact, I did a movie in Canada called Fido. And they shaved me and cut my hair and covered me in silver paint. And I wasn't allowed to speak because I was a zombie. So why they picked me, I'll never know, but it was a lovely thing to do.
GM: They could have got anyone off the street.
GM: How many movies have you made now, do you know?
BC: Fifty, I think.
GM: And do you have any coming up?
BC: I don't think so.
GM: How long is this tour that you're on?
BC: Three weeks.
GM: Just in Canada?
BC: Just Canada.
GM: Obviously there's material you use everywhere, but is there any you use specifically for certain places?
BC: No, I don't have anything specific. But it changes gradually as the months roll by so there'll be stuff you've never heard before.
GM: I know you throw in a couple of street jokes, too, that you've heard that just tickle your fancy.
BC: Oh, yeah. I like doing that.
GM: It's amazing. Who writes street jokes? Where do they come from?
BC: Nobody knows. The best theory is that it's maybe a barbershop or a taxi driver or something or some smartass says a funny line and it goes from there and in the telling becomes a joke.
GM: What's the best one you've heard recently?
BC: Oh, I dunno.
GM: I have no ability to remember a joke. And I think a lot of people are like this.
BC: I'm the same. If I hear one recently, I'll tell you but I don't really keep them around.
GM: So the Parkinson's, the hearing, the prostate cancer... is it all okay?
BC: Yeah, it's all pretty in order.
GM: My father used to say growing old is one indignity after another.
BC: Absolutely. I don't know who said it, but growing old is not for sissies.
GM: There you go! You're no sissy.
BC: No. Maybe in my quieter moments.
GM: We don't need to know about those.
GM: Okay, Mr. Connolly, it was a pleasure talking with you.
BC: The pleasure's mine. I look forward to being in Vancouver again. It's one of my favourite places.
GM: Have you spent time here outside of performing?
BC: No, but I've made films there and I've performed there. I think the last film I did there was The X-Files.
GM: The film or the TV series?
BC: The film. I was a pedophile priest.
GM: Not typecasting.
GM: I watched the very first episode of The X-Files two nights ago. I'd never seen it before.
GM: Yeah, it was quite good. I'll have to start watching.
BC: You'll have to get it on Netflix.
GM: That's where I saw it. Okay, thanks again.
BC: See you later, man.