Why surreal stand-up loves all things weird and wonderful

Bill Bailey at the Moet British Independent Film Awards, London''Dominic Lipinski/PA
Bill Bailey at the Moet British Independent Film Awards, London''Dominic Lipinski/PA

Bill Bailey is one of the funniest men around, but at home, life revolves around his family, his animals and his birds. He tells GABRIELLE FAGAN how he’s gradually revealing more of his private life in his comedy

Every time comedian Bill Bailey speaks, a loud shrieking ensues, threatening to drown him out. He simply shrugs.

“Parrots,” he says laconically, by way of explanation. “What can you do? They’re very affectionate but noisy and always like to have the last word.” Enduring the cacophony and creature chaos - there’s a menagerie at his London home, including four cockatoos, five dogs, ducks, chickens, and frogs - is worth it to meet the stand-up comedy icon.

A regular on shows like pop quiz, Never Mind The Buzzcocks and QI, he has had huge success with world tours and stadium shows, and is instantly recognisable with his bald head, neck curtain of flowing locks, and goatee beard, like a real-life Hobbit.

As is so often the case with comedians, he’s far more quiet and serious in private and confesses that his enduring success - he turned 50 this year - is a surprise to him. “I thought I’d only be able to do comedy while I was young and daft and saw it as a way to avoid a boring office job. I fully expected eventually to have to do something sensible, and never imagined sustaining it for this amount of years,” he says self-deprecatingly.

“Actually I had a moment of total bewilderment eight years ago when I was performing on stage at Wembley arena in front of nearly 13,000 people. Suddenly I felt myself mentally transported back to playing a gig in a pub in Hull in front of six people, in those days, believe me, that was a crowd, and I was struck by the thought: ‘How did all this happen - how did I get here?’ I wrenched myself back to reality pretty quickly and carried on, but it was a surreal moment.”

His act could also fall into that ‘surreal’ category with its mix of facts - he soaks up obscure knowledge like a sponge - and humorous, convoluted stories which never contain one-liners because he can’t abide them. Music is integral to the mix, he often struts the stage with his guitar, and he’s an accomplished musician, able to play virtually every instrument apart from the violin and cello.

His prowess is a legacy of his childhood when he excelled at school in Bath, Somerset, but rebelled and dropped out of university to travel the world for a decade, supporting himself through comedy, playing in bands and working in theatre companies.

After returning home, he doggedly persevered for years on the stand-up circuit before, aged 31, eventually winning a Time Out comedy award in 1995 and the following year making the shortlist for the Perrier Award.

“Writing comedy’s just as much a passion as it was all those years ago. It’s what gets me up in the morning. I still regard myself as learning this craft and love using humour to explore the big questions like ageing, attitudes to religion, the political process, the way social media changes people’s behaviour, and all the myriad events in the news,” enthuses Bailey, who clearly relishes the intellectual rigour of his job.

“I also like talking about all sorts of obscure or random things, like learning mandarin, the history of language, or musical influences. The point is to draw in as many subjects as possible and make them accessible and funny, although I do sometimes have to check myself otherwise people will go: ‘Yeah, OK beardy but where’s the laughs?!’”

Bill Bailey, Ulster Hall Oct 4 (sold out) and Oct 5 (on sale).