Beloved UK comedian Bill Bailey talks traumatic travel experiences, the fear of missing out and the pursuit of happiness.
Bailey — best known for his brilliant live shows Dandelion Mind, Tinselworm, Bewilderness, Part Troll, Qualmpeddler and Limboland, as well as his starring role in Black Books and frequent appearances on QI and Never Mind the Buzzcocks — is one of the UK’s most popular and acclaimed comedians, and a pretty handy musician to boot.
He’s coming back to Brisbane and the Gold Coast in November with his new show, Larks in Transit, a compendium of travellers’ tales and mishaps from 20 years on the road as a travelling comedian, with tangents into politics, philosophy and the pursuit of happiness.
We got a chance to talk to Bill about the show, and his own secret to happiness.
How’s your day been so far?
Pretty good, yeah. It’s a lovely day here in Bratislava, which is where I am now, in Slovakia. It’s very nice, a beautiful old town by the Danube. Little bit of Communist-era architecture, but we can ignore that.
You’re a man who loves to travel. The new show is all about your travel adventures, isn’t it?
That’s right! I mean, that was the starting point for it. More and more, these days, I like to mark an occasion or an anniversary or a milestone, and it occurred to me that this year marks 20 years since I started coming to Australia. So I thought that was a good point to start with, anyway, and I’ll go from there and see where that takes me.
It’s really a loose collection of stories and things that have happened to me as a comic over 20 years, and beyond. It’s a compendium of travelling tales and the same sort of elements that you find in a lot of my shows; there’s a lot of music and politics and interaction with the audience.
But the travel was a good way to start. When you’re writing a show, you always need this one thing that kicks it all off, and that was it.
Is it a bit concerning for you that these travel mishaps happen to you regularly enough that it can be the theme of a show?
It is, really! I guess, the thing is, this kind of stuff happens all the time anyway. So if you travel a lot, it’s more likely, just by the sheer amount of travelling you do, that you’re going to have a few things go wrong.
There’s no way you can avoid it, so I guess you just have to accept it. If you’re on the road and travelling a lot, you learn to roll with the punches, so it’s not quite the disaster it could be.
Have you had any traumatic travel experiences since you started working on the show?
Yes! Just a couple of weeks ago, I was planning to go to Chernobyl.
We’re off to a strong start.
As you do, you know? It was a long-held ambition of mine to go there. I’m slightly fascinated by it, I’m fascinated by what happened. And it’s been 30 years since Chernobyl, so again, it was about marking that milestone. But we never got there.
What happened was, we foolishly flew with Ukranian Airways, which I wouldn’t recommend. We were on the tarmac at Gatwick Airport in London, and I’d had a long day, so I fell asleep. When I woke up, I thought we were in Kiev, but we were still in Gatwick.
I was terribly confused. I was like, ‘Oh, we’re here! We’re here in Kiev!’ And they had to tell me, no, no, we’re not. We’d gone about 400 yards up the tarmac in an hour.
I asked what had happened, and they said, ‘Well, we missed our take-off slot, and the airport is now closed. That’s it. The airport is now closed, the control tower have knocked off, they’ve gone home, so that’s it. We’ve got to park the plane and you’ll have to come back tomorrow.’
I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! The whole tour is based on us being there tomorrow morning!’ And they just said, ‘Oh, well, sorry about that’. They were so spectacularly rude, as well. It was hilarious. I just looked at this flight attendant, and I just said, ‘Why? WHY?’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘Why what?’
It sounds like it wasn’t the first time they’d stranded people in Gatwick.
No! I don’t think so.
Surely, if you thought you were in Kiev, they should have just let you think that.
Honestly? I would have bought that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Gatwick Airport, but it’s not the prettiest of airports, by any means, so I totally would have bought that. Because I looked out the window, I saw grey buildings, and I thought, yeah, that looks like Kiev.
They could have shown me around an old processing plant or something in South London, and I would have bought that as Chernobyl, like, ‘Oh, yeah, this seems right’.
They’ve only got to fool you into leaving the airport, and then it’s not their problem anymore.
Exactly! ‘Well, sir, you wanted it to be Kiev. It’s whatever you want it to be!’
You’re also talking about the pursuit of happiness in this show. What is happiness, to you?
Well, one of the things I’ve noticed, certainly in the last few years, is how happiness has become a currency, rather than something that may happen to you if you’re lucky.
It’s a quantifiable resource now, you know? Countries are graded on it, they get ratings, there’s a global happiness index. It seems rather regimented and almost opposed to the whole notion of what happiness is anyway, which is, to me, something that happens almost by chance. It’s just a bit of luck. So that’s what happiness is, to me — it’s not something that happens by design, really, but more by luck and good fortune.
There’s a big industry, there’s a ‘happiness industry’ now. There’s a big section in every bookshop, you know, buy this book and you’ll be happy. Get this book, The Book of Happiness, and follow the 10 steps to happiness. I mean, really? Maybe just go outside and look up at the sky and see if you can see a funny-shaped cloud. There you go, you’re happy. Done.
I think you’ve just saved somebody $20 at the book store.
Exactly! There you go.
Happiness isn’t really something that can be ‘pursued’, is it? That seems counter-intuitive.
Yeah, that’s right, and that’s something that you pick up over the years — you can’t plan it, you can’t force it to happen. Things happen to you.
I mean, sure, you make your own luck, you make your own way, and I believe in that – my grandfather was a real ‘work ethic’ kind of guy, and his thing was that you put the hours in and that’s what you get. And I guess that’s true, to some extent. That’s the natural order. But you get lucky, too, and you just have to accept it.
In America alone, something like $11 billion is spent on the business of trying to be happy. I mean, how many profiteroles would that buy you?
You’re a man who knows a thing or two about history. When you look at it from a historical perspective, do you think that we’re happier or unhappier now, as a society, than we were 20 years ago, 30 years ago, even 100 years ago?
Oh, I don’t know. I guess, if you look back 100 years ago, the concept of contemplating your own happiness would be seen as a grotesque indulgence. But we’re more aware of everyone else now. I think that’s what’s changed.
I don’t think that we’ve changed that much, as a species. Physically, we haven’t changed much. But we’re just more aware of everyone else now. The technology that we have allows us to see other people, more than at any other time in history. So we’re able to look at other people’s lives and compare them to ours. That’s a daily obsession for a lot of people.
You look at other people and you think, ‘Oh, look at that! Where did he get that sandwich? Where did he get that from? Where did he get those shoes, where did he get that jacket from?’ That’s a natural human impulse, but now you put a rocket booster on that with the internet, where we’re able to look at everyone around the world all the time.
And now we read news stories from places we would never have heard of before. ‘Look at that! A wall’s collapsed in Kyrgyzstan and somebody’s trapped under it! Oh my god, isn’t that terrible? Everything’s terrible!’ We would never have even heard about that 100 years ago! The top story would have been someone up the road who’d scalded their hand on a pan. That would have been it.
So I think we’re more obsessed with other people, and maybe that’s what makes it harder to focus on the simple stuff.
You’re talking about politics in this show as well. It doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to be happy about at the moment, in the political arena, whether it’s the Brexit in the UK or Trump in the US. Is there any reason to be optimistic about politics?
No, certainly not in Britain. It’s a disaster.
But hey, at times of disaster, sales of rock music go up and people go and see comedy shows… so I’m not complaining.