note: entire contents copyright 2007 by David Frieze
Fuck. That, in all its various permutations and conjugations, is the word from which Billy Connolly seems to derive the most glee. The Scottish comedian is in Cambridge for the first time, courtesy of the American Repertory Theatre, with an uninterrupted two-and-a-half-hour one-man show (not quite a theater piece, but more than a standup routine) which apparently changes from performance to performance, depending on Connolly's train of thought.
Connolly has been described as a Scottish George Carlin, but apart from the fact that they're both old hippies (as the 64-year-old Connolly described himself the night I saw him) and both comic geniuses, the differences are more obvious than the similarities. Carlin these days is an acid-tongued commentator on human idiocy and willful misuse of the English language, and is probably angrier than Connolly, whose stories are primarily autobiographical and whose view of human folly is more amused (unless you're an aromatherapist).
Connolly's performance is a virtuoso display of digression. In the middle of one story he'll be badgered by another story insisting on being told, thus keeping an audience simultaneously entertained and on tenterhooks waiting to see how the first story turns out. And he's a magnificent storyteller, capable of drawing an anecdote out to epic proportions with an abundance of hilariously pertinent details and gleefully bemused commentary.
His humor is bawdy rather than dirty. One setpiece story involves the discomfort, both physical and emotional, of rectal examinations (when his doctor sticks his gloved finger up Connolly's rear end, the latter admits, "It wasn't the worst feeling I've ever had"), leading him to suggest a course of action whereby women can revenge themselves on their gynecologists that involved vaginal exercises and ventriloquism. The habit of trying to elicit an audience's laughter by insisting that what he's telling them is true is debunked when he interrupts his story with a long, hilariously anticlimactic anecdote that, as he points out, is as true as it is pointless.
Another spectacularly performed story involved a hospital visit to his father, who has suffered a stroke and can only utter (or rather bellow) the word "Fuck" over and over. The hospital room also includes a patient whom Connolly thought he recognized as his old friend Bobby and who therefore keeps repeating the name "Bobby" (his real name is John); another patient whose family members chat inanely amongst one another while ignoring his screams of delusional terror; and a thuggish child who keeps shoving grapes up the nose of his father, who is clearly dead. It's a scene worthy of Alan Bennett at his blackest, and Connolly's reenactment of the chaos was painfully hilarious.
As the grand finale, Connolly boasted (?) that he has had three different women vomit on him. He then described each incident, building with patience and self-assurance to a literally overwhelming climax. It sounds gross, and it was, but performed with such energy and such attention to detail and such sheer vulgar pleasure that the audience almost drowned him out with laughter.
Two and a half hours, straight through, without even a lull. Billy Connolly is a force of nature, and by far the funniest one I've ever heard of.
-- David Frieze