A comedian walks into an interview. He has a banjo tattooed on his hand and funny shoes on his feet, one saying “good”, the other “evil”. A necklace of turquoise beads dangles round his neck, accessorised with a chunky turquoise ring. Medicinal folk jewellery?
“No,” Billy Connolly replies, deadpan, “just fancy-arsed. Pretentious.”
He is long of hair and white of beard. As his friend Eric Idle recently wrote to him: “You used to be a comedy god. Now you look like God.” You might say it’s a fitting appearance, given that we’re here to discuss death. But Connolly would rather die than be so maudlin. Quite right, too.
His latest ITV documentary – the follow-up to this petrol- head’s 2011 series Billy Connolly’s Route 66 – is called Billy Connolly’s Big Send Off. It’s a two-part analysis of the business of dying: the customs, the ceremonies, the attitudes, the costs, the taboos, the positives. Connolly visits Californian mega-cemeteries and the Glasgow Necropolis. He talks to Islamic morticians, funeral directors, eco-burial pioneers, the bereaved, the dying, the defiant, the Idle (Eric). And no, it’s not being broadcast in a graveyard slot.
It’s entertaining, enlightening stuff, but moving, too. Particularly in the light of the 71-year-old’s own state of health.
Last year Connolly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As he says in the programme, the news came during what he describes as a “funny week” for him and his wife, Pamela Stephenson. On the Monday he was supplied with hearing aids. On the Tuesday he was prescribed pills for heartburn. And Wednesday brought the Parkinson’s bombshell (not that the relentlessly chipper comic would describe it that way) – but only after a phone call earlier the same day telling him that he had prostate cancer.
To quote his upbeat opening to the Big Send Off, “Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” But still, he must have been floored when he received the cancer call. He insists not.
“I remember I went through to the bedroom to answer the phone, and Pamela was behind me – I thought she was gonna catch me. And she sort of held me, and I went, ‘Oh Jesus...’ But when we went into the living room I went, phrrhrht,” he says, emitting a dismissive raspberry.
Why? Gallows humour?
“Aye, it just happened,” he shrugs, his Glasgow accent undimmed by some three decades of living in the US. “I think they’re very closely related, deep despair and laughing. And I wasn’t in any pain.”
We’re talking in his tour promoter’s office in midtown New York, the Scotsman’s home with Stephenson these past eight years. But his association with the city goes back a lot further, to the mid-70s, when the Big Yin was breaking through as a stand-up.
In 1976 Connolly supported Elton John on a run of concerts at Madison Square Garden. Someone somewhere had decided that the beardy shipyard welder with a bawdy line in willy and bum jokes would make an apposite opener for the flamboyantly theatrical pop star. The Rocket Man’s fans, alas, didn’t agree. Connolly was banjoed by frisbees lobbed from the crowd; during a show in Washington he was floored by a pipe (the smoking kind, I think).
“Some of the shows were nightmarish,” agrees the raconteur and shaggy-dog maestro. Bespeaking a man with a four-times-a-week gym addiction and serious juicing habit, Connolly looks lean and fit. He moves slowly and purposefully, but his mind and tongue are mostly as quicksilver as ever. “But that was normal,” he continues with a smile. “Tom Waits got the same.”
Connolly went on to be a fixture of stage, screen, pop charts, chat-show sofas and documentary-presenting gigs. But back then: in terms of honing his routine, was it useful playing such big yet hostile venues?
“No,” he says flatly, comically. “It was cruel and uncalled for. People often say that about comedians: ‘He had his corners knocked off...’ So it encourages a*******s to boo you everywhere you go. But some p***k singing My Way gets away with murder!” he shrieks, mocking bog-standard singers everywhere.
So, no, Billy Connolly didn’t corpse on the stage of Madison Square Garden. But now, years later, he’s facing that final curtain the only way he knows how: by laughing about it. He maintained his can-do, f-you attitude throughout the cancer treatment – even while he was being repeatedly anally probed by oncologists. “Oh, I’ve had a lot of the finger-up-the-bum,” he says cheerfully. “My doctor says, ‘Pick a finger!’ He’s lovely. ‘I’ll have the signet ring please, but don’t tell me what’s written on it...’”
Against his better nature, Connolly attempts to put on his serious head.
“When he said, ‘First of all, you’re not gonna die,’ I was shocked. I said: ‘Of course I’m not gonna f***ing die!’ It never crossed my mind. It was all very businesslike,” he shrugs. His prostate was removed in a surgical procedure, no chemo or radiotherapy required. “In and out, done. There was no medicine either.”
He says he’s been “blessed all my life” with an outlook that seems to involve staring the Grim Reaper in the face, then picking his nose. As his legendary, decades-straddling comedy routines have made clear, Connolly has a hard-wired optimism, an inbuilt irrepressibility. It goes deeper than the born-again positivity of the reformed alcoholic, a position the sober Connolly has maintained for 30 years. Death, it’s clear, doesn’t become him.
“I remember being in Fiji learning to scuba dive, and I lost my weight belt. And the girl who was teaching me came screaming over, and I was hanging onto this reef, upside down with the buoyancy. The bends would have got me if I’d gone up. But I was never afraid. I remember thinking: ‘Well, this is interesting.’ It’s very weird,” he acknowledges.
The Parkinson’s though. He might be cured of the cancer, but to take Billy at his Big Send Off word and confront the dead elephant in the room: that degenerative disorder of the central nervous system is incurable. Certainly in front of me (I may be a fellow expat jock, but I’m also a journalist, a breed for whom the Big Yin has big contempt), Connolly refuses to be distracted – or dispirited – by thoughts of his own mortality. He’s now not even on the drugs that are normally prescribed to relieve the symptoms. His doctor, he explains, “thought I was looking very Parkinson-y. Shaky. The drugs can increase the signs, give you the Parkinson’s face – expressionless, sorta slack.
“As a matter of fact,” he chuckles, his joke-teller’s muscle memory propelling him to the safety of another self-deprecating anecdote, “the guy at the gym, his father has Parkinson’s, and he has another client he trains who also has it. And he said that I shared a thing with this woman. Both of us, when he’s stretching the tendons, he asks, ‘How’s that?’ And I go, ‘It’s very painful.’ But my face is blank!” He hoots. “A normal person would be like, ‘Aarggh!’”
Still, for a veteran of Connolly’s performance and observational skills, there’s comedy gold everywhere. “We were laughing about it – because when the strain gets big, this hand starts to shake.” Connolly waggles his left hand, his watch jangling. “And I’m like, ‘Look, look, look, look!’ And I do it on stage – I show the audience this hand creeps up on me...”
Right now, Connolly is in
the midst of a world tour. He’s
finished a run of comedy gigs in North America and is now in New Zealand, where he’s combining stand-up shows with additional voice work on the final Hobbit movie. He’s already filmed his scenes as dwarf king Dain Ironfoot. Then he shoots a film in New York, before bringing the tour to the UK.
So, a heavy workload all round. But he’s on no pills, and no treatment?
“Early days,” he says simply. “She’ll put me back on them when the symptoms come back.”
His memory, he acknowledges, has improved since he came off the Parkinson’s drugs – aided in part by his adoption of a mental gym.
“I’ve put myself on a strict regime of crossword books. They remind me of everything. I have to train my memory. I don’t know if I’ve got it with me,” he says, patting his pockets, “but I’ve got a notebook with all the words I tend to forget. It’s the same ones cropping up again and again.”
Do the drugs explain his on-stage memory loss in Belfast last year, which was reported in a Scottish tabloid? For the first and only time our 90-minute chat, Connolly loses his rag.
“Oh that was bulls**t!” he blares. “It makes me so f***ing angry! I’ve lost my train of thought all my career! It’s what makes me different from everybody else – ‘Where was I, what was I saying?’ But some idiot with a pencil in Glasgow, some journalist w****r...” he spits. “They even said I had Alzheimer’s, and had experts in talking about me without asking me. That’s cruelty.”
As he says, digressing has always been part of his shtick. “I just ramble off and come back ages later.” Recovering his sparkle, he recalls, “I once had a guy following me from [a gig in] Morecambe to get the second half of a story. Eventually he got it in Blackpool.”
His British fans will get the chance to see Billy Connolly in waffly action come September. Which means he’ll be back in the United Kingdom around the time of the referendum on Scottish independence.
Three years ago, this long-time expat (although he and Stephenson make regular trips to their home in Aberdeenshire) described himself as “not a nationalist. Never have been, never will be”. More recently, at the end of 2012, he was quoted as saying he “didn’t believe” in devolution, far less independence.
“I don’t believe in having more layers of government that ordinary people will have to pay for. I think it’s time for people to get together, not split apart. The more people stay together, the happier they’ll be.”
Six months shy of his homeland’s date with destiny, is he still pro-Union?
“I don’t have great belief in the Union of England and Scotland. But I have a great belief in the union of the human race.”
So would he vote no to independence?
“I’m not gonna say. It’s too important for people like me to put in their tuppenceworth.”
But with only a little nudging, Connolly will admit to one clear point of view: “I’m really tired of people saying England won the war and calling Britain England. I think that does more harm...” he tuts.
And then a lifetime of speaking his mind whirrs and stirs. “But you must remember that the Union saved Scotland. Scotland was bankrupt and the English opened us up to their American and Canadian markets, from which we just flowered.
“And I dislike patriots. I’m deeply suspicious of patriotism. People following the band, you know? I don’t want to be part of it... It’s paved with fools.”
We’ll take that as a no (vote). But what of his own future, his own big send off ? At one point he says, “I don’t think I want a resting place. I want to be scattered to the wind.”
At another, discussing Idle’s preference for a fancy-dress-and-fireworks funeral, he says of his friend’s classic song from the Life of Brian soundtrack: “I always was jealous of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – I wished I’d written it. I’ve said a lot of things about my own funeral, but it’s all bulls**t. Horses and Vikings and burning ships and all that. Actually, I’d like to think we could have the coffin in a hearse, empty. And the real me being buried somewhere by pals, quietly, with a tree on top of me.”
That said, Connolly says he hasn’t made a living will, and insists that Stephenson isn’t bothered by this. What about his kids (he has five, all now grown up) – how does his nothing-to-see-here stance affect them? One of the best bits in the documentary is when he recounts the poem his daughter Scarlett, now 25, once wrote for him: “If you die, I will cry and cry and cry, and I won’t come out of my room.”
“I really don’t know,” he says, almost quietly. “It was quite recently we had the conversation about death – about The Hobbit. She asked if I die in it.” Seemingly, in his children’s eyes at least, Dad dies in most of his films. “I said that I didn’t. And she said, ‘Oh good, at last.’ I said, ‘Oh, come on. You know I’m acting.’ And she said, ‘But you’ve no idea! You do it rather well. I shouldn’t have to watch my dad dying all these times.’ It never crossed my mind.”
It’s almost time to go. Billy Connolly has given me way more than our allotted time, and he has things to do. Plus, Eddie Izzard has just walked into the office (they share a US concert promoter) and the comic zingers are flying like rockets at a Python send off. Don’t believe the doom and gloom: there’s a bunch of life in the Big Yin yet.
Before he disappears... He doesn’t seem like a bucket-list kinda guy. But what ambitions does Billy Connolly have left?
“I’ve never tried ballet.”
See Billy Connolly's Big Send Off tonight at 9:00pm on ITV