‘You pass this way but once. There’s no such thing as normal. There’s you and there’s the rest. There’s now and there’s forever. Do as you damn well please or you could end up being a pot-bellied, hairless boring fart.’
I first realised that I wanted to be an entertainer when I was about ten or twelve. At first I wanted to be Hank Williams, it was quite funny really, my father was a devout Catholic and we lived in the Barras, which is a market place in Glasgow. In the market they sold records, there was always Neil Sedaka booming out and the pop of the day. My father bought a record called Dear Mary by Slim Whitman, thinking that it was a hymn. He thought it was about Mary, the mother of Jesus. When he got it home he was disappointed to find that I was a love song – a song mourning lost love, but I loved it and I urged him to get more, so he asked the guy in the shop who gave Hank Williams and so I learnt to yodel. I thought that I would like to be a Hank Williams kind of guy. He had a character called Luke The Drifter and I saw myself as Luke The Drifter yodelling through life.
Up until then I’d always wanted to be a tramp. There was a reading book at school which had a picture of a cottage with roses around the door and a woman giving a tramp a strawberry jam sandwich and I thought, what a life. Go up to any door and a woman gives you a strawberry jam sandwich, do it again and someone else will give you another sandwich. Somewhere between being a tramp and being Luke the Drifter, that was my ambition.
My aunt Margaret, who lived in our house was very keen on Variety Theatre, she took me there all the time and I fell in love with it. Jimmy Logan, Stanley Baxter and Jack Radcliffe. I remember, about the age of twelve or thirteen, thinking that was what I’d like to do – I’d like to be a comedian, but I was scared to tell anybody. Eventually, I told a school teacher – a science teacher called big Jim Sheridan, He was going round the class one at a time asking everybody what they wanted to be, most said marine engineers, because that’s what you did in Glasgow to get the hell out of there and see the world. When he asked me and I said a comedian, it was like Vesuvius erupting, everybody was screaming with laughter, and he said, that he had seen me playing football during the lunch break and thought that I’d achieved my ambition and I never really lost it from there.
My first taste of show business was when I formed a band called The Humblebums. I wanted to be a musician badly and I started with a guy called Tam Harvey, a really good plectrum guitarist, and we did well. Then Gerry Rafferty joined. I met Gerry at a party, I was doing a charity show in Paisley and he was in the audience. Gerry was very good for me. He taught me that I would never be a musician as long as my arse looked south. He was just so outstandingly good and getting better, and although I was getting better too, the space between us remained huge. He was a real musician, he knew and felt music, a bass player, with a lovely sense of harmony, as well as a great guitarist. I knew tunes and how to play them but that was where my musicianship ended, unfortunately I’m still the same to this day. I work very hard, I play every day but I’m still ordinary, I can be flashy….but it’s all tricks really. He’s a musician and I’m just not in the same league. So, I gave up these ambitions and concentrated on what I was really born to do.
The Glasgow shipyard was a great apprenticeship for my life as a comedian. It’s a world that doesn’t actually exist any more, the shipyards, it was very very good for me, but I don’t think your background matters as long as you’ve got one. You can be a children’s carer and be a comedian because there’s great wealth of material doing that or you could be a psychiatric nurse or a cop. I don’t think it’s really important that I came from the shipyards, except that I loved them, I loved the people involved because that’s where I became a man, I went in as a boy and came out as a man, I think the same thing happens to a lot of guys.
It was traumatic for me. Going from an unhappy home into the shipyards was like going on holiday, meeting these guys, who were so lovely. When the factory doors closed it became like a big prison. The men became very profane you know just swearing and sex and blah blah, you know the way they do in jail or the army. It was great for me because there was a lot of funny guys in there who were just funny, they didn’t tell jokes, they were just funny men.
I was surprised at the impact that I made in those early days in Scotland, it was off its damn head, all I did was something that had been done before by Jimmy Logan. I was funny in a Glasgow accent. We were used to English comedians on the radio and they were great. Charlie Chester, Ted Ray and Jimmy Wheeler, the Billy Cotton Band Show and all, but the Glasgow accent was considered kind of lower class and they didn’t allow it on radio in Scotland. It was a if nobody had Scottish accents unless they came from the countryside but I was a modern Glaswegian and I looked really hairy, I was kind of weird for show business, except for Rock and Roll, I had a lot of hair and a big long beard. I wasn’t swearing then, but I was taking about venereal disease and haemorrhoids and things that make life a bit uncomfortable.
It was an ambition I held very dearly, I wanted to be as funny as ordinary guys are. I think that ordinary people are funnier than comedians, I know that sounds a bit pretentious but I’ll give you an example – if you’re in a pub at lunchtime, or early evening and there’s a crowd of people in from the office block next door, or from the hospital – a bunch of nurses, office workers, or guys from the local factory, they’ll be celebrating someone’s birthday, and they’ll have a couple of drinks and they’ll be talking and then they’ll just burst into laughter, one of them has said an accurate thing about someone that they all know and they will explode in laughter, and then it will continue, they will scream….they’ll be spitting drinks, you’ll never see them laughing like that at a comedian. Well, I always thought that I wanted to take that on to the stage. The thing we used to do at tea time in the shipyards, eating our sandwiches round the fire when guys would say something about the foreman ad you’d be unable to eat your sandwich, just falling about the place, tell the truth like it is and people love it, they recognise it and they identify with it.
I made a living as a folk singer. The folk music thing was booming in Britain and you could make about a hundred pounds a week, twenty five pounds a night. But then, one day I read in the papers that I was a comedian, I thought I was just a funny folk singer, because I was too hairy to be a comedian, too scruffy and hippy. Too young for Varity Theatre, they liked old guys in kilts at the time, the blue mohair suit kind of people with the shiny hair.
There wasn’t alternative comedy then but that’s what it was, but nobody called it that. I read in a Sunday newspaper “comedian Billy Connolly”, and I thought my God I’ve done it… I’m a comedian, and then slowly it just continued from there. I never thought of myself as making money as a comedian, I was always just this funny guy making a pretty decent living. In my naivety, or my conceit I presumed it would last for quite a long time. I don’t know where the material comes from, it just sort of comes, it trundles along, I don’t analyse it or question it, I’m just glad I’m there in the same room at the same time as it is.
After 30 years of stand-up comedy, I still find it every bit as frightening to get up in front of an audience.
For me it’s nerves, it’s all nerves and anger, and coffee and being high that does it for me.
I mean being high in the natural sense. I don’t turn on to go on stage or anything but I get very very high when I’m up there and it just suddenly happens – it’s almost a kind of spiritual thing, but it’s this rush come on you and if you can hold it all in and channel it, suddenly you’re funny.
I never really became a man, which is probably why much of my comedy still revolves around bodily functions! I remained a boy and all boys love it!
And it never really left me!
I still find them funny and anywhere that you’re vulnerable you’re funny. When your knickers are down, life is wonderful and the more uptight the middle class get about it, the happier I become. When I’m at work I like to work. I was a welder, so I like working, I’m a grafter, I have a working class kind of ethic, so actually getting out there is what it’s all about for me. The Royal Albert Hall and the Portree Gathering Hall are the same place.
Comedy has nothing to do with class or staying in the place you were born. It’s not a matter of physically moving away from the street, it’s keeping your head where your material is, your memory is the most outstanding of things and the older you get the clearer it becomes, you can see things so clearly from a distance, so between your fantasy and the reality and your memory, you should have years of material in your head. Because little things are immense on stage, like I’ve been doing a thing, about beanbag chairs and just saying that you can tell how old you are by the length of time it takes you to get out of a beanbag chair. It’s just a thing I noticed when I’m with the children watching telly. So comedy is absolutely all around you. Once you become successful people know where you live, the type of house you live in, the kind of car you drive, the clothes you wear, and so it would be patronising to go and talk like a welder, they’ll find you out, saying come on, speak like Billy Connolly, don’t give me this welder crap, I haven’t been a welder for 30 years – welding’s a mystery to me now. So you can’t go back, but your life changes every day, but your attitude doesn’t. If you’re doing it in any way right, your attitude remains the same as it’s been since day one, since you were a wee boy at school.
I always saw myself working until I was old. Maybe it was a naïve way to look at it but I always thought it would be a long career, I thought that’s what comedians did and I still feel they should. And the funniest thing is when people ask me why am I still doing it, and I say because it’s my job; they don’t say to painters, you must have a few bob now, why are you still doing it. Why don’t you give it up when you get to a certain number but the trouble is that you spend the money, I spend an awful lot of money living this funny lifestyle because it makes me very happy and it makes my family all jolly and happy, so I’ll just keep doing it until I die. I’ll keep doing it until I’m old, or until the people don’t come back and see it any more, they get fed up with me or something.
Marriage to Pam, it didn’t change me, it’s saved me. I was going to die. I was on a downward spiral and enjoying every second of it. Not only was I dying, but I was looking forward to it. I saw myself as a tragic, kind of James Dean, tragic, rock and roll tragedy, which was total cobblers but that’s the way I saw myself. I thought logically that the drinking and various substance abuse could only go in one direction and if the mornings are anything to go by, the mornings were getting longer and longer and I thought that I would get sick and die. I was perfectly au fait with that and that was fine with me, and then Pam came along.
I started to change very quickly, and felt I wanted to live again and became normal. I started to regard my life the way everybody else regards theirs, as quite a precious thing. I had no desire to be James Dean any more and for that I’m not grateful or thankful, I don’t think along those lines, I just love her…..she changed my life immensely and we’re kind of inseparable, we’re joined at the hip, me and Pam. Pamela rarely criticises my performance but when she does I listen. I listen to people’s criticisms. A woman wrote to me when I was doing a thing about a deaf and dumb guy and she criticised me for that. I think it was from Australia, she wrote to me and said she fell about the room watching me imitating a deaf person, but she was also in great pain, because her son was deaf. She said that when I did the impersonation of the deaf guy trying to speak, it was incredibly accurate, but that she found it very painful. So I wrote to her and said I won’t do it any more, I’m sorry I hurt you, it’s not what I aim to do. So I don’t do it anymore.
So I do listen to criticism from time to time and I think well maybe that was too close, because I’m not in the business of wounding people. Sometimes you can get too near. But there are some people I like to wound. Like church people and politicians, because they become untouchable, so I love swinging the boot at the political and religious targets. I think they manipulate people terribly and I like to equalise it a wee bit. That’s my only rebellious stand. Generally I can just say whatever comes into my head and take it or leave it.
I’ve always enjoyed life immensely apart from that very black period from my middle thirties to late thirties, which was the dark bit, but I must say I love my work from that time. The albums I made then in the dark period were colossal, I’m still feeding from that, getting energy from that. I’d hate to be a role model except for boys, I hope boys are looking at me and saying, aye that’s ok, I’ll have a go at that, you can stay a nutter all your life. I would like to think there was somebody in a bedroom playing my record quietly so that their parents wouldn’t hear it.
I hope to grow old disgracefully.
I’d like to be a complete nuisance, like Spike Milligan. Spike’s a great great hero of mine, I’d like to shout at church Rubbish! Explain! I’d like to be in a public gallery of parliament shouting Tosh! Nonsense! Get a job! I really would. I’d like to go and show up those Scottish parliament types.. I like to scream at Nationalists whenever I can, I have a deep loathing of nationalists and patriots. I don’t like patriots or religious weirdos, but I would like to be a nuisance, I’d like to stand behind the National Health system and all these other miracles like the Welfare State. You know, stand beside the things I truly believe in because I think the Welfare State’s a miracle and it’s under attack the whole time.
I would like to still be active.. keep my mind active and still always stand for freedom and the things that I really believe in, the things I believed in when I was a hippy, and I still believe in now.
I’ve never been ambitious, never. I’ve always been a dreamer, and I prefer It that way, because everything you get when you’re a dreamer is OK, if you’re ambitious and you don’t get the thing you’ve been aiming for, you feel as if you’re a disappointment or a failure and that can be a terrible thing and most of the time it’s wrong, most people aim too low. I have always just been a dreamer who kind of accepted things as just being normal, I always accepted that I would be at this point. Right of wrong that’s what I did. And I don’t have ambition. I just want to keep honing the thing that I’ve got and make it better and better that’s all. That’s the only ambition I feel, I just want to be very good at what I do.. keep the standard very high, stay dangerous.