Bill Bailey: The Biggest Comedian Whose Name You've Never Heard
The self-described "part troll" and musical comedian Bill Bailey has sold out arenas, graced the airwaves of basically every major television show in the U.K. and won some of the most coveted comedy awards in the world, but chances are you've never heard his name before.
"In a way, that's a very good position to be in," Bailey told HuffPost over the phone from Bali, where he was "up a tree looking at birds and avoiding crocodiles" while vacationing with his wife and 7-year-old son.
The time off is well earned for one of the busiest performers in the U.K., a steadily rising star and classically trained musician who has been branding his patented mix of rock 'n' roll, comedy and theater since the early 1990s. He's twice been named one of the top 10 stand-ups in history by a U.K. Channel Four poll, and his legions of fans gobble up his mugs, T-shirts and albums by the truckload. But next week, for the first time in almost a decade, he'll bring his routine to the U.S. for a round of shows in New York, Chicago and Boston. (And one in Toronto, too.)
"I've always wanted to come back to the states," Bailey said. "I would have leapt at the chance to come back every year, but realistically those things take a bit of time to set up."
Like Ricky Gervais, Eddie Izzard and Steve Coogan before him, plenty of celebrated U.K. comedians have managed to make the often bumpy transition to stateside fame. Luckily Bailey has unique acting chops to boot, with spirited guest turns in U.K.'s "Skins" and the Simon Pegg, Nick Frost comedy, "Hot Fuzz."
But stand-up is where his heart is, and his raucous live shows, comprised of an often indescribable amalgamation of video, guitar solos and classical-music-synthesizer-mash-up-philosophical-rants have made him a household name overseas.
"Do we quite appreciate what we’ve got in Bill Bailey; how lucky we are he’s on the planet?" wrote Dominic Cavendish in the Telegraph in 2009, as part of a five-star review for Bailey's show, "Bill Bailey's Remarkable Guide to the Orchestra." The London Evening Standard would agree, calling "Dandelion Mind" -- the show he will bring to the U.S. -- "absolute genius on so many levels."
Though Bailey insists that no major changes will be made to the U.S version of "Dandelion Mind," he is aware that some elements of his show might not translate overseas. American audiences accustomed to Jerry Seinfeld might not respond as well to Bailey playing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in the style of Kraftwerk.
Still, he hopes they give his psychedelic style a shot.
"I think audiences are pretty savvy," he said. "But there is certainly an element of having to prove yourself, to re-evaluate what you do."
Bailey fondly remembers coming to the U.S. with his show, "Bewilderness," back in 2001, when it enjoyed a critically-acclaimed six-month run, and receiving some tips from the American comedian Dom Irrera about how to play to New York audiences.
"Back home in London I would start the show with a haiku; I wouldn't even say hello or 'how's it going?' But when I started that way in [the states], these audiences would stare at me confused, so I had to sort of step back a little bit," he recalled. "Irrera told me: never be too hip for the room. You can have these highfalutin ideas with what you're going to do with the form, but you still have to be funny first."
Bailey said he hopes American audiences who come out for "Dandelion Mind" will be a bit more familiar with his style this time around. Thanks to the magic of YouTube, thousands of Bill Bailey clips are now available online, and people can get a taste of what they're in for.
"Everyone can see the stuff now," he said. "Every gig I've ever done, even in these little pubs, somebody's filmed it on a phone. You can pretty much see everything you want."
When asked about any further hopes for Hollywood glory, Bailey joked that he could be the "next Jason Bourne." Or, at least, he said, "Jason's crazy neighbor." However, it's still the live performance that moves him the most.
If anything else should come of that, he said, "so be it."
Bailey will perform at NYC's Skirball Center September 14-17, and then will hit Chicago, Toronto and Boston. You can buy tickets here.
And check out a great clip of Bailey channeling U2 below: