On April 27, 2016, Billy Connolly boarded the stage of the Beacon Theatre in New York City to a partial standing ovation. Every Scottish person in New York was in the house, along with a few of us Americans, though my ears didn’t spot a single American accent the whole night. After a few jokes about Donald Trump–and kindly stopping the show to recap for someone who arrived late–Connolly gave a PSA about getting your prostate checked. He had recently been cured of cancer. Cue the applause. Unfortunately, the same day they discovered the cancer, they diagnosed him with Parkinson’s. “I’m not well,” he confessed. Connolly made some jokes about it–who was Parkinson and did he have it?–but it left a gloomy residue on the rest of a crackingly funny show. That said, kudos to him for standing still on stage for two hours and twenty minutes with no intermission.
Every city in Scotland was named at least once during the show, and different sections of the audience would cheer at each name. Connolly regaled us with tales of Town Hall where you can get your ancestry traced back to people named things like Fanny Kisser, and with little known tidbits about Bonnie Prince Charlie and Rob Roy for the history geeks in attendance. But to keep the attention of those of us with lesser knowledge of Connolly’s homeland, there were also stories about firing guns on The Boondock Saints, an on-set story that sounds suspiciously like an urban legend (but if Liam Neeson said it, it must be true), and achieving his lifetime goal of meeting Alan Cumming.
Although he occasionally dips into mainstream observational–he didn’t have nice things to say about the people-movers at airports–Connolly’s style is looping narratives that weave through tangents and find their way back. Except when they don’t. It is a delight to see after all the repetition of performances and rehearsed material, Connolly still manages to crack himself up and still manages to let the audience distract him to the point of losing the story. Partway through an epic about an audience member who died while he was performing the banjo, he completely lost his train of thought. The audience gave him an applause to give him time to get back on track. His stories–which he claims are mostly true–have a touch of the surreal, and when he acts the scenes out, even verbally with mouth-made sound effects, you can see the origins of comedians like Eddie Izzard who name Billy Connolly as an influence.
What have we learned from Billy Connolly tonight? Mainly, how to slice a banana inside the peel, don’t punch a heckler because they might be the one paying you, practice sneezing with your eyes open so you don’t crash your car, and if anyone offers to take you out on the husky sleigh, just say, “No thank you.” Connolly exited to a resounding standing ovation.
As a sidenote, am I the only person who was trying to ascertain (from the balcony) whether or not Billy Connolly was wearing a cape? Maybe it was one of those moments like when he’s trying to decide if he’s allowed to park his car somewhere: “Fuck it, I’m Billy Connolly. It’s got to have some perks.”