Post-lockdown life finds comedian Bill Bailey on the road again for his tour En Route To Normal, which is due to settle in Cardiff Motorpoint Arena for one date in December and another in January. But, as he tells Carl Marsh, heading towards ‘normal’ is a highly subjective trip these days.
The title says it all, really: En Route To Normal. Where do we even start?
I guess you could say, “What do you mean by normal, Bill?” What exactly is that these days? I don’t know. And also, do we really want to go back to whatever that was? I mean, I think so much has changed. There are certain things that we don’t want to go back to. We’ve adapted to this new way of living and certainly, some of the adaptations are better than before. Really, it was a title that came to me before we even heard of COVID-19. It makes me think that maybe I caused it… I think that we’re still on that road as well. We’ve got a way to go yet. If I had the chance I would probably put a question mark at the end of the title, that’s the only change I would make to it.
The subject matter for the tour could probably change on a daily basis.
It started with the rise in nationalism around the country and around the world and the way that public trust in government and institutions and the media has been eroded. And it’s led to a sort of terrible almost fever dream of misinformation and disinformation that was really fermenting before we even got to a pandemic: that suffering, that wave of people’s wild conspiracy theories, and then, of course, the pandemic comes along and feeds into it even more. Then there’s the fact that we’re just suffering from the six hottest years that we’ve ever had.
People go, “no, no, it’s fine.” And this division that we’ve encountered, certainly, in this country, where we almost have to watch what we say, where there’s almost a policing [of it]. It’s quite unprecedented in my lifetime. So we’re in very strange times and I don’t know quite at what point you pitch the ‘normal.’ Where do you put the pin in and say, “That was normal.” How do you define it? What is it? Do we want to go back to that? I don’t know.
Must be a strange time to be a comedian: a culture, like you said, where a joke can be taken as offensive to someone.
I think so. And I think certainly if you’re in the public eye, you are under a lot of scrutiny, now more than at any other point. And everything you say and have said – especially with things like Twitter, which has been around for a number of years – often spans whole periods in people’s lives.
When people start using Twitter, they really don’t know what the hell they’re doing. I thought it was polite to follow people back. I was tweeting the wrong things, just a bunch of gibberish, and I couldn’t get it back. Then I delete the whole thing. Start again. I mean, when people start learning how to use social media, as we’ve seen, they tweet all sorts of nonsense – the kind of dubious, 3 am tweets that then get raked over… I mean, would you like that? For some of the things you said when you were drunk at 17 to be examined like that? It’s almost too much of everything.
Even I get that: people messaging me privately saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t be following this person because they said this five years ago.”
I think also there’s a danger to that: we end up with our own little echo chambers where we just listen to the opinions of people that we like, or that coincide with our own. So you never really hear or tolerate other opinions. But I think it’s important to do that because I’ve had exactly the same thing, people saying to me, ‘why are you following this person? They’ve got these right-wing, reactionary views’ and I just said, well, okay, I don’t agree with them and they differ quite radically from my own. But I’m not just going to shut that out and pretend it’s not there because that represents a section of public opinion. You need your opinions to be tested.
It’s also down to debating. But now it’s like you can’t say anything because you’ve got to follow a strict mantra.
I think that’s true, but it always makes me laugh when people say, “oh, you can’t say anything these days” because it’s always about the things that people are saying the most. You can say it; you keep saying it. There’s definitely space for everyone. That’s what social media should have been about. There are minority aspects of it where people feel they can be quite toxic, but I think, by and large, it doesn’t really represent wider society.
Certainly what we’ve seen with Facebook amplifies all the worst aspects of extreme opinion. And they wield huge power. I think that the problem is that they’re not accountable. It’s all good for them – any amount of outrage.
Based on what we’ve been speaking about, when you write, are you feeling the pressure to water it down a little bit?
There’s humour that you can extract from the fact that we’re having to watch our Ps and Qs, seemingly, and seeing the absurdity in it. I think that’s probably when comedy is quite successful. There are ways around it, ways of making fun of it.
Certainly over the last few years, when we haven’t been able to go out and do gigs, I think that makes a difference. Online is not healthy. That’s why there’s this great demand for people to get out and be in a room with other people. When you can have conversations with people that are there in the moment in the context of a live show, that’s what’s different. You see anonymously, words pop up on a screen, and it can provoke a huge reaction. But if you were to have that same conversation at the pub with a bunch of people, it wouldn’t. It would be taken as just a bit of banter or provocative conversation. That’s the problem with social media: it’s a very bad representation of what a conversation is.
Did you ever think it’ll come full circle? Not Bernard Manning type jokes, but an era where people saw comedy for what it is.
I think we have that, to some extent, in a live context. But everything just keeps moving forward. There’ll be people realising how unhealthy social media is, how bad it is for people’s mental health. Whatever the perceived benefits tend to be outweighed by the negative aspects of it and I genuinely sense people wanting to get away from it.
Even my son, as a teenage boy who’s glued to his phone, has actually said to me “I want to get away from it” and pointed at [his phone] like it’s some sort of Horcrux. But then we had a right laugh about it because I said, right, let’s do it. Let’s go camping and sit by a river or something… and then I immediately pick up my phone to try and book it.
Motorpoint Arena Cardiff, Wed 15 Dec + Wed 12 Jan