Monday, June 18, 2007

Billy Connolly Live at the Loeb

The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it please, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst. – “How to Tell a Story,” Mark Twain.

By Twain’s standards, Billy Connolly is not a comic. His Wednesday night show at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge was a wandering affair, arriving nowhere in particular, and ended with a simple, “That’s all, thank you,” after two and a half hours of laughter and pauses that made the laughter all that much powerful. Read your Twain – pauses are important.

Connolly was adrift from the start. Taking the stage in black pants, vest, and t-shirt with tails set against his cloud of white hair, it almost seemed his head was floating onstage by itself. He tried to remember the last time he played Boston, and was at a loss for a date. He doesn’t remember dates, saying, “I hate people who can. A long time ago covers it for me.” Then came the brief stories of his days as a folk musician, playing clubs he hated for people who hated him – a fond memory.

Back to the present, he added, almost incidentally, “I had my heart set on coming to Harvard.” In the break that followed, a couple of people “awed.” Then came a great burst of laughter and a pantomime of a Pinocchio nose growing.

Although Connolly often returned to the theme of his own aging – the backdrop behind him read “Too Young to Die Old” – trying to find a thread through the show that followed would be like trying to return a punt through the Boston Marathon. Icebergs that look like Jesus, prostate exams, anecdotes about friends, film festivals, haunted house shows, the priesthood – all were teed up and sometimes left standing as Connolly found another opening and ran for it.

At one point early in the show, Connolly stopped himself after a riff on sleep apnea. “Why did I tell you this?” he said. He explained his compulsion as an idea sitting in his head, sometimes not even a funny idea, but one that holds him hostage. “I’ll explode if I don’t tell you.”

And that’s the gist of Connolly’s style. It’s not as if he’s creating all of his material as you watch – he brings his entire life’s experience to the stage, from birth to what happened that day. Some of the stories have their stable rhythms and benchmarks and have been told a thousand times, like his show-closing half hour story about having been vomited on by three separate women in his lifetime, and some really are coming out of his mouth for the first time. It’s Chaos Theory, each story a rolling drop of water that changes his trajectory with each movement.

Some of the stories were personal, a blisteringly funny bit about an irritating friend’s girlfriend who, while trying to find a parking spot in a crowded lot, tried to get him to pray to the “parking angel.” His reply, “Arrange these words into a popular phrase: yourself fuck go.”

A riff about the ghost of a headless dog that lives in his estate in Scotland sent him off on a tangent about ghost hunting shows – “Four years that’s been on. How many ghosts? None!” Quick stories are punctuation, a brief detour about driving by the Queen’s estate and seeing a “bouncy castle” for a kids’ party in the shadow of a real castle. And serious moments are pauses, the all important pauses.

Two and a half hours later, Connolly has wandered everywhere, arrived nowhere in particular, with an audience in tow having barely noticed the passing of the time. Twain would have approved.

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