There are at least three comedians on display in the standup concert “Billy Connolly Live!” Sure, they’re all in Connolly’s body, but this Scotsman — a comic legend in Europe, though less well known here — keeps his act ingratiating and intermittently hilarious by letting auds choose from among several personas.
Most dominant is the foul-mouthed rebel. Like any good comedian, Connolly lunges straight for taboo issues, positioning himself as an exasperated atheist who cannot believe the nonsense perpetrated by the religions of the world. He has noticed the ridiculous in everything from Christian politics to the Muslim riots over the Muhammad cartoons, and he takes clever swipes at them all.
Central to working this type of material is knowing how to tweak your subjects without dehumanizing them lest the jokes slide from edgy to hateful. Connolly nudges the line without crossing it. For example, he might mock the notion that suicide bombers will be rewarded in the afterlife with 70 virgins, but for him, the problem is using inexperienced lovers as rewards. “Give me two whores any day,” he insists.
That punchline points to another key Connolly persona: the working-class Everyman. He carefully balances his political analyses with jabs at the rich British snobs who think their money makes them superior. For this engagement, he also aims for relatability by mocking his own lack of fame in the U.S.
Connolly pulls off the projection that he’s an average Joe. His comic timing is based in his tendency to get distracted, so anecdotes loop through multiple sidebars before reaching their payoff. This makes him seem less like a professional than an excitable friend who tells great stories and can’t quite keep his temper. If he gets off-course sometimes, well, that’s just Billy, a blue-collar fella who lucked into success.
But it takes a pro to seem so unpolished. His pace may occasionally sag, but Connolly is always in control of his voice and body. Even as he shuffles through a random story about Maltese parades, he knows just which words to stress and when to use pantomime for emphasis. (We really do need to seehow those parade floats wobbled.)
His showmanship even pushes him through the weaker bits that comprise the third, hackneyed element of the show. When he isn’t mocking religion or class, Connolly heads for the oft-trod ground of how men and women are from different planets.
It’s much harder to stay involved with his routine when he reminds us that women take a long time getting ready to go out or that men tend to act like macho idiots. His other jokes are shocking or at least charming, but these are stale.
Of course, there will always be people who are comforted by hearing the same old cracks. By including them in his show, Connolly provides an outlet for auds who couldn’t handle two hours of political material.
But since he doesn’t apologize for his riskier work, he never seems a sellout for dipping into the “Mars vs. Venus” well.
More accurately, his various approaches create a well-rounded act that can tickle various sensibilities. No matter who Billy Connolly might be at any given moment, he’s always a crowd-pleaser.