Footballers have Lionel Messi. Bands have the Beatles. Comedians have Billy Connolly. 

Few Scots have had as significant an influence in any field as Connolly, and 50 years since the start of his solo comedy career he’s considered one of stand-up’s greatest ever practitioners.

After starting out in folk duo the Humblebums with Gerry Rafferty, legendary routines such as ‘The Crucifixion’ and ‘Incontinence Pants’ saw the Anderston-born former shipyard welder become the king of British comedy. 

Not just handy with a punchline, Connolly is a master storyteller who has inspired other comics by sharing stories of his own people from his own country in his own voice.

As he turns 80 today, his voice remains every bit as relevant to a new generation of great Scottish comics.

“He’s the greatest ever. He essentially invented what we know today as stand up comedy” says Mark Nelson, who was named Comedian’s Comedian of the Year in 2021. 

That’s a sentiment shared by award-winning stand-up Ray Bradshaw, who has recently toured with Frankie Boyle and John Bishop. He recalls “growing up, I spent a lot of time at my granny and grandad’s, and Billy Connolly was a constant feature. If you’re Glaswegian and you like to make people laugh, that is your go-to, every time.”


Read more: How Euphoria gave a Gerry Rafferty classic a new lease of life


Connolly clearly had a significant impact during the formative years of many comedians. That was certainly the case for 2019 Scottish Comedy Awards Best Compere winner Jay Lafferty, who says: “Billy Connolly WAS comedy. That was my first proper, real experience of what a stand-up comedian was, and the first time I realised that somebody who sounded like me and my family could be on the telly. 

HeraldScotland: 'I don't have to change myself or be somebody that I'm not' - Jay Lafferty'I don't have to change myself or be somebody that I'm not' - Jay Lafferty (Image: Jay Lafferty)

“I remember watching the video of ‘An Audience with Billy Connolly’ with my dad. It was something we could laugh at together, a nice bonding thing. My dad worked in the shipyards, and it started conversations about working there. He would always claim that Billy Connolly’s routine about the pigeon happened in Greenock, which is where I was from. I don’t know if that’s true, but he claimed it happened in the Green Oak Bar.

“I memorised Billy Connolly’s stand-up routines off by heart, and I would perform them in the school playground for the other kids. I suppose that’s my first taste of being a stand-up.”

When you thought about a stand-up comedian, you thought about Billy Connolly

2019 Scottish Comedian of the Year winner Marc Jennings had a similar experience. “Billy Connolly is probably the first person I ever knew as a stand-up comic. We used to have his VHS tapes in the house. He was omnipresent. When you thought about a stand-up comedian, you thought about Billy Connolly.

“When I was about 12, I had his routine about going to the wrong end at the Celtic v Rangers game on my iPod. I learned it, and I remember sitting with my mates and telling them that joke. I didn’t take credit for it or anything, but I’d rehearsed it and said ‘listen to this joke’. None of them had heard it, and it was class to say ‘they’re s***ting in our shoes and we’re p***ing in their Bovril’. It’s just such a brilliant joke.”

2022 BBC New Comedy Awards finalist Marjolein Robertson has fond memories of Connolly’s wildebeest routine. “One of my favourite Billy Connolly routines is one of the first I was allowed to watch as a bairn. He was one of the only folk on the telly I was allowed to watch that swore. The whole family loved him, and everyone would sit down to watch him together. 

“The first one I remember watching on the telly was the lionesses. Everyone was on board, and it was so funny. That’s always had a special place in my heart. Being allowed to watch telly with my mum, dad, older brother and sister was one thing, but getting to see Billy Connolly…he really is the first stand-up I ever saw. On the telly, obviously, because I was stuck in Shetland.”

Lafferty is also a fan of that particular routine, having been given Connolly’s ‘Two Night Stand’ for her 14th birthday. “It still contains my favourite bit of stand-up ever, which is Billy Connolly talking about the nature programmes, and the lionesses sneaking up on the water buffalo. He’s like ‘if they lionesses come over here I’ll just f***ing fly away, for there are no mirrors in the Serengeti plains’...”

“The whole of ‘An Audience With Billy Connolly’ is probably the most perfect hour of stand-up you will ever see”, says Nelson. “There’s a moment when the camera pans to Robbie Coltrane and he can barely breathe for laughing. There isn’t a wasted second in it. The writing, timing and performance are all perfect. ‘Cares not a jot’ from his routine about the incontinence pants is probably the most I have ever laughed at comedy.

He's the world's best storyteller

Lafferty admires “that amazing ability he had of going off on mad tangents and making it all seem really in the moment and fresh.”

“He’s the world’s best storyteller”, she continues. “He paints a picture with his words. He was quite a physical comedian, and he used the stage. At the start of his career he used to wear those quite bright colours, and in his later tours he used to always dress in all black. He had the long, black t-shirt/dress thing with just black jeans. He very much pared himself down because he made it all about the stories, and his facial expressions, and I loved the way he would act things out as well.

HeraldScotland: 'He's the world's best storyteller''He's the world's best storyteller' (Image: Herald Scotland)

“There’s a story that he tells about having a mad pash session with a lassie and she’s leaning on his St Christopher’s cross and choking him, and he acts the whole thing out. It’s not just the storytelling, but that whole ability to transport you to his space. There are very few comics who can do it the way that Billy Connolly did it.”

Connolly’s way with a story has also made an impression on Nelson, who says: “The more I have matured the more I have leant into stories. I am still nowhere near that level but the mechanics of it fascinate me. The weaving of a tale, the characters, the pay-off. Just a genius.”

HeraldScotland: 'There isn’t a wasted second. The writing, timing and performance are all perfect' - Mark Nelson'There isn’t a wasted second. The writing, timing and performance are all perfect' - Mark Nelson (Image: Mark Nelson)

 

“It’s the storytelling” says Robertson. “He was telling stories, not just doing set-up/punchline, set-up/punchline. He really paved the way in a lot of respects for bringing that nature of stand-up to the stage. 

“I love a stand-up routine which isn’t just a joke that makes you laugh. You go on a whole experience and see a different area of the world. It’s coloured in for you. You get so much out of it. As a comedian, I love the idea of telling a story and making people laugh. Being a Shetlander, stories are such a huge part of our culture and our tradition and what we still do today. You meet up and you just share story after story.

“He’s always been able to tell you a whole story where you're laughing the entire time, and it’s such a skill, and he just does it with his own voice in his own character. It’s authentic.”

He sounded like my dad, he sounded like my uncles...

That authenticity also appeals to Jennings. “The big thing Billy Connolly’s known for is losing his place and coming back to it, which is a nice way of doing it. He’s got a very unique storytelling style. The main thing is just the honesty and the authenticity. That’s what everybody loves about him. He’s just Billy, it’s just him. 

“He was the guy who started talking about his life, talking about real things, talking about the way that people lived in Glasgow, and just taking aspects of your own life and not being afraid to talk about it. That’s something that’s influenced modern comedy in the UK in general, and the main thing I always take away is just to be as authentic as possible.”

Staying true to himself is a key element of his appeal for younger Scottish comics. “He sounded like my dad, he sounded like my uncles, he sounded like the guys that my dad worked with” says Lafferty, highlighting “that ability to not feel that I have to change myself, that I have to change my accent or that I have to be somebody that I’m not.

“It was that whole West Coast of Scotland humour. Sometimes I would see English comedians and I didn’t really think they were funny. Some of that was because I was a child and I had no concept of what they were talking about, but also, they didn’t have the same references as I had, and then I’d hear Billy Connolly and he would be talking about Glasgow and the crane at Finnieston, things that were very real in my life at that time. ‘I’ve been there, I’ve seen that’. It was really exciting.

“For Scottish comedians, Billy Connolly has blazed a trail. We CAN be understood around the world, we CAN be accepted, and our experiences are valid. He’s paved the way for people like Kevin Bridges and Daniel Sloss to be ambassadors for Scotland.”

Living in Shetland, Robertson considers Connolly’s refusal to tone down his Scottishness inspirational. “For me, he really paved the way because he was unapologetic about his own voice, his own accent, his own words. He was truly speaking in his own voice, in a Scottish voice that just felt like you could be yourself on stage. 

“So often when I’m on stage, I feel like I have to tone down speaking in Shetland, and I often do because we do have a lot of very different words in Shetland. It’s just knowing that - as long as they can understand you - you can still use your voice, and Billy is really good for that.”

“You hear representation talked about a lot in the world now” says Bradshaw. “He grew up in Anderston, which is about two miles away from where I grew up, and there’s a mural of him. I used to play football in Scotstoun opposite the shipyards all the time, and someone who started there in Clydebank is a world superstar. You feel ‘maybe I can do that’. 

“I’m not saying I’m going to get a mural in Anderston, I might get a menchie but I won’t get that level…it just seems like you can do it if someone from just down the road can do it as well.”

He thinks he's going to be a comedian

As a young Scottish comic, Jennings found the Big Yin’s story similarly inspirational. “When I was still working in a call centre and just starting out in comedy, I was reading his book - Billy, by Pamela Stephenson - and there’s that great bit in it where he talks about leaving the shipyards. 

“He was thinking about quitting in six months and the old guy said ‘you’d better quit now, because this place is full of old guys who always said they would leave and never did’, so he took his wages on the Friday and said he was sprung from jail. 

“At the time, I was working full-time in a call centre and starting out in comedy. I was really having a hard time with it and really not enjoying my life, and when I finally managed to leave the call centre it felt the exact same, like being sprung from jail. 

HeraldScotland: 'It was such an inspirational thing, just realising how liberating that would be''It was such an inspirational thing, just realising how liberating that would be' (Image: Marc Jennings)

“The call centre is effectively a modern version of the shipyards. Everybody used to work in the shipyards and now everybody works in a call centre. It was such an inspirational thing, just realising how liberating that would be. Also, that idea of ‘if you’re going to do it, do it now and just go for it. Don’t get stuck in here forever and wish you’d made a go of it’.

“My grandad was a joiner, and he used to work on houses in the west end of Glasgow. Billy Connolly stayed in one of those houses. My grandad would drink in the west end after he’d been working there, and one night my grandad came in and said ‘you ought to have seen this guy. He had this pure stupid hair and he was wearing all these daft clothes. Listen to this - he thinks he’s going to be a comedian’. Turned out it was Billy Connolly. 

“I always think about that idea of ‘He thinks he’s going to be a comedian’. When we think of Billy Connolly now, we think ‘he’s a national treasure, everybody must have always loved him’, but it gave me a lot of hope, because when you’re starting out in comedy, everybody looks at you cynically, ‘oh you’re not that funny, do you think you’re going to be a comedian?’.

“To hear that Billy Connolly got that level of cynicism and then became who he became makes you think ‘well if HE had people saying that, then of course everybody’s going to get it, and you just need to ignore that’. 

“People will always be cynical if you’re trying to do something, and people would have said ‘oh, he thinks he’s going to be a comedian’ in a disparaging way, but all that mattered was that Billy Connolly thought he was going to be a comedian and he made it happen, and for me that story makes me think about the power of just believing in yourself and not worrying about people not believing in you.”

It's not a generational thing

While Connolly’s voice and references are distinctively Scottish, his comedy transcends the country of his birth. “When I gig outside the UK, that’s the person that people bring up” says Lafferty. “They’ll go ‘oh, Billy Connolly!’. Everybody knows who Billy Connolly is, and that is your touchstone.”

Bradshaw has frequently performed in Australia, and says: “He is brought up in Australia a lot. I’ve had it in Canada as well before. After gigs, people will come and chat to you, and if they’re talking about their favourite comics, Billy Connolly is mentioned every single time. 

HeraldScotland: 'I'm not saying I'm going to get a mural. I might get a menchie...' - Ray Bradshaw'I'm not saying I'm going to get a mural. I might get a menchie...' - Ray Bradshaw (Image: Ray Bradshaw)

“And the weird thing is, it’s not a generational thing, because we live in an age where you can access things really easily. It’s been shown all the way through. I think it is worldwide. He’s like the Scottish Pitbull.”

His sense of humour transcends...

Robertson can also attest to Connolly’s popularity in the Southern Hemisphere. “I mind watching his show about New Zealand, and when I went there I went to all the spots that he’d spoken about because I wanted to see all the things that he’d seen, like the very northernmost tip of this beautiful island where the Maori have this tradition that their souls are carried from the earth and beyond to Hawaiki. 

“I was in this town in New Zealand and we were swimming in a river, and I met these two Maori guys who were showing me the best places on the banks to jump into the water. They heard my accent and said ‘oh you’re Scottish?’ and they’re like ‘oh, we know a Scotlander’. 

HeraldScotland: 'Being a Shetlander, stories are such a huge part of our culture and our tradition' - Marjolein Robertson'Being a Shetlander, stories are such a huge part of our culture and our tradition' - Marjolein Robertson (Image: Trudy Stade)

“This guy was saying that his dad and his friend were always pulling his leg and telling long stories. He worked in some kind of construction, and they  were always winding him up when he was a boy, saying ‘oh I know Billy Connolly, I’m friends with Billy Connolly’, and he just thought his dad and his friend were making up stories. 

“Then one day, years later, this man was an adult and went along to his dad’s for tea. His dad said ‘oh yeah, you can come for tea but we’ve got a friend in’, and he went along and Billy Connolly was in the house. 

“Billy Connolly used to work with his dad, and it was never a lie. We spent an afternoon speaking about Billy Connolly jokes, just floating about in the river. His sense of humour just transcends across the world.”

Asked for a Shetland expression that would describe Connolly, Robertson opts for ‘braaly filsket’. “Braaly is like ‘braw’. He’s very much filsket, full of life, full of energy and a bit cheeky.”


Read more: From the shipyard to the Sarry Heid - Billy Connolly’s Glasgow


“He’s the UK version of a Richard Pryor or George Carlin” claims Jennings. “He’s on that level.

“Football evolves where you can now say Messi and Ronaldo are probably better than Pele and Maradona ever were because the game’s different and it’s a different time. Modern comics now are different, but for the time he was in he was the best, and he was the forebear of modern comedy in the UK. 

“To be that, and for him to be a guy from Glasgow, nothing makes you more proud. Billy Connolly just makes you proud to be Scottish, to be from Glasgow, and to be a comedian.”

“I am not exaggerating when I say I consider him to be one of the greatest entertainers of all time” says Nelson. 

Bradshaw calls him “the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)”, while for Robertson he’s “the Godfather of Scottish comedy”. 

“Very big boots to fill” says Lafferty. “Big banana boots.”

 

Mark Nelson plays the Stand in Glasgow on March 31, 2023. 

Ray Bradshaw tours the UK in February 2023. 

Jay Lafferty plays the Stand in Glasgow on April 1, 2023. 

Marc Jennings plays the King's Theatre in Glasgow on March 24, 2023.

Marjolein Robertson plays the Stand in Glasgow on March 22, 2023.