Billy Connolly: The best way to deal with a fear of death is to 'laugh in its face'

Sir Billy Connolly has told how he has coped with a fear of illness and death by “laughing in its face” and described comedy as a release from “terror” that is becoming increasingly important as he copes with terminal illness.

The final instalment of Billy and Us will be shown on the BBC Scotland channel this Thursday. Picture: Jaimie Gramston
The final instalment of Billy and Us will be shown on the BBC Scotland channel this Thursday. Picture: Jaimie Gramston

Speaking in a new BBC Scotland documentary series, the Glasgow comic, who has Parkinson’s disease, said he had found joy in “making fun of darkness” and described how comedy can “make a situation that was awful better”.

The 77-year-old compares the prospect of death to a fear of “the big bully at school” in the documentary, which will be shown on Thursday.

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He said he had decided to attack his own health problems “head-on” when he returned to performing live after being diagnosed with both Parkinson’s and prostate cancer on the same day in 2013.

In the final episode of the “Billy and Us” series, Connolly also admits he has found performing live as a “heart-stopping and terrifying” form of “self-torture” and revealed he had to call on his family to help him cope with pre-show nerves.

Connolly said: “The best way of dealing with the dark side of life is to laugh right in its face. Everybody knows death is coming. They try all sorts of tricks, religion etc, to deal with it. But comedy can release you from your terror. You can treat it lightly.

“It is like the big bully at school. You can say: ‘I can beat him any day, tralala’ as long as he is not there. Comedy allows you to do that.

“It’s such a tender thing, comedy. It lives on a shaky branch. When it’s picked up the wrong way it can fall terribly the wrong way, but when picked up the right way it can really enlighten people and make a situation that was awful better.

“I used to talk about father’s stroke and all that. It’s just a way of dealing with it yourself. Now that I’m getting older and sicker it’s important that comedy kicks in.”

In the new interview, Connolly argues in favour of “saying the unsayable and of breaking taboos to make people laugh in the face of adversity.”

The comic, who performed a Crematorium Song in some of his early stage shows, also describes modern-day comedy as “a bit up itself”. He only officially announced his retirement from performing live last year, but is still making regular TV programmes.

He adds: “Making fun of darkness is a joy to do. It’ll always be in a state of change, humour, while it remains alive. It will be in a constant state of change. Different moral realms and mores will come and go. Just now I think it’s a bit up itself.”

Asked if he felt there were still taboos for comedians, Connolly said: “I’m sure there’s bound to be. I never found any more. As time goes on and the world changes taboos will change. The general rules and morals of life will dig up taboos.”

In the documentary, Connolly recalled his long-time struggles with stage fright and credits the late singer-songwriter Gerry Rafferty, his bandmate in The Humblebums, the folk group he made his name with in the 1960s, as one of his biggest influences in his career.

“I would forget everything. It was terrifying. I wouldn’t be able to think of a single funny thing until the walk to the stage, then it would all come pouring back. It’s heart-stopping.”

"I would forget everything. It was terrifying. I wouldn't be able to think of a single funny thing until the walk to the stage, then it would all come pouring back. It's heart-stopping. My family got fed up with me phoning up and saying: 'How do I start?'

"Comedy is self-torture. You're getting up on the stage and saying: 'I'm the funniest man in this room. Lots of people sitting in the dark are going to try to prove that you're not. It's terrifying. I don't know why people do it. It's like the wall of death."

Connolly said that Rafferty, who passed away nine years ago, had "implanted in me that belief in yourself, belief that you are good, you are the best and to aim for it because you deserve it."

He added: There's nothing wrong with that. He had a die-hard ambition to make it. He had already written beautiful songs. He knew he was good and he was going to make it, come hell or high water. He chose me to go along with.

"A guy said to him: 'You know, you should get yourself a job, for your security.

"Gerry said: 'I'm going after the ultimate security. I'm going to be rich.' I thought: 'Jesus, I've never heard anyone say that before.'

"He just kept coming up with these things, like: 'remember where you were when you met me.'

"He put the fear of God into me that I wouldn't make it."

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