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Killing 'em softly, save with songs

Though Bill Bailey's Brit wit is plentiful and disarming, he can be a meandering Mr. Nice Guy. But his music has focus and can convulse.

April 07, 2006|Charlotte Stoudt | Special to The Times

Comedian Bill Bailey doesn't do stand-up, he does wander-round. Pacing back and forth on a stage littered with musical equipment, sporting a hairstyle that would alarm even Phil Collins, he looks, by his own description, like a cross between a "roadie and a Klingon motivational speaker." His material is equally peripatetic, and his engaging if uneven comedy show considers everything from the theology of rental car agreements to the musical talents of dictators.

Relatively unknown in this country -- this presentation by UCLA Live marks his West Coast debut -- Bailey is a familiar face in Britain, bringing his frontal-lobe laughs to everywhere from the Edinburgh Fringe to London's West End (last year he appeared as Oscar Madison in a celebrated revival of "The Odd Couple").

Like fellow Brit comics Eddie Izzard, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (before he hung up his shingle on "House"), Bailey's humor is more linguistic than situational. Instead of the usual American comic trifecta (penis size, weight, the battle of the sexes), Bailey prefers jokes about the Holy Trinity. "God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit walk into a theme bar," he begins. "The theme is Uncertainty. There's no nudity; the strippers just remove layers of metaphysical preconceptions."

Complaining about "blue collar" pain reliever labels ("I don't operate heavy machinery"), he wonders how middle-class aspirin would read ("Do not attempt the novels of Thomas Pynchon, due to highly complex overlapping narrative layers").

His best bits are just that: disarming insights, curiously underdeveloped. Bailey rarely builds on a joke -- especially a successful one -- preferring to toss it away and start off in another direction entirely. It's a rhythm that gives "Part Troll" a mellow, spaced-out feel, like listening to your funniest liberal arts professor get stoned and go on. Maybe Bailey prefers meandering, but he cheats the audience of that rolling comic momentum that can happen only at a live event.

And much of the material feels too soft, given Bailey's evident talents. A rap sampling of recorded Bush-isms isn't nearly sharp enough, and an early interplay with the audience about singular life experiences tanks fast. Like Jon Stewart hosting the Oscars, Bailey seems a little too interested in keeping things cozy. He may want to keep it friendly, but we've shown up to have our sides split.

Ultimately Bailey comes into sharpest focus setting his sly wit to music, and he makes impressively unhinged use of everything from a wah-wah pedal to a theremin: Imagine Portishead's spooky version of "Zip-A-Dee Doo-Dah," or the hokey-pokey in the style of the cult techno band Kraftwerk. (What would comics do without Germans?) And regardless of the musical genre that recalls your first romance, I defy you not to weep with laughter at his parody of the overly heartfelt rock ballad full of icky true-love images: a duck flying over a beautiful lake becomes, post-breakup, "the shredded duck drowning in the hoisin of your lies." Somewhere, Groucho Marx is smiling.

"Part Troll" plays as part of UCLA Live's second annual British/Irish Comedy Invasion series, but Bailey feels like he's on too much of a peacekeeping mission. Trust me, Bill, you can let it rip -- we really will see you as a liberator.


Where: Macgowan Little Theater, UCLA, Westwood

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-

Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: April 23

Price: $20 Wed., Thu., Sun.; $25 Fri., Sat.

Contact: (310) 825-2101

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes

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