Bill Bailey on new Aussie-versus-Kiwi panel show ‘Patriot Brains’: “Comedy is in a good place”

The English comedian talks to NME about hosting SBS Viceland’s new trans-Tasman trivia and comedy showdown

“When you’ve flung yourself out of a plane at 50,000 feet, it gives you a degree of confidence,” Bill Bailey begins.

The English comedian’s talking to NME about skydiving, one of a few new things he’s taken a crack at in recent years alongside Strictly Come Dancing – which he won during London’s Christmas lockdown – and writing his own ‘Little Book of Calm’, Bill Bailey’s Remarkable Guide to Happiness.

“There’s no doubt that when you get a bit older you realise that you have a finite amount of time and that you want to use that time as wisely and productively as you can,” the 56-year-old says.

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“Genuinely, throughout my life, I’ve always wanted to try things and experience life and do as many things as I can while I get the chance.”

Bailey may be most recognised from his role as bumbling optimist Manny in Dylan Moran’s Black Books and his years as a quick-witted guest on panel shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Have I Got News For You. The next new thing he’d like to try is a demanding acting role, potentially in a musical. “I want to try to channel that [confidence from skydiving] into some other artistic endeavours.”

His latest project is something he’s also not done before: hosting a comedy panel show.

Patriot Brains, which launches on SBS Viceland on April 13, pits Aussie and Kiwi comedians – led by team leaders Mel Butte and Melanie Bracewell – against each other to figure out who knows the most about their country of origin. Established and upcoming comics like Josh Thomson, Aaron Chen and Rhys Nicholson take warm-hearted digs at themselves and each other as they attempt to answer obscure trivia questions, before Bailey sums up the episode with a keyboard jingle.

“I was really impressed with all of them,” Bailey says of the comedians who appeared on Patriot Brains, which he filmed in New Zealand ahead of a March-April stand-up tour. “Everyone had some unique style, their own different take and voice, and that’s what’s so encouraging about this show. It shows that comedy is in a good place.”

Bill Bailey talks to NME about the pandemic appetite for television, what panel shows offer stand-up comedians and what ‘patriotism’ means to him in 2021.

Comedians like Wil Anderson have spoken about the way the pandemic made them re-evaluate their relationship with comedy. Did you find it easy to write new material during the pandemic?

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“I did write quite a lot during the lockdown. I wrote a book about happiness. A lot of that was quite helpful in writing stand-up. We all took a moment to re-evaluate our lives. We had no choice. We were in an enforced state of inertia; life kind of stopped. It was a moment to try to reflect on really what’s important, happiness being right up there.

“As a comic, it was really hard. In normal times, I don’t go more than a week, two weeks, without doing a gig. You gradually accumulate material by testing it in front of an audience. That opportunity was taken away [during the pandemic]. If anything, you had to trust in your own instincts.”

“The notions of Britishness at the moment are being tested. Are you waving a flag? Have you got a Union Jack behind you on your Zoom call?”

Do you think that quiz shows like Patriot Brains are a kind of comfort during the pandemic?

“TV has certainly played a part in people’s lives moreso than normal. With Strictly Come Dancing, it became a bit of escapism at the end of the week in what was a very grim time. People really appreciate that and they really get a lot from it. In many ways, it lifted the spirits of people in a time when it was really, desperately grim.

“Panel shows where people are having a conversation can be quite comforting. The best times in panel shows are when you feel you’re part of the conversation. That’s what we aim to do with this show. That’s what I tried to bring to the table: to try to make it feel more natural and as if you were just earwigging in on a dinner party conversation or a bunch of comics hanging out.”

Bill Bailey interview Patriot Brains comedy panel show Australia New Zealand
Bill Bailey performing at Latitude Festival 2016. Credit: Matthew Baker/Getty Images

Is the show an opportunity to introduce upcoming comics to new audiences?

“It’s quite a good platform for that. That’s how I saw it when I was appearing on shows like Never Mind The Buzzcocks and Have I Got News For You and news shows and topical shows and panel shows. It’s a way for an audience to see you as a comic, but not necessarily you having to do your whole act. You’re there being a comic, just being funny and being part of the conversation. Your experience as a comic, your skills, your art is honed in the live forum, but, in terms of exposure, panel shows for comics can be a huge advantage.

“One of the things I’ve noticed about doing comedy shows or panel shows is that you learn how to do them as well. It’s a way of allowing others to join in, knowing when to join in and when to pull back, knowing when to be part of a little comic ensemble.

“Working with others and that collaborative process is quite a good skill to develop because stand-up is a solitary occupation. You spend a lot of time on your own, you write the material on your own, you perform on your own. And even if you’re out with a bunch of people you end up on tour in a hotel room on your own. The opportunity to be with others and to be generous with others and allow others to join in and be part of a conversation is a very good counterpoint to the solitary nature of stand-up.”

‘Patriot’ feels like such a loaded word for the title of a show. What do you think it means to be a ‘patriot’ in 2021?

“For me, it’s something which is akin to a kind of a family, rather than jingoistic nativism, which has unfortunately been associated with patriotism. I see it more as accepting the foibles of your country, but still being part of it and supporting it, in the way that you would with a family. Sometimes a family, they fall out, there’s squabbles and there’s tensions, but you feel a bond with it.

“The notions of Britishness at the moment are being tested. Are you waving a flag? Have you got a Union Jack behind you on your Zoom call? [laughs] That’s a bit superficial. The traits of Britishness that I really like are not necessarily representative just in a flag. They are deeper than that. They’re things like tolerance and acceptance and resilience and compassion.

“Maybe this show is a way to try to reclaim the word in a gentler personal form.”

Patriot Brains airs on SBS Viceland from April 13 at 8.30pm

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