OPINION: Billy Connolly has seen more of New Zealand than most New Zealanders.
He has probably seen more of it than I have, to my shame and envy.
Not only has he made stand-up in townhouses and auditoriums from Stewart Island to the North, he has made a few films (The last samurai and The Hobbit) and took a three-wheeled thunder from one end of the country to another for the documentary World Tour of New Zealand.
He married himself to one of us – Takapuna-born psychologist, comedian and writer Pamela Stephenson – which technically makes him a kiwi.
It therefore seems that the news he thinks he is "close to the end" of his extraordinary life has hit kiwis so hard. We have made the 76-year-old Glaswegian cartoon one of our own.
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I remember being both surprised and intensely proud when I first heard the then 63-year-old comedy legend, made a TV show about little old New Zea, and forget that we too had been good and really advertised to the world as a destination holiday spot at our Hobbity heralds then.
When the 14-part doco was sent in 2004, I still lived in the UK and saw my home through Connolly's eyes – raucous, nice and unexpectedly exciting – made me almost like hometown as Frodo's quest for Mordor had.
At home, kiwis – with both a former colony's love of mocking the company as much as those combined with a youngest child's desperate need for attention – loved that some of his stature took us so modestly about us.
"Billy Connolly sets foot in the little New Zealand town" could easily have been a headline of the day. "Billy Connolly speaks to New Zealanders as an ordinary person" another.
(Although we were not always in love with his language in live shows, wrote a letter to the editor complaining about his use of a certain robust Anglo-Saxon word in abundance. "It is a shame he poses to such a language on stage", wrote a fan in 2005. "His interesting and intelligent comments in his travel reviews – with hardly a word of word – show that he has taste. On stage, he probably plays the overly abundant fringe element that seems to love such things." …… charged, buddy.)
Writing in Timaru Herald In 2005, reporter Gordon Brown Connolly described his stay here to record The last samurai as a kind of benediction.
Connolly would "pop in to local bars playing his banjo, watch a rugby fight, and be relaxed and happy to interfere" despite a queue of local "plonkers" who would tell him jokes.
"He wasn't even taking the proverb," Brown wrote. "I remember in his show that he did not hesitate to take a pee off an event sponsored by Taranaki Daily News, a half marathon.
"Don't be bloody stupid," he said. "Either have a marathon or don't have one. What's next? It was all delivered with lots of laughter and was no more than good-natured ribbing. "
A good sledge is a sure fire way to a kiwi's heart.
The prospect of Connolly changing the way the world looked at us was also a popular topic.
After the movie world Tours iconic final scene, a bummed bungy jump, says Connolly Southland Times reporter Sue Fea, "New Zealand must be" extremely proud "of bungy jumping".
"This country used to produce pictures of sheep and green grass, the queen gets a nice welcome when she is here and good blocks drink beer," fea wrote.
"Maybe Billy's naked bungy jumping on TV all over the world will change all that?" No, I think Lord of the Rings has done a better job than that, "Connolly said."
(He would eventually take a trip on the second kiwi-cultural touchstone, also appearing as a coarse-dwarf dwarf, Iron II Ironfoot, in Sir Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy)
Connolly was deeply taken with naked bungy and called the "sublime" experience.
"Bounce at the bottom was incredible," he told Fea.
Big Yin's charming offensive continued south on Stewart Island, where a local said, "It was a special treat to see him eat oysters" as a normal human, Shirley Whyte reported.
Corner off Dominion Post reporter Sue Allen in Wellington, Connolly said to go to the air under his world Tour luck had changed its perspective in the country.
"I never knew New Zealand looked like this," he said. "There are just no people."
The same joke had not gone so well in the south.
In 2003, an unnamed author in Southland Times was left deeply unimpressed by Connolly's description of Gore to an Invercargill stand-up audience: "There is no one there."
"He then stuck his arms out as if pushing a barrow through the streets of a medieval pestby by chanting" Bring out your dead, "the author sniffed.
"If Connolly had the plan allowed him to pamper his curious nature, he might have found out that Gore was a little more alive than he thought."
I can almost see Connolly prancing over the Southland scene shouting "Pamper my curious nature should I? Lah-di-f ……- dah!" In response.
Perhaps that is what we like most about Connolly most, his two fingers everywhere, "No gods, no masters, and absolutely no wankers" world view that always comes with a spoonful of sugar.
It's not a bad way to live.
Years before World Tour of New Zealand, I saw an interview with him explaining that he had never worked on his birthday, not even when he was a small apprentice boiler in a Linthouse yard. He always took the day off, because if he didn't take care of himself, "close bugger would otherwise".
"What a bloody good idea," I thought, and I haven't worked a single birthday since.
FIVE BILLY CONNOLLY'S BEST AND LINERS:
According to The Scotsman, The Big Yin – as Connolly is known there – has 75 good one liners, it's just my five favorites:
"Never trust a man who, when standing alone in a room with a tea cozy, does not try."
"I've always wanted to go to Switzerland to see what the army is doing with the bad red knives."
"The big thing about Glasgow is that if there is a nuclear attack, it will look the same afterwards."
"Has your mother never told you not to drink on an empty head?"
"A speed is just your … applauding."