More Woody Guthrie than Simon Cowell: Neil Innes to perform at the Red Devil Lounge in San Francisco on June 8
Originally published in the Northside San Francisco newspaper in June 2011
For a funny guy, Neil Innes is serious about living life on his own terms. Born in England in 1944, Innes is a songwriter, performer, artist and actor who came of age in the British art school scene of the sixties. As a member of the Bonzo Dog Band he wrote and recorded several albums including the UK hit, “I’m the Urban Spaceman.” He wrote songs and performed with the comedy troupe Monty Python (he’s featured prominently in the classic The Holy Grail) and starred in the Lorne Michaels produced film “The Rutles”. Innes was also the subject of a 2008 biopic, “The Seventh Python.” He spoke to Sharon Anderson about his new tour, music, satire, and his over 45 year career as an entertainer.
Your new tour is called “A People’s Guide to World Domination.”
It’s a play on words, actually. Every time I talk about it, it sounds rather pompous and dull but it’s not. We have immature themes like blowing raspberries and thumbing your nose. We live in a culture that avoids dealing with issues like why are we here on this planet and what are we doing with it, things like that. So this is very much a light hearted look at it and so far it’s going well.
You’re playing 19 dates in a little over a month, that sounds like a grueling schedule.
It is. At my age I ought to know better. It’s good fun, I enjoy doing it. And I enjoy playing small places because I’ve never been a big fan of show business. It’s all about people. Maybe the song, I don’t know, is a bit out of date now as a piece of social glue. I’m definitely more Woody Guthrie that Simon Cowell. I think there’s a lot of fun in singing along and being in a small place.
For me it’s not about making bucks, it’s about making sense.
The first time I saw you perform was at the Magic Bag in Detroit in 2004.
Yeah that’s the first time we came over here.
I remember that the show was great, the audience was really enthusiastic. At one point you said you hadn’t played Detroit since 1968 when you were with the Bonzo Dog Band.
That’s right, yeah.
In talking to people afterward, because again they were friendly and interesting people, I realized some of them had actually seen the show you mentioned in ’68. That was so amazing to me. How do you account for that kind of loyalty and lasting power?
I don’t know. I haven’t really changed. The Bonzos were pretty irreverent observers of the pomposity of showbiz acts. I’m just carrying on from where I left off. Once people get it, they get it. Our culture has a creeping sickness of mindlessness and some folks want something else. I find it frightening that so many people are Godless, talentless and rich.
It goes against the grain of what we’re taught. We’re brought up with the idea that we should excel at things and have qualities.
The twin pillars of our culture are fame and money. At any price. People used to be celebrities because they believed in something or had a unique talent. Now people are famous for being famous. Now we have professional celebrities who will get on television and do anything. It passes me by, and in my experience it passes a lot of other people by. Do you remember the film from the 1970’s, Network?
Oh sure, directed by Sid Lumet. Great film.
Nothing has changed! It’s gotten worse.
The plot seems especially true today, yes.
I was talking to John Cleese recently about this sort of thing. He said something to the effect that when he was young he thought people were mostly sane with pockets of insanity and that with comedy you can actually bring about a good kind of change. But in fact it’s reversed and most people are insane with small pockets of sanity and comedy doesn’t make that much difference. If you think about Monty Python, they can deconstruct your television but it hasn’t much improved it. And so it goes on. In my case, after forty years in the cold face of satire, I’ve achieved a state of graceful futility. But I’m not giving up! (Laughs).
Absolutely not! I do miss that subversive quality to comedy and television that seems to be largely missing these days. Everyone’s become tremendously serious.
Well, yeah and frivolously serious, if that’s possible. I take great encouragement that the South Park people with their musical The Book of Mormon is getting all these Tony nominations! That’s got to mean that there’s more people out there with more savvy than the media would like to admit.
Not everyone is drinking the Kool Aid.
Exactly. And it isn’t one size fits all.
There’s a lot to indicate that the public is tuned in to your point of view when you think about your fan based website, neilinnes.org, The Doo Dah Diaries which maintains a detailed chronology of your career, and your biopic “The Seventh Python”. I attended the premiere in Hollywood in 2008 and there were many enthusiastic people in attendance. It was a great night. People enjoy your take on things and that’s a kind of agreement, too.
Yeah but I’m never going to be playing half time at the Super Bowl! (Laughs). And people are never going to buy big buckets of popcorn to see me, and I kind of like that. I also like the fact that The Rutles film, when it was was shown on network TV, is still the lowest rated prime time network film ever!
(Laughs) I just don’t understand that at all! That is such a funny, funny movie to me and to all my peers. I worked in a music store when The Beatles Anthology CD’s came out, and on the day of the release we played the Rutles movie over and over on the television and stereo system in the store. Some people laughed, and the rest needed an explanation.
I know! I know and there you have it. If people get it, they get it and if they don’t, they don’t.
And it’s always been that way.
Yes, and if I may lean towards pomposity a bit … I think of myself as a white corpuscle in the immune system somehow, trying to do my best. I’m not going to change and I will not compromise.
Well that’s a great kind of consistency in my opinion.
We can only keep going. Keep the shoulders to the wheel.
Good to know that Neil Innes is still out there poking fun at the sacred cow of celebrity culture and making us all laugh while he does it. Don’t miss out on the fun.