Billy Kirkwood is living the dream. In a world where every office funny-man has one eye on the local open mic night and dreams of Live at the Apollo, the Ayrshire born comic has established a big name for himself on the Scottish comedy scene. Last year Billy played to sold-out audiences at the Edinburgh Festival with his own brand of ‘Stand up Improv Chat Tattoo Comedy Show’, he is a regular host at The Stand Comedy Club in Glasgow, he tours the UK stand up circuit, he is the host of Insane Championship Wrestling and on Saturday the 4th of February he hosted the Secret Policeman’s Ball at the QMU.
Despite his success Billy isn’t one to accept his place at the top of the comedy game as a given: “I kinda consider this job to be a privilege. I wanna stay hungry and stay passionate about it. I don’t like the idea of anyone ever saying I’ve made it, cause I know for a fact that I haven’t.” Although when pushed he does accept that he might succumb to complacency one day ‘Maybe when Steven Spielberg is knocking down the door.’
Billy’s backstory might not quite be the stuff of a Spielberg blockbuster, but his love for comedy, even from a young age, is one a lot of us can relate to: “I remember when I was wee watching the video of Robin Williams Live at the New York Met and that was I think the video that made me think ‘I wanna do stand up one day’. Growing up I was always a little bit of a show off. I think I was a show off at heart, but I was actually naturally quite shy. I’d always been in love with comedy. It was always something I’d want to get into or at least give a try once.”
In 2005 Billy finally worked up the courage to give his dream a chance. Having got a job writing for a BBC children’s show he found that life had presented him with an opportunity: "I had a space in my diary so I thought I’d give it a go. I went to a night school class, effectively. The whole aspect of it was at the end you did a gig. I didn’t get into it for anything like a career or that in mind - I just wanted a bit of fun. I figured if I had that date in my diary that went ‘On this day you will do your first ever stand-up gig’. It was like ‘ok well I’ve got to do it.’ It’s like having that date of your dissertation - you know that day is there.” That first ever gig, was all he needed. Billy was bitten by that stand-up bug.
Now seven years on Billy is about to host the largest Amnesty International event outside London – the Glasgow University Secret Policeman’s Ball – for the 4th year running. What makes him so passionate about the organisation: “I’ve been a fan of Amnesty’s work long since before I went into comedy myself. I don’t think the work of Amnesty gets enough attention. It gets plenty but it should get a lot more.
“The way they go about around the world and how they engage people; even just the fact that they put on something like the Secret Policeman’s Ball. They really wear their heart on their sleeve. And that it’s students, who are gonna be the next generation of people who’re going out in the world and gonna be passionate about these things.”
Those who have seen Billy on stage will know his mischievous personality. This seems to feed into his love for Amnesty International’s pestering of governments around the world: “I think it’s fantastic. It’s encouraging a little bit of mischief in the world and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Mischief counteracts the chaos that people are throwing into other people’s lives.”
Amnesty’s campaign for freedom of expression during last year’s Edinburgh festival seems to have struck a particular chord with Billy: “One of the best expressions of the right we have to say anything is stand up comedy in this day and age. I might not agree with people’s point myself but you’ve always got to have freedom of expression. Especially in the cases that are dealt with by Amnesty; people speaking out against oppression and being jailed. I mean that’s just ridiculous. Mentioning the problem is all about why we do stand up.”
Billy might be living the dream, but he is keeping his feet on the ground. On February 4th he’ll be turning his stand-up skills to the fight for human rights all over the world along with nine other comedians. Steven Spielberg might not be knocking at his door after the gig but Aung San Suu Kyi might well be.