Barry Hilton’s career took off after Billy Connolly told him to stop telling jokes

Barry Hilton has been a mainstay of the South African comedy scene for more than three decades.

South African funnyman Barry Hilton, who says that an encounter with Billy Connolly changed his career. Courtesy Atterbury Elite Photography
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South African expats will be familiar with comedian Barry Hilton – or “The Cousin”, as he is known to his countrymen.

The 61-year-old comic has been a mainstay of the South African comedy scene for more than three decades, with television appearances and movie roles complementing his regular live performances.

Hilton’s fame isn’t restricted to South Africa, though. He has performed extensively around the globe, including a sell-out solo show at Sydney’s iconic Opera House in ­Australia last year, and a 2013 show in ­Dubai.

Indeed, it was while performing outside of his homeland that Hilton experienced what he identifies as the most important moment of his career – opening for Scottish comedy legend Billy Connolly in Jersey in 1989.

“He probably won’t even remember but the second night I was working with him, he came into my dressing room and said: ‘You’re a funny guy, but you need to stop telling jokes. You just need to talk about life’”, says Hilton. “That’s exactly what I did. He’s probably been the biggest influence on my career and I think it’s wonderful that a man of his stature took the time to come and give me advice. Plus if Billy Connolly thinks I’m funny, then it really doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks.”

Connolly’s words of wisdom led to Hilton adopting the conversational style he is known for.

“I’m not one of those who can say: ‘It’s Tuesday, 3pm, time to write some jokes.’ I just see things and write about them,” he says, adding that were it not for family from Lancashire, in England, and some childhood years spent in North Wales, he might never have been able to perform in Britain at all.

“I had to fake an accent and pretend to be a Scouser, because it was impossible to get work as a white South African in 1989, 1990 – it wasn’t a good thing to be a white South African in London at that time,” he says.

Hilton’s well-honed Liverpool twang has served him in his home country, too.

“When I was first coming through as a comedian, there really wasn’t much of a scene in South Africa at all,” he says. “We basically had a TV show, Biltong and Pot Roast, that was very similar to The Comedians in the UK [which featured] Jimmy Cricket and Bernard Manning and all them. If you weren’t on that, the only way you could get a gig was if you were an international touring comedian.”

And so Hilton’s fake Liverpool accent played its first major role in his career.

“I walked into a promoter’s office, put on a Scouse accent and said I’d just got off the plane from Liverpool, and he gave me a gig there and then,” he says.

“I had to do a Scouse accent constantly, on and off stage, for three months to keep it up. He eventually took me on a two-year contract, and I gently broke the news to him – but you do what you have to do to get ahead.”

The comedy scene in South ­Africa has improved significantly since the days of having to fake an English accent to land a gig, not least through the global success of The Daily Show host Trevor Noah. The elder statesman of South African comedy is full of praise for the young usurper.

“Trevor Noah is like Neymar – he just came from nowhere and is on a totally different level,” says Hilton. “You only get that every 100 years or something, and good luck to him. It’s fantastic what he’s done. He’s raised an awareness that South African comics are funny.”

Hilton might be magnanimous in his praise of his countryman, but after 35 years, five DVDs, two movies and millions of air miles, his own career is not too shabby, either.

“I’ve been going around the world making people laugh for 35 years, so I must be doing something right,” he says. “l love my job. I’m just back from Canada, I’ve done Hong Kong, Singapore. What’s great, too, is that while in the past it was nearly all South African expats at my gigs, they’re starting to bring their mates now and word’s getting out.

“I did a gig in Australia a while back and I’d say it was about 60 per cent South African and 40 per cent Australian. I got Safas coming up to me after the gig saying: ‘Why did you talk about all that Australian stuff?’ And I said, ‘Because we’re in Australia, mate’.

“As a comedian you want to talk to as many people as you can, that’s what I love about it.”

• Barry Hilton is at the Park Rotana, Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday at 8.30pm and at the JBR Mövenpick, Dubai, on Thursday at 9pm. www.thelaughterfactory.com

cnewbould@thenational.ae