Billy Connolly’s “sick joke” in 2004 sparked disgust from the public and nearly got him cancelled

Richard Bevan
Richard Bevan
4 Min Read

In 2004, Billy Connolly found himself in the eye of a storm thanks to a controversial joke that nearly derailed his career. The incident happened during a stand-up show at the Carling Apollo in Hammersmith. During the show, Connolly’s candid remarks about British hostage Ken Bigley sparked public outrage.

As the curtains rose that night, Connolly, known for his no-holds-barred comedy, took aim at the ongoing crisis. “Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying this… Aren’t you the same as me? Don’t you wish they would just get on with it?” he remarked about the captors threatening to behead Bigley. The audience responded with a mix of shock and disapproval, with one attendee saying, “You’re talking about a man’s life, Billy.”

Undeterred, Connolly further fueled the controversy by poking fun at Bigley’s Thai wife, Sombat. He questioned, “What is it with him and that young Asian wife?“. The atmosphere soon turned, marked by boos and heckles from the crowd.

Bill Connolly’s joke backfires in a big way

The aftermath of this comedic misstep sent shockwaves through the media. Reports and opinions flooded in, with some accusing Connolly of insensitivity while others defended his right to free expression. Despite the public outcry, Connolly strongly refuted the accusations. “Oh, desperately misquoted. I didn’t say any of those things that they said,” he insisted, highlighting the dangers of taking lines out of context.

Ken Bigley was kidnapped and beheaded in Iraq in 2004, causing huge anger amongst the British public.

The target of Connolly’s controversial remarks, Ken Bigley, a British engineer, had been held hostage in Baghdad for nearly three weeks by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s extremist group. Connolly’s attempt to inject humour into such a grim situation backfired spectacularly, prompting widespread condemnation.

The essence of Connolly’s defence lay in his belief that the media had twisted his words and misinterpreted the context. “None of them had seen me, the people who were writing about me,” he argued, emphasising the importance of experiencing comedy in its live setting.

However, some critics, like Steve Bennett of the comedy news website Chortle, claimed that Connolly had made similar comments in a prior show. Bennett challenged the notion that he was entirely misquoted. The controversy went beyond the joke itself, with the media using it as a platform to air deep-seated resentments towards Connolly.

The Big Yin was and will never be one to back down from controversy

As a seasoned comedian, Connolly acknowledged his tendency to tread the fine line between truth and sensationalism. He reflected, “I’ve never had a problem with the public. It was always the papers. The public always loved it, roared and howled and laughed, but the newspapers do this high-horse bullshit as if they’re our moral guardians.”

Fast forward to 2024, and Billy Connolly remains an iconic figure in the entertainment industry. In hindsight, the Ken Bigley joke is reflective of Connolly’s brave approach to comedy. While the incident left scars on his public image, it also showcased his resilience in adversity. Connolly aptly says, “A little ego goes a long way in this game.”

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