When I learned I was going to speak with Bill Burr for BYT, I immediately went into prep mode. I scoured previous interviews, watched previous stand up specials, and even rewatched Chappelle Show episodes with Burr. None of this was exactly taxing, but I realized that much of it was pointless. Bill Burr’s career has been built on speaking candidly, honestly, and with no regard for correctness or structure. To really value Burr’s comedic finesse you have to essentially hand him the keys and trust he’ll make you laugh your way into seeing everyday life through a different colored tint. So I threw away my questions, and figured I’d just shoot the shit.
“I’m going to go in there and you’re going to forget about your life for an hour and a half and then that’s it. I don’t have anything to say, I don’t read, I don’t really watch the fucking news because it gives me anxiety about a bunch of shit that I have no control over,” Burr says. “I know there are a bunch of people out there way smarter than I am, and I’m hoping that they’re going to figure out this mess.”
Listening to Burr speak about feminism, Lebron James going to the LA Lakers, ISIS and Matt Damon you realize that, despite finding success in other endeavors (Burr is the co-founder of All Things Comedy media company), the influences of George Carlin, Sam Kinison, Patrice O’Neal and Richard Pryor course through his comedic blood. All those legends became legends because, like Burr, they spoke their truth and their reality through unbridled refinement so often copied by every new comedian with a Netflix special.
“I would say that …we’re also in one of the most prolific times in the history of stand up, where all of the sudden everybody is doing what [George] Carlin did as far as writing hours and then throwing them away. And, obviously none of us are as good as him, but we’re all getting better because we’re doing it,” Burr says emphatically. “As much as there are all these specials out there, I feel like if you deliver you can still stand out but it’s definitely a crowded elevator.”
During our 25-minute conversation, I never felt like Burr was trying to be funny or trying to promote his show. Instead, it felt like I was talking to an unrestrained uncle who didn’t care if you didn’t agree with his views about women in power or the movie business. In fact, the only thing he seemed to care about was connecting on a personal level, something rarely achieves in these type of situations. At one point, Burr stated that “one of the jokes I do in my act is like ‘You know what I miss, what I really miss, of all the great things in the past that come and go, you know what I really miss? Don’t you miss evidence.’” Based off my time with Burr, it is indisputable this man is one of comedy’s greatest artists.
Bill Burr will be performing two shows at MGM National Harbor on August 24th. Tickets can be purchased through Ticketmaster. Bill Burr’s “Walk Your Way Out” comedy special is currently available on Netflix.
BrightestYoungThings: So I really have to start with thanking you; when I told my friends I was speaking with you they kind of lost their shit.
Bill Burr: Well we’ll see how this goes because you might go back to your friends afterwards and go “ah man, that guy was boring as shit. What a let down!”
BYT: I’ll tell you what a let down is; I tried watching The Departed yesterday for the first time and it was a pretty disappointing movie. I’ve never been to Boston, but that really can’t be it.
Burr: Well, you can’t face any city on any movie.
BYT: Especially with Matt Damon in it.
Burr: I love Matt Damon! Yeah, because Matt [Damon] won the Oscar and he could have made the easy choices, and he didn’t, you know. I always feel like that guy, that even if the movie misses the mark, you know the guy’s heart is in the right place. It wasn’t like, “Hey man, I’m going to go grab this bag of money.”
You know, once you start acting in these things, you realize how little control you have as it all comes together, just thinking, “I hope all of this comes together.” Making a great movie is real magic because for that whole thing to come together; all of those people involved, all of the fucking opinions, and all of the money that’s on the line. And everybody getting scared and trying to figure out how to hedge their bets; and just so many times people just will literally castrate a movie out of fear of losing their money.
But Matt is consistent, he always does good movies.
BYT: Even Elysium?
Burr: Which one is that?
BYT: It’s the one where Earth is two separate societies, and one them is a rich society on a separate planet or something. And I think the poor society lives on Earth.
Burr: That’s a fascinating idea! So imagine after reading the script, he goes, “That’s fucking amazing,” but that’s not how it ends up coming out. He doesn’t go into the editing room [haha], you know what I mean? He’s not the head of the studio. So that’s the thing about being the actors, you’re going to get all the glory like you wrote the fucking thing and edited it. And if it shits the bed, you’re going to get all the blame…it’s like being a quarterback, you’re just going to get all the crap.
But I didn’t get on here to defend Matt Damon and I’m old enough to know that I’m not going to change your opinion [laughs].
BYT: Fair [haha]. You’re coming to D.C. on August 24, and you’ve got two shows on the same night. Explain that to me. As a stand-up comedian, what’s the difference between the first show and the later show?
Burr: Well, there’s not the stress of, “I gotta end this show at a certain time,” so that I don’t make people stand outside waiting too long. And then I always say I’m going to get off the stage by a certain time and then I never do because once I get out there I’m having so much fun.
Sometimes, the first crowd… It’s weird… Like generally speaking the first crowd are “planners,” they want 8 hours of sleep, they kind of have their shit together more so. They might be skewed a little older. And then the late show is a lot of people still trying to figure it out. In general [laughs], that’s what I get. If you’re going to get drunks and people who’ve had a few too many, that’s usually the late show. And if you’re going to get some people possibly looking around to make sure it’s okay to laugh then, generally speaking, that would be on the first show.
But one of my favorite things is when it’s flipped. It’s like what they have in aviation… It’s called an “inversion,” where you’ll somehow get weather that’s like a fucking microburst, and when that happens it really throws you for a loop; you kind of go, “Jesus Christ if that’s the first show, what is the next show going to be?”
BYT: How do you develop material for two shows with different audiences?
Burr: Well, I mean, I always switch them up. Wherever I go I have my basic act, but then I also have all of my “options” and stuff like that. You also think about what the crowd will do; what is their vibe, is someone going to yell something out, and all that affects where the set goes.
I mean, I wouldn’t recommend going to both shows unless you’re a stand up comic. That would be a cool thing to see actually; to watch someone you respect and ask yourself, “How did they do their two shows? What did they change or didn’t change?” I remember one time seeing this headline act way back in the day; I’m talking like 2-3 years into my career. This comedian, he came out on stage and started doing his bit. And he’s having a good time, and at one point he starts laughing, like something just struck him as funny. He was laughing so hard that he had a difficult time getting through the bit, and the crowd was losing it. And the entire time I’m thinking how cool that was; at that point I still didn’t feel that free on stage, and to see a guy have that level of freedom was amazing.
Then the second show came along, and he goes to do that joke, and he starts laughing again. And I realized that that was part of the bit, part of the business of pretending like he can’t get through it. I imagine what happened was that on one night it actually happened to him, and then became part of the bit. And I remember looking at that and knowing that I didn’t want to do that. You know, I’d just be embarrassed to do that in front of the waitstaff; they already have to see you do the same jokes but to actually see you pretend… Just to see that was a gimmick was a little disappointing [laughs].
Honestly, my friends when I was coming up wouldn’t have allowed me to do it. Certainly, not the late great Patrice O’Neal. He would just be like, “Did you just go up on stage and PRETEND to laugh? I ever see you do that again…” He would make you feel… Justifiably… Like a fucking fraud [laughs].
BYT: But I assume you find your jokes to be funny… You just hold it in?
Burr: No, the times I laugh is when I’m riffing, and what I just said was new to me or I just look into the crowd and see someone who has such a negative reaction to it. That might make me laugh… And then of course make me go even further.
BYT: When I think of you, I think of you as part of the [George] Carlin school of comedy, where he would throw away every bit after every tour and make something new. I’m assuming that’s the way you go about it?
Burr: That’s kind of the way everybody is doing it now. Everyone is putting out [comedy] specials every couple of years it seems.
BYT: How do you feel about that? You have five stand up specials on Netflix, and I’m assuming this will probably be the sixth. It seems like that’s the standard now for comedians; you have to be on Netflix.
Burr: Nah, there are always options. But I think it’s just like anything, it’s depends on how you choose to view it. There’s very easily a negative way to look at it, and think, “Oh my god, there’s so many stand up specials out there competing with each other.” And it’s a lot of white noise, no pun intended. But I would say that the other side is that we’re also in one of the most prolific times in the history of stand up, where all the sudden everybody is doing what [George] Carlin did as far as writing hours and then throwing them away. And, obviously none of us are as good as him, but we’re all getting better because we’re doing it. But then again, not everybody is; if you throw away your bit, and then write more of the same shit, more of the same, which is one of the worst reviews you can get. When someone says you’re doing the same hours, that makes you feel like you’ve plateaued and reached cruising altitude, and nearing the initial descent into “who gives a fuck about this guy anymore.”
It’s really all about how you navigate it; I heard [Jerry] Seinfeld say, one time, that people like to watching something that they feel somebody took a lot of time working on. As much as there are all these specials out there, I feel like if you deliver you can still stand out… But it’s definitely a crowded elevator.
BYT: It feels like comedy has more relevance because people just need somebody to explain to them what’s going on right now; Patton Oswalt is on tour right now, as is David Cross. Even [Dave] Chappelle’s recent stand up had a lot of social commentary in it.
Burr: I would never to do… I can’t do what those guys do. I’m not saying they can’t do what I do, but I know where I’m supposed to be, so I’m splashing around in my own little kiddie pool doing what it is I do.
BYT: I mean you’re not splashing around in your just a little kiddie pool anymore; you’ve got All Things Comedy and your show F is for Family is on its third season.
Burr: It’s more of an above ground pool, I’m not gonna lie to you [laughs].
BYT: How have those things influenced you?
Burr: I love doing All Things Comedy because we’ve created a platform where we can help out so many comedians and we’re getting to that point now where it feels like we’ve reached the top of the hill and now we’re cruising down; we’ve sold a few things and we got our own shows. It’s been a great thing, and to actually get to sit in a writers room… I had never been in a writers room before, and I never knew how it worked. But now like 26 episodes later, I’m starting to finally feel like… You know that guy who barely makes the team? He’s gotta be on the team like 4-5 years before he kind of feels like he doesn’t have to worry about the coach cutting him too much, but he can’t relax either.
BYT: Yeah but in your stand up career you aren’t being cut anytime soon.
Burr: Yeah, but in this new world that we live in now, anyone can accuse you of anything. One of the jokes I do in my act is like, “You know what I miss, what I really miss, of all the great things in the past that come and go, you know what I really miss? Don’t you miss evidence?” Like don’t you really miss due process, when someone accused you of something and you got a trial. I am definitely of the school of “guilty until proven innocent”…or you know, fucking 38 accusations of the same thing. Sometimes you don’t really need a trial; it’s just like, you know when you know.
You know like the hilarious thing about it is there is this whole belief that when women get into power, that the drug of power is going to be handled better than it is with men, which I wholeheartedly disagree with. I feel like there’s a certain personality that when they get power they’re going to be unbelievably abusive of it; and it’s not unique to sex or race, it’s a human flaw. I’ve always thought the people that should get power usually don’t want it or not seeking it. Like the kids that ran for class president, there was definitely a psycho element even at that age to want to be class president.
BYT: You never ran for class president?
Burr: No, I wasn’t in junior high thinking what a college wants to see on my resume. [Laughs] I was just thinking about the [Boston] Bruins game I was going to watch that night and hopefully there was going to be a bench clearing brawl.
BYT: I read an interview with Vulture from earlier this year, and you were asked about jokes about feminism and if there was a fine line. Do you think there’s a fine line in your jokes?
Burr: There is none, and if you get in front of a crowd of feminists it is literally your job to make them laugh at themselves. To go up there and become a fucking cheerleader, not only are you not helping those people, you’re hurting them. You don’t grow as a person when you just sit there and listen to somebody who just agrees with everything that you say or isn’t trying to even, in a joking way, tear it down a little bit.
I think people are just walking around with more fear. It’s like the fear of ISIS; the joke I do in my act is like, “This country defeated the Germans and the Japanese at the same time. Am I really supposed to be afraid? Am I really supposed to worried that 3,500 jerk offs at a jungle gym are going to overthrow a first world nation?” I’m not saying they aren’t bad people, or that they don’t need to be dealt with, but we’re talking about them like Hitler came back and reassembled his army; they don’t even have a fucking boat or a plane and they’re on the other side of the world.
BYT: What should people expect from this tour? Especially for people that have been following your career for a while.
Burr: I’m just going to try to make them laugh. I’m going to go in there and you’re going to forget about your life for an hour and a half, hopefully, and then that’s it. I don’t have anything to say; I don’t read, I don’t really watch the fucking news because it gives me anxiety about a bunch of shit that I have no control over. I know there are a bunch of people out there way smarter than I am, and I’m hoping that they’re going to figure out this mess.
BYT: Last question: [Boston] Celtics in the NBA Finals or no?
Burr: Oh, you know it looks pretty good but there’s always some sort of fly in the ointment. I love that guy from the [Philadelphia] Sixers, Joel Embiid. That guy is old school, he just wants to beat everyone, like Jordan did back in the old days. I will say this though, now that Lebron [James] is out in LA and they’re building up that team again, I immediately became a Kevin Durant fan, despite bitching about him going to the Golden State Warriors, and wish them all the success in the world. I don’t want the Lakers to ever win again.