DONE IT ALL • BILL BURR’S COMEDY TAKES MANY FORMS AND WILL ALWAYS PUSH YOUR LIMITS
**This piece first appeared in print on pages 18 – 19 of Submerge Magazine issue #272 (Aug. 15 – 29, 2018)**
Bill Burr will tell you, he is a comic first and foremost, though you might know him in any number of ways. Throughout more than a quarter-century in comedy, he’s been the white guy on Chappelle’s Show sketches, a frequent Opie and Anthony guest, the creator and voice of Frank Murphy on the Netflix original F is For Family, and one of Saul Goodman’s henchmen on Breaking Bad. You may have seen him on the couch out-gingering Conan ranting on the controversial topic of the year, using the classic Burr setup: posturing from an ignorant viewpoint, then going off on a tangent until it dawns on you that he’s actually considered all sides, and taken the funniest angle.
This is a hallmark of Burr’s stand-up as well. He’s recorded six stand-up specials, four of which can be seen on Netflix—2012’s You People Are All the Same was among the initial crop of comedy Netflix had to offer. Burr has gradually ventured further into social commentary while maintaining his status as one of the most respected comics working today. He’ll admit, he doesn’t actually write jokes. His comedy consists of a unique balancing act he achieves by taking crowds to the edge of their comfort zone on an issue, and his “I’m an idiot, what do I know?” attitude keeps them from completely jumping ship. The “oh wait, he’s not an idiot” moment finally comes after you catch your breath from being battered by punchlines and brilliant act-outs.
I discovered Bill Burr in 2006, when in a now-famous rant directed at a hostile Philadelphia crowd, Burr relentlessly attacked every aspect of the city, punctuating his insults by shouting out exactly how many minutes he had left in his set. By the end of his 12 minutes he’d earned their respect in the most Philly way possible—by roasting the shit out of them. YouTube was barely a year old, and the video quickly went viral. Having grown up in the Philly area, I became a fan the minute I saw it.
Ever since, Bill Burr has been a part of my life every week as the host of The Monday Morning Podcast, which has consisted of Burr alone rambling into a mic about literally anything since 2007. Having had a one-sided conversation with someone for more than a decade, it was an odd feeling when my podcast called me on a Tuesday morning. I was mostly just hoping I’d remember to talk. Here and there, I did, and our conversation ended up feeling like an episode of The Monday Morning Podcast that I got to direct.
Let me get this recorder on.
Most people just write down what they wanted me to say anyway.
You’re heading into the third season of F is for Family. How many seasons do you see it going?
I don’t know. Somewhere between five and eight?
When does the show go beyond your personal life stories?
That happened on the first episode. There’s little vignettes and shit and even then a lot of them are changed [from my life]. I didn’t want my relatives to watch the show and be mortified. I’m not trying to say that anybody I grew up with was a bad person, it was just different. It’s a funny time compared to the way we live now. Some of the stuff back then was good, some if it was bad. Even take Frank Murphy [F is for Family’s patriarchal character], there are aspects of my dad, there’s certain words and the way I pronounce them. “I’ll put you through the fuckin wall”—that was definitely my dad, but you know, he didn’t work at the airport, he didn’t knock up my mom and have to get married; all of that shit is just as you’re building it you gotta have conflict and all that. Plus it’s some of [series co-creator] Mike Price’s dad, Dave Richardson, Emily Towers, all these people that write on the show.
Will the kids eventually grow up?
We talked about having the kids age. Each season is basically a semester of their school and summer vacation. So in three seasons you see a year of their life. That way they’re not aging faster than people are. But that gets difficult, because at some point Bill’s gonna hit puberty, his voice has to drop. I don’t know … I feel like if we’re gonna go that real with it it’s fucking impossible. And I wouldn’t do the show if Haley Reinhart wasn’t doing Bill’s voice so yeah—five to eight seasons.
Does writing the show take jokes away from your stand-up act?
No, not at all, because there’s episode arc and the season arc that you’re writing toward and then there’s all these characters that do and say things that I wouldn’t do. My act is more kinda like my philosophy, observations, whatever you wanna call it. There’s 10 people in the writers’ room so it’s not like I have to do the heavy lifting on the jokes. If I get a line in once every couple of pages I’m doing good.
Would you ever direct an episode?
I don’t know. I would just be so afraid the whole time I’m spending all that money and all that time directing something while my road money is going away, and I’d be forgetting who I was. I just feel like I can never go away from stand-up. You gotta be on like Chappelle’s or Chris Rock’s level or Seinfeld—those are like the legends. It’s like the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones could not tour for a couple years and be like [British accent] “Yeah, right, we’re gonna pick up where we left off,” and they go right back to stadiums because they have that body of work. You know all of those guys have at least 10, 20 years experience on me so I just don’t think I’d have the time. But it’s definitely something that does fascinate me.
How does playing theaters and casinos now as opposed to clubs change the dynamic of your album?
I’m a total phony. I don’t interact with other humans anymore [laughing]. No, it’s just subconscious at this point because I’ve been doing it so long, I’m just listening to where the crowd is at, pushing it to the furthest level that’s gonna make them come back. I can’t describe to you what that is, but I know what it sounds like. And when I get off stage, if I don’t feel like I was in that pocket, I definitely sit down and try to think of what I did or didn’t do to create that. That’s what I do, I don’t really look at it like, “Hey I played this venue, last time I played that venue.” That’s for psychos. I don’t do that shit. Competitive fucking lunatics will be like, “How many tickets did this guy sell? Where did he fuckin’ play?” Maybe that drives some people; I shouldn’t say they’re psychos. But I do that a lot—if you don’t do it the way I do it, then you’re a psycho. That’s the level of maturity I’ve achieved. But I just focus on what I’m doing, that’s it.
Any chance you’ll show up in Better Call Saul?
I have no idea. I can tell you I’m not in this season. At the risk of disappointing all those fans, I’m not in this season. But I will be watching every episode. They were nice enough to ask me to host the panel for Comic-Con in San Diego. I did hear them say that this season we’re gonna see Jimmy McGill turn into Saul Goodman, which I think is fucking awesome. That’s why when you ask if I would think about directing, you watch something like Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul, it’s like fuck, I don’t know if I could do that. I have a belief in myself as a comic that I don’t have as a director. What the fuck is with these goddamn meters? I can’t put my card in. There’s like 21 minutes left. I’m going in to the gym and it won’t let me add any time. What do I gotta do, synchronize my watch? Sorry, what was the question?
Not important. Do you know where you want to tape your next special?
No, I don’t. I don’t really know when I’m gonna do it, either. I’m trying to figure out with all of these specials coming out, how to go about releasing my next hour. Everything changes, it’s constantly changing. You can’t be that older guy being like, “Well they used to do it this way, and unless you do it the way they used to do it then you’re wrong.” You’re just gonna be left behind. Nobody gives a shit about your stupid opinion about how they used to do it.
Are you trying to do something a little more unconventional this time?
Great question. But no. I’m not the guy that’s gonna change comedy. I’m the guy that you can pass the torch to and I will go up there with my fucking sport coat and my Miami Vice T-shirt underneath it. If I could grow a mullet I would. I could do that. But I’m not that guy. I’m a long haul guy. Like Emmitt Smith when everyone was freaking out about Barry Sanders going, “Oh, oh, Barry does this and Eric Dickerson does that.” Emmitt Smith just kept chugging along, getting his 12, 15 hundred yards. Or Hank Aaron. He never hit the most home runs in a season then all of a sudden everyone’s like how’d he hit this many? I just hung around long enough.
Will you do The Monday Morning Podcast forever?
If no one was listening, I’d probably stop at 75, 80. I do think it’s gonna be an interesting thing at the end of my life, that I documented every Monday for the last however many years I lived.
You recently had a baby girl. How long before you’d let your daughter check out your stuff?
I don’t think that’s gonna be a problem. Because kids past a certain age are like, “Ugh, God dad, shut up. You’re not funny. You’re so embarrassing.” I think by the time she actually wants to watch my stuff, she’ll be at a maturity level where she can handle it. I just don’t see a kid at 5 or 6 years old wanting to sit down and watch a stand-up special. Would a 5-year-old be into me talking about the population problem? I think somebody with a more absurd style would appeal to her. I’m really saying I’m probably gonna bomb in front of my kid.
So your show’s coming up at Thunder Valley in Sacramento. Well, Sacramento adjacent.
That’s a great name for a TV show, “Sacramento Adjacent.” That’s a great title for something. Don’t put that in your article, someone will steal that.
OK, I won’t. What was your first show in Sacramento? Did you play Punch Line?
I played Punch Line. I stayed in the comedy condo across the street. I never rented a car, so I never really saw downtown Sacramento. There was a dirty McDonald’s that I would walk to and I remember there was somebody on drugs in there and I was uncomfortable while I was eating my food.
What was your memory of the shows?
I just remember that they were really, really fun. I didn’t draw a lot of people. I just remember the people that showed up were really fun. Sacramento, Oakland—they’re just fun crowds, that’s the only way to put it. Every city has a different vibe, but those cities there’s not a lot of heaviness in the audience. I have a gig coming up outside D.C., and they are so uptight and conservative. Everybody’s uptight there. It’s like the Hollywood of politics, everybody’s trying to get somewhere. It’s a very “watch what you say” sort of vibe, and that affects the laughs. You gotta keep knocking at them, going like, “This isn’t gonna affect your next election. No one can see you laughing. Just enjoy it.“ You have to do that a couple times before you loosen them up.
How do you feel about Nanette, and the sort of anti-comedy aspects of it?
That’s nothing new. There was a lot of that with the alt-scene back in the day. There’s always the time where it has to step back and look at itself, there’s always gonna be that. I always found the anti-comedy ones funny in that you could just say, “Stand-up comedy is this, this and this.” Then it’s like “Alright, well, take it in a new direction.” And they never do. Mocking is one of the easiest things to do. God knows I’ve made a fucking career out of it. But to actually be groundbreaking and take it to a new level is different. And a lot of times “groundbreaking” is just something that a young person has never seen before. The amount of shit that I’ve sat down to write, and then I find out that not only did somebody do it, they did it 40 years ago back when allegedly everybody was a bunch of cornballs. I’m watching this show right now, 77 Sunset Strip, that took place during 1958 to—ah, fuck, I drove over a goddamn nail. Look at that. Son of a bitch. Well, there’s no air coming out. Anyway, so the 1950’s were allegedly this conservative time, and then I’m watching this show and every married woman comes on to this private eye. So people still wanted to go around and fuck people. I don’t know, this is a long-winded way to say that it’s all been done before.
See Bill Burr live at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort (1200 Athens Ave., Lincoln) on Sept. 7 at 8 p.m. This show is for people 21-and-over; however, people ages 13–20 may attend if they’re accompanied by a person at least 21 years of age. Tickets start at $42.95. For more info, go to Thundervalleyresort.com.