“Just relax. If it’s funny, fucking laugh. If it isn’t, just fucking sit there and I’ll know it’s time to move on.”
That’s a throwaway line from Bill Burr’s latest Netflix special, Paper Tiger (which is available to stream now), but it also feels like it sums up the philosophy of a comic who has spent more than a quarter-century on a stage railing about the things that piss him off. Even when he knows that some of his takes might piss you or me off.
Within that span, Burr has gotten married, had a kid, and found multi-platform success and a progressively bigger audience. This while continuing to occasionally dance on the razor’s edge of cancellation in an ever-intensifying wind tunnel as technology has found ways to bring us together and tear us apart. Will Burr ever relent and soften his approach? Based on that above philosophy, his audience’s response in the special, and some of the material (which focuses on a broad range of topics, from feminism to the #MeToo movement to the rise of the machines and the history of blow-up dolls), the short answer is likely no. In the lengthy conversation ahead, however, we more fully discuss the idea of change and evading controversy, why Burr doesn’t believe in weaponized outrage (from behind a keyboard or behind a mic), and his lengthy climb to get to exactly where he wants to be.
I read a brief bio that said something like you had burst onto the scene when you made your first appearance on Chappelle Show but you were doing stand-up for a long time before that. Did you think about hanging it up [in the in-between] and doing something else?
Well, interestingly enough, Dave Chappelle, knowingly or not, gave me some words of inspiration that I held onto for years. In the early two-thousands, I was on the road a lot, and I had the same agent as the late, great, Greg Giraldo. We used to joke about our careers. We used to call it killing in obscurity because we’d be in the middle of nowhere, you know? Every time I would do a gig in the middle of nowhere, either Greg was going to be there the next week or he had just been there and people would always say like, “Man, you and Greg Giraldo, you’re the two funniest guys we’ve seen come through here in a long time.” And we just kept hearing that but nothing was happening in our careers and we would just feel despondent about it.
And then, one night I was at the [Comedy] Cellar, and I was doing a spot and Dave had come to pop in and do a spot. And he caught some of the stuff that I was saying. And when I got off stage, he’s just like, “Man, I’ll tell you something, your angle is so fucking dope.” I remember he said that: “so fucking dope.” I was like, “a black guy said I was ‘dope!'” I was all excited. Right? [Laughs] And he’s like, “it’s gonna take you longer to get there, but when you get there you’re going to hit really hard.” And I fucking held onto that. That was the quote that I would think when the scary negative thoughts would start creeping in my head when I was in a comedy condo in the middle of nowhere going, “Am I going to be the guy who doesn’t get anywhere? Am I not going to make it? Did I screw up?” And I would think, “No. Fuck that! Dave said I was dope!” [Laughs] I just held onto that.
Do the goals change in that period? Where you are, right now, is that always what the goal was?
Yes! It was. I always wanted to be a touring comedian that was known for his comedy. I didn’t want to get famous off of doing a TV show and then that’s why people saw me.
You didn’t want to be Seinfeld.
No… Jerry was a major, major touring headliner when he did his show. There wasn’t the internet, so people who were comedy fans knew about him and he was selling out clubs and stuff like that.
So, like a Carlin kind of career?
Yeah, Carlin, Pryor, Kinison. Those are the guys. Seinfeld. I liked anybody who made me laugh. Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin. I like all of these people. That was the longterm goal that I always saw myself doing. But being young and insecure and questioning myself, I definitely would get caught up in the river of whatever… the look you were supposed to have. The grunge look. There was a period in the late nineties where some comedians were literally dressing like agents. Big black slacks with like, the fucking powder blue buttoned down. Everybody’s fucking wearing that. I was one of those people. “Goatees are in, I’ll have a goatee!” You know, that shit.