“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.
It was weird because it was like, Cosby, Roseanne, Seinfeld, Ray Romano, and the last big one I remember was Kevin James. And all these people, in some way, shape, or form, had done Letterman or gone to Montreal or got seen on The Tonight Show or something. They hit and then they made a sitcom out of your act and then they got into syndication and they made more fucking money than… Everyone was driving you towards that. And I was sitting there trying to think of how to turn my life into a sitcom. [Laughs] I got caught up. But in the back of my head, I always knew that, if I just worked at this comedy thing, I knew I could be a working comedian. [But] never in my wildest dreams did I think that I was gonna perform at Royal Albert Hall or some of these other venues and never did I think that I would meet a guy as talented as Mike Binder, who shot the thing [Paper Tiger]. That’s the thing about this special. I don’t know how people are going to perceive this material versus other material. But as far as the way this thing looks — and I’m proud of how all of my specials look — this is the best-looking one that I’ve ever been a part of and it has to do with the venue and the way Mike Binder used his talents to capture it.
It’s such a huge thing to perform in that venue. I play drums and I love John Bonham and Led Zeppelin Live At Royal Albert Hall is my favorite concert footage. So just to be on that stage and turn around and be like, “His fucking drums were right there!” And I’m on that stage. Thank God I played the place a year before because the entire time I was on stage, I couldn’t quite get comfortable [the first time]. I couldn’t get past the fact that I was there on stage. I had that thing, “Am I worthy of being here?” We’re making shit jokes and these guys were making life-changing music.
So, I think some people think we’re going to get chased with pitchforks when we go overseas with everything in the news. How was the reception from people in England and how does it differ from the US in terms of how they receive the material and what they’re offended by?
They’re the exact same as American audiences in that… there are just subtle differences. There will occasionally be a reference that they don’t quite get where I go too deep, acting like they live in Connecticut rather than fucking Newcastle or some shit. It’s just very, very, very subtle. I’ve gone all the way to Estonia and Latvia, where they get really logical, so that becomes a different vibe. And then my favorite thing is what I would call the Midwest of Europe: Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Warsaw. Those crowds are fucking incredible. They’re so much fun and they have the vibe, like… In the US, I like going to cities that aren’t quote-unquote A- level cities. They’re not even B-level. I like going to C and D-level, cause you show up and they’re so fucking psyched that, for once, they don’t have to travel to see you. That you came to see them. It’s so funny when you do a show and they’ll just be like, “Tell so-and-so! Tell this guy to come too, we like stuff out here! Why do I always to drive six hours to Chicago to see something?” When you go to that part of Europe, I definitely get that vibe. But even if you do London, the fact that you’re American and you took the time to go over there, they’re psyched.
The cool thing about comedy is it’s a really personal thing. It’s like people when they’re into bands. You know, when you get to a certain level as a comic and people are actually paying to see you because they like what you do and they have an emotional connection for what it is that you’re doing, that’s the coolest thing ever as a performer. You’re just out there, you know, trying to get laughs, joking around, but the fact that it actually means something on another level… I just found out the other day, someone said, “Hey, you know my dad passed away and your last special really helps me get through it.” When somebody says that, you don’t even know what to say. It’s just like, “Jesus, man, I’m sorry that happened. I can’t believe out of all the things, you listen to my stupid act.” If you’re not an egotistical lunatic, if you’re actually…
Yeah! If you actually take it in… But how egotistical is it for me to then say that I see myself as grounded? [Laughs] I am so down to earth that I’m going to now pat myself on the back! No, but if you have your head screwed on straight, you can see. And then I thought back on it, because, Jesus Christ, I remember — I didn’t know I was doing it as a kid — when I used to listen to comedians or I would see comedians and everything, the lift that they gave me, making me laugh. The craziness, the cavalierness or just the silliness — it lifts the weight for a minute and gets the heavy backpack of bullshit off your back for a second. It’s nice! It’s a very nice thing. I am very happy that I’ve been doing this for 27 years and that type of thing is not lost on me.
Let me ask, in the special, you make a joke about how it’s going to be your last show, alluding to cancel culture. Knowing that you have the impact you describe and that built-in fan base, does that empower you to push the line a little bit, or does that not matter?
No, it doesn’t, because the reality is, as far as people liking you when you’re a performer, it’s like, “I like you as long as you’re doing what I want you to do. And then when you stop doing what I want you to do, then I don’t like you anymore.” You would never in real life have relationships like that. Like, “Hey, as long as you do everything I want you to do, you’re my friend.” You can never lose sight of the fact that it is a show business friendship. [Laughs] So, I don’t take any of this shit for granted, which is why I try to keep improving. There is such an amazing generation of comedians coming up. Like really, really, really funny. It just happens, a whole group of funny guys comes out. My generation had a lot. Not talking about myself. That wave right before me was like Louis CK, Dave Attell, Dave Chappelle, Greer Barnes, just monsters. And then our crew was like Jim Norton, Patrice O’Neil, I think Kevin Hart came after that. Dane Cook, Greg Giraldo…trying to remember all the friggin names. It was these people that you saw early on, you’re like, that guy’s going to be really fucking good. Now there’s a new batch is coming along. A couple of incredible joke writers. I’m still a huge fan of stand up. It’s really fun to basically see another generation that caught the bug. Sam Morril, Joe List, Mark Normand — people like that. It’s a fun, exciting thing. And then you gotta try to keep up with them.
You talk about trying to keep up. In the show, you talk about trying to watch your temper: is that effort to try and control your temper, rage, and stuff like that… how might that come into effect with your standup? Is it something where maybe you’ll take less swings at things that are going to cause more controversy?
No, no, no. That shit is just so not even in my thought process when I’m writing jokes because I’m in the clubs and I’m hearing people laugh. So, like, the exaggeration of the amount of people that are allegedly offended… Being offended is commerce now. It’s a way to get people to look at the article and then they see the advertising. You make money. It’s kind of a chicken little…
Is it a way to get people to look at stand up too, though? Is it also a tool for you when you’re doing that?
No. It could be, but that’s not why I’m doing it. There’s no fucking way I would ever go on stage and use something as a tool to try and get more people to come and see me, because then what you’re doing is, you’re not on stage anymore. You’re sitting in the crowd. And once you do that, then you’re going to lose your voice. You’re not you anymore. You’re watching you. So, I mean, just as comedians, you’re gonna comment on what’s in the news. And your job is to make fun of it. So that’s all that I’m doing. So the only reason why this PC thing has come into my act… It’s not because I’m thinking about it while I’m writing. It’s just, like, what’s in the news? But no, I would never do something like that. That would make me feel gross. I have to believe what I’m saying, or else it just becomes as transparent as my fucking ghost-white skin and everybody will just smell it. The crowd, they just smell it. The crowd smells a phony.
Bill Burr’s latest special, ‘Paper Tiger,’ is available to stream on Netflix.