Catching Up with Bill Burr
Comedian Bill Burr has a reputation as an angry guy. Between his intense stage presence and his hilariously heated rants on his popular Monday Morning Podcast, Burr can seemingly spin any topic into comedy gold. In real life, Burr is far nicer and mellow than his stage persona would suggest, though he’s by no means any less funny. The Boston native came into prominence with several appearances on Chappelle’s Show and has since become a regular on the talk show circuit, with frequent appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman, Conan and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
His recent comedy special, You People Are All the Same was released exclusively through his website and Netflix. He has since parlayed his comedy career into a successful acting career, with parts in Date Night, Stand Up Guys, Breaking Bad and the upcoming Paul Feig-directed film The Heat, which stars Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy.
In anticipation of his stint at the Atlanta Tabernacle on April 12, Burr spoke with Paste about coming of age in the Boston comedy scene, the genius of Sam Kinison and the experience of working with Al Pacino and Christopher Walken.
Paste: So, you’ve been doing this for so long, does the touring life feel automatic or are there things about traveling so much that still rattles you?
Burr: You know what, the grind of the road is not the shows, it’s getting your ass from one place to another. That becomes a thing. So I try to stay in nice hotels and I try to fly up in the front of the plane as much as I can. Then the traveling becomes more enjoyable and I’m in a great mood. The whole reason why I’m coming out here is to give people a show, so if I can get myself in the best mood possible, it’s going to affect my show in a positive way.
Paste: Many musicians mention having an unconscious tendency to make a situation worse for themselves in hopes of getting a good song out of it. Is there ever some part of you—since a lot of your bits come from how annoyed you get with something— that does something similar?
Burr: I used to think that. I used to think you had to live this miserable life and that that would make you funnier, but you don’t. The misery will come. The misery will find you. You don’t need to go out of your way to sabotage yourself or get a friggin’ drug habit or date a psycho. Shit happens. I just got some water damage in my house and it’s been a fucking nightmare. I don’t need to add to it.
Paste: So, whenever something like that happens, is there a part of you that goes ‘okay, this is miserable now but maybe it’ll be a funny story one day?’
Burr: No, I’m in the moment. Like, ‘there’s water in my house, what the fuck?” I actually went off on one of the contractors and he’s like, ‘alright alright, I’m not trying to end up in your act’ and that actually pissed me off. I was like, ‘dude I’m not coming to you as a comedian, I’m coming to you as a homeowner. I live here. Comedian is just my job, okay? I live in this thing. I eat my Fruit Loops here. You know? This is my life here, it’s not my job.’
Paste: When you were staring out, what was the moment you decided ‘I’m kind of a funny guy’ and what was the moment you said, ‘maybe I can make a living out of this?’
Burr: You know, it wasn’t even that I’m a funny guy, I just loved stand-up comedy and I wanted to do it. It was one of the few things in my life that I knew I was going to be able to do and I also felt as though I’d be able to do it the way I wanted to do it. I kind of found what I was supposed to do on the first night I did stand-up. It was actually a talent contest and I didn’t win and I was middle of the pack—didn’t suck but I was no threat to [the winner] at all. It was just something I did and I was just like, ‘I’m doing this, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’
Paste: What were the comedians you grew up loving and idolizing?
Burr: [Richard] Pryor, [George] Carlin, Cheech & Chong, Foster Brooks, fucking Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Sam Kinison was huge—Sam Kinison was my guy in the ‘80s. If someone put him top three of all time I mean, he can’t pass Pryor, Carlin and those guys, but anything beyond that. When that guy was on—before fame did what it did to him—that guy was the guy.
Paste: He was a true rock of comedy.
Burr: Before he became a rock star and all that screaming and yelling he was going through the growing pains of getting that big and I felt he was coming out of it—of course, right when he dies. But that guy in ‘84, ‘85, ‘86, you can’t touch him. I read a thing saying he actually inspired Carlin to write. I mean, that’s how good this guy was. He was unreal. The shame is when you get a drug habit and you get arrested and stuff like that, people talk more about that. It’s the Keith Richards thing, where they talk more about this five-year period where he did heroin other than 50 years of being this amazing musician.
Paste: When you saw Kinison was it on late night television or did you see him live?
Burr: I never saw him live, but I was watching HBO and all that. It was weird back then. It was an experience I don’t think younger people have. The day of the Rodney Dangerfield stand-up special where Kinison came on—I think it was the one where he did the bit about the Ethiopians and the food and everything—-but what was insane was that Friday no one knew him and then Monday everyone knew who he was. It was, ‘did you see that guy?!’ I feel like now because of YouTube and all that, it’s just so much to consume [and] so much to see. That’s why say a Lady Gaga or a Justin Bieber—the fact that they’re able to make it when they did and sell out arenas is fucking unbelievable.
Paste: You’ve sold out a few places yourself. What’s that experience like?
Burr: Humbling. It’s unreal. You sit there going like, ‘I can’t believe all these people are coming out to see me.’ You really can’t. Because you don’t feel any different. I don’t feel like I’m doing any differently, I just feel like I hung around long enough and I did enough things and I worked hard and I still have a tremendous love and respect for stand-up comedy
You know, you got to understand that it’s not yours. Stand up comedy is this thing you get to do, so you have to treat it with respect. You can’t just be like, ‘alright I got my hour, down people are coming to see me now. Now, I’m going to lean on the mike stand.’ No, you gotta work even harder now. You got to top what you already did. Because they’ll find someone else. They’ll find the person who’s working harder or the guy who’s funnier and you’ll go all the way back down to doing those shit hole rooms that I did coming up.
Paste:So what’s your typical writing process? Are you the type of person that carries a notebook around?
Burr: If I think of something’s funny, I just write the subject down or I’ll maybe write three words down and maybe a line, but I really believe in writing on stage. I think that’s how you do it. It’d be like if you broke you arm and you went to a bar and you got to tell your friends how it happened, you wouldn’t write it down and rehearse it, you’d just tell it. Then you’d tell it at work and you’d tell it at a family reunion, you get the flow of the story down if you’re telling it in a funny way.
Eventually what ends up happening is if enough people ask you how you broke your arm, you get sick of it and this big long story gets shorter and shorter and shorter and you’re just sick of telling it. And that’s the journey of the joke—where it’s something that’s new and exciting and it’s fresh and then you get sick of it. And when you get sick of it, that’s the time to burn it—do it on TV somewhere. So that’s my approach.
Paste: Growing up Boston, which is such a great comedy town, what was that experience like?
Burr: I hope it still is a great comedy town, I haven’t’ seen the local scene enough to know either way. But no, it’s great. I could not have started in a better town. They set the bar really high—the guys who came before me. And there was also a real policing. I mean joke thief was out the window. If you were a joke thief, you’d get beat up. And guys did and they run you out of town. You didn’t have to police joke thievery because no one would do it because they didn’t want to get the shit beat out of them. But there was also a policing of originality and hackiness if someone was real hacky or was a real crowd-pleaser, they just didn’t get as much work or they didn’t work the better rooms.
Paste: Your last special was released exclusively through Netflix. How has that worked out?
Burr: Netflix is awesome. It’s worldwide and when your show is on there, it’s on there. As opposed to if you had it on network TV where they show it and that’s it. You don’t know when they’re going to show it again. Netflix is basically my HBO and I’m going to bring my next one to them. Hopefully, for the rest of my career, I’ll just keep bringing my specials to them.
Being a stand-up comic, this isn’t a stepping-stone for me, it’s what I do and this is what I’m always going to do. And even if I do a TV show, the only reasons to do a TV show is to get more people to know me to come out to my stand-up shows.
Paste: What about something like Stand Up Guys?
Burr: Stand Up Guys was ridiculous. All my scenes were with Pacino and Walken. And they couldn’t have been nicer. God, they were such nice guys. Al Pacino was such a warm guy. I can’t stress enough how nice they were. Provided, you know, you didn’t ask them questions about themselves. They both were really into stand-up and found it interesting. Essentially, talk about anything other than, ‘what was is like to be in The Godfather?’ That’s not what you do. That’s the kind of thing where they’ve been asked that question a zillion times before and they’re going to shut down. They encouraged improvising and messing around. I remember asking Chris, ‘hey, is it ok if I do this?’ and he goes, ‘do whatever you want.’
Paste: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Breaking Bad. What was the experience like of being on that show?
Burr: I was as big a fan of that show as anybody. I watched from the pilot episode on. I watched that in real time. I’d sit through the commercials. I was there every Sunday night watching that. When I finally got on, it was like being sucked into my TV. It was as surreal I did Howard Stern once and to hear him say my name, it was that level of surrealness. I got to tell you, to this day, whenever I’m lucky enough to do an episode and they have the little clapper thing and I see it says Breaking Bad with that logo, I always, on that first take, smile to myself like, ‘I can’t believe I’m here right now.’ And all these movies I’ve been getting lately is because of Breaking Bad. So I owe Vince Gilligan my career.
I’ve been so lucky in my career where I haven’t done a lot of stuff—my IMDB page is a real quick read—but I’ve side-swiped and paratrooped into some of the best. Chappelle’s Show, Breaking Bad—I’ve somehow managed to have this kind of Forrest Gump-type career where I’m standing in the background. I got to work with Pacino and Walken. I don’t know why it’s worked out that way, but it’s awesome.