It would be understandable if after watching the trailer for Bill Burr’s new special Paper Tiger you got the impression it was one long trolling of PC culture. Zeroing in on the moments when he mentions topic like Me Too, male feminists and privilege, the trailer for Paper Tiger certainly sets a tone that says “buckle up buttercup.” But to quote Burr himself in Paper Tiger, “Whatever the fuck I was saying, however you heard it, that’s not what the fuck I’m saying.”
Sure he comes out the gate with his signature infectious frustration, serving up an excoriation of how American culture at the moment takes jokes too seriously. And yes, he makes sure the opening few minutes will quickly clear out anyone who comes in asking “will this offend me.” If you’re going to judge Burr entirely on your first impressions of what he’s saying, you’ve already missed the best part of a Bill Burr joke. The terrible parts are often the misdirection.
Bill Burr is proof that the right mind and a careful pen can make anything funny. If the terrible things he says make you turn off your ears, you’re going to miss out on a shockingly nuanced and, dare I say, sensitive look into one of comedy’s greatest minds. In many ways, it’s reflective of a problem in our culture, where someone says something terrible and that one moment defines them as if people aren’t equally a collection of terrible and sensitive moments.
This back and forth between terrible and genuine ideas makes Paper Tiger a truly breathtaking special, capable of punching you in the gut before patting you on the back with a big smile. These jokes require tension and release, and to accomplish that there’s an unspoken agreement you’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. When faced with a question like “you know what’s hilarious about sexual assault?” you have two options. You can get up and leave or you can ask “well, what’s funny about it, Bill?”
Folks who turn off the special will miss a story about a woman who groped Burr, and the tailspin of emotions it sent him through. It might be the first story in a major standup special about the politics of men dealing with their own sexual assaults, especially in the eyes of other men. What comes through the door like a cheap open mic bit becomes a surprisingly astute observation on how sexual assault is about power. Albeit, an astute observation with great jokes about getting flicked in the dick.
Paper Tiger is at its strongest when Burr lets down his guard a little bit, even as he stays armed with his thorny personality. Picking a favorite joke is difficult because after multiple viewings my opinions keep changing. Robot fuck dolls is a great bit. His rant about how easy Michelle Obama’s life as First Lady was is brutally funny. The closing story about having to give away his dog for the safety of his family legitimately made me alternate between choking laughter and choking back tears.
Under it all, there’s always a moment where the character breaks. Even while taking pride in all the good things he does in his marriage, from making a good living to being a supportive husband, there’s a caveat. “All she has on me,” he admits, “is who I am as a person.” His willingness to be hilariously, boldly, and arrogantly wrong, and then admit it, is good for men to hear. Critics often talk about the consequences of jokes, but we rarely acknowledge the wonderful parts of them. There are tough angry people who will benefit from hearing Bill Burr say something terrible, then giggle, and say “yeah I know I said that.”
Nothing in the special drives home that point like his story about watching a documentary on Elvis with his wife. Burr is married to a Black woman, but he hates jokes about how Black women and White women are different. He says as much, pointing out that at the end of the day they’re both still women. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between him and his wife because of their racial backgrounds. As they watch the documentary he notices her begin to get angry about things that fly past him.
Their back and forth becomes a gleefully silly fight, the sort of raw joking truth that comes with being open with someone you truly love. Burr takes on the perspective of a guy who indignantly can’t accept the idea of appropriation, only to have someone he loves begrudgingly show him how white culture profits off other races’ pain. Rather than just stop there, he keeps pushing, admitting she’s right but then fighting through to ask about the good parts of races facing historical systematic discrimination. It’s like watching someone juggle broken glass, and walking away unscathed. You don’t want to see anyone else try it, but goddamn do you want to watch again.
It’s true that this special isn’t for everyone. There are people who will feel triggered by it and find his comments about sexual assault and feminism needlessly flippant. And they are; that’s why they work as jokes. At no point during Paper Tiger does Burr pretend to be an authority, even if he speaks like one.
The name of the special itself acknowledges this dichotomy. “Paper Tiger” is the English translation of the Chinese term zhilaohu, which means something that seems powerful but is actually inept. It’s a subtle way of saying “things today are made out to be something they really aren’t.” Or, more simply, “these are jokes alright?”
There are people I deeply love who would be hurt watching this special, and those people will never watch it. At this point in history, no one is going to stumble into a Bill Burr show. There’s a pact between the audience and the performer acknowledging we’re in for some dark jokes so we should just roll with it. We’ve accepted this truth in every other kind of art. When it comes to music or movies people who don’t like metal or jazz or French avant-garde cinema don’t consume it. You shouldn’t be mad when you get fake blood on you at a Gwar show, and if Bill Burr hurts your feelings I’m curious why you were in the room.
I don’t have to agree with his jokes about Me Too to find the humor in them. They’re rough, even if they’re very funny. When he veers too close to sounding like he’s making a point instead of a joke he lost me. Thankfully that moment lasted about forty seconds. Art doesn’t have to be correct to be successful, it just has to be good. People get a chance to respond afterwards. Not everything is for everyone, but everything is art to someone. If it’s not for you turn it off. This is oddly the same thing I told people who hated Nanette.
But while there are moments where the special made the part of my brain where morals live itch, more often than not his most offensive premises aren’t actually what they seem. Netflix’s trailer makes a big deal about his takedown of male feminists, but the actual bit is about men who pretend they’ve always been allies. A chunk about feminism isn’t a takedown of feminism, it’s about white women who, as he says, “separate themselves from these ‘white males with their white male privilege.’ It’s like bitch, you’re sitting in the jacuzzi with me.”
Burr seems to wish these people would be honest, or at least ashamed for a split second, but it’s not like he doesn’t experience those feelings himself. For a show that opens with a big chunk about how people are too sensitive, Paper Tiger is an incredibly sensitive special. Sensitivity just looks different coming from different people. Occasionally sensitivity says “fuck” a lot.
In a way, Burr is right in his opening screed about audiences who hear a joke and ask “what did you mean about that?” When you try and dissect the intent of a joke in real-time, you often miss out on the nuances that answer your question for you. Ultimately, I think Bill Burr’s intent with Paper Tiger was to make people laugh and see a new angle of some uncomfortable things. But if you watch it all and wait till the end, you’ll see what he meant. Burr is equally the guy who thinks it’s funny to tease feminist protestors and the man fighting his own devil to be a good father. He doesn’t have to be right, he just has to be funny, and Paper Tiger is a furious work of art. Dick tap jokes and all.