Bill Burr on His New Show, Starting in Standup, and Accessible Comedy

October 15, 2016

Photo: Flickr

Bill Burr has had an extensive, successful career as a standup comedian. The now 48-year-old  Boston native has worked the standup circuit in addition to having several televised comedy specials. Following the successful conclusion of the first season of his Netflix-exclusive show, F is for Family, Burr sat down with the Voice’s Managing Editor, Graham Piro, to discuss his career and comedy as a whole. He will be performing from October 15th to the 19th at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for content and length. 

Graham: Seeing how we’re a college newspaper, can you start by telling me your college experience and how that shaped your path into comedy?

Bill: Well I commuted, I didn’t have the money to live at college, and I basically paid for most of my own college education, and I was shy and introverted, I didn’t have any friends, really. I still hung out with my drinking buddies from high school. But I still really enjoyed college. I went to a number of colleges and when I finished up at Emerson, I really enjoyed going to Emerson. That was where I learned, where I started taking public speaking classes and getting used to being in front of a crowd, which was basically the class. And the more I did it, the better I felt about myself. That was the biggest thing as far as shaping me as a comedian was that I learned how to not be afraid of being in front of an audience. And also mixed comedy stuff, a contest “Find Boston’s Funniest Student,” and the school I was going to was one of the schools that was picked. So I kind of got my start because of that comedy club and the school I was at, so that tremendously shaped me.

Graham: Was there a big comedy scene at Emerson?

Bill: Yes, as far as, not necessarily with stand-up, it was more like they had some amazing sketch groups.

Graham: Did you ever take part in those sketch groups?

Bill: No. I honestly didn’t have the time because I had to work my way through college.

Graham: Georgetown has a couple of pretty successful alums, John Mulaney and Nick Kroll.

Bill: Jesus Christ, I don’t throw the word geniuses around, but those guys are absolutely brilliant.

Graham: Yeah they’re absolutely brilliant. One thing that they talked a lot about was how at Georgetown, the comedy scene is pretty small, and they said that that really helped them develop their skills because there were so few people involved that they got a lot of time to perform. Is that similar to Emerson, and were there people who were interested in going into stand-up or was it more of a small, niche group?

Bill: Well, when they had the contest to find the funniest college student, so many people signed up that every other college had their own night, but Emerson had two nights, two Mondays in a row because so many people signed up. There were a lot of people, but because I commuted, I didn’t know a lot of people. I don’t know anybody’s name from Emerson College because I went there for a very brief time. I did three years of school in two years because I was so fucking old when I got there. I was lucky to start in Boston because there was such a scene that was created by all of the great Boston comics, there were so many places to play and develop and I learned so much with those Boston headliners. I actually learned one of the most important lessons there. I saw when I was working with guys in their 40s and I was just a kid. They were one or the other: they were either super positive and still really enjoying or they were bitter. I got to see the difference in the shows and I got to see the difference in the quality of life. If you let this business get to you, it just makes for a fucking miserable experience. Being the comedian that eventually hates comedy, you become the tragedy master. I don’t know what the word is. Just imagine if your job was to go up there and to make everybody laugh and you hated that. Just the irony of the situation that becomes your life. I learned very early on that I did not want to do that.

Photo: IMDb

Graham: In the couple of years after graduation, what did you do to get into the business?

Bill: Stand-up, it was always stand-up. I had a day job, I was living at home with my parents. I paid off all of my credit cards. I had an old truck, and I debated getting a new one, and I decided instead I just had to rip the power train out and put a new engine and transmission in. I remember this woman at work, she was all excited I was going to buy a new car and I told her that I just had the engine replaced, and she just made this face and goes like, “that was stupid.” I was embarrassed when she said it because she was beautiful, and if you are a true man and a beautiful woman says what you just did was stupid, you immediately want to undo it. I realized very quickly that what I did was not stupid. If you have a dream, one of the things other than the drive and the passion and the mental strength as life keeps slapping you down on the ground to not only get up but to get up and go even harder, one of the major things is you have to keep your expenses low. If an opportunity comes you can just get up and leave. I continued to work my day job for a year in Boston, and at that point I was making money as a comedian. And I was making more money than I had ever made, and I didn’t have a car payment. I paid off my student loans, I paid everything off. I just banked money because I knew I was moving to New York. I saved up 10 grand, I had never had more than 300$ in the bank. I was making 17, 18 grand a year and I was able to save about 10 grand of that.

Graham: Where did you start doing stand-up? Was it at a bar scene?

Bill: Bars, restaurants, hell rooms. I remember one of the first comedy competitions I was involved in, the host goes, “what do you want me to say for the intro?” and I said, “just say this guy plays all the hell rooms.” When I got off stage, he goes, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but keep doing it.” It was one of the first really big compliments that I got. This guy had been on MTV, he was a known guy, I lived off of that for a while. This guy said this to me so I must be doing something right.

Graham: One of the things that I personally really like about your comedy is that you’re very real and you don’t worry a lot about offending people. How did that become your outlook on comedy?

Bill: It’s not a conscious choice. I don’t go up there saying to myself “I want to be irreverent.” It’s more like, I’m gonna talk about what I want to talk about and say what I feel about those things. As far as offending people, that’s tremendously exaggerated by the media and online. People are adults and they know they’re at a comedy show. Once every year and a half somebody throws a hissy fit, at that point I’ve performed in front of thousands of people at hundreds of shows. If a politician had that level of approval rating, the approval rating of the average stand-up comedian, they’d be the most popular politician ever. And then you have to ask, why do they jump on this every time it happens? The reason is, there’s no risk for them. Risk for them is losing money. Comedians don’t put any money in their pockets. This is why pharmaceutical companies can, with opiates, create a nationwide heroin epidemic. It’s why one company can genetically alter food, and why you have never-ending wars and shit, and none of this gets talked about because they’re putting money in those people’s’ pockets. All of those horrific things barely get mentioned, but if you do a Caitlyn Jenner joke in a strip mall, you have a better chance of making national news than people who poison our food supply. So basically, if comedians started buying ad-time on television and we started donating to the top Republican or Democratic nominee, those stories would just go away. But we’re never going to do that. It’s just clickbait. There are a bunch of people out there who pretend like they are news organizations, like Huffington Post. They’re a joke. They sit there and they act like they’re major news people. You look in the columns on their website and they have all of this horseshit about Top 10 Worst Celebrity Nose Jobs. And those guys, one time, I did a Caitlyn Jenner joke, and they came at me like I gave secrets to the Russians. It’s like, “Really? All of this shit that’s going on out there and this is what you’re going to jump on?” It’s completely, 100% manufactured horseshit. Who do you know that walks around when you’re hanging out with them and is politically correct? Don’t all your friends just say what they’re thinking to you? Everybody walks around and says what they’re thinking. For me, it has created this environment where they’re nitpicking at people so then they do become more cautious. What it comes down to the fact that these journalists are not doing they’re fucking jobs and they’re going after the low-hanging fruit, the stand-up comedian. They’re acting as if we have the potential to be the downfall of society … You go on stage and you do a joke about this or that, and then all of a sudden it’s just this artificial thing. What I love about doing stand-up is that comedy fans come out and they’re adults. They know you’re joking. What kind of an adult can sit there and listen to 50 subjects go by and not be offended, and then all of a sudden it comes around to their neck of the woods and they decide to take that one seriously, and the person on stage is enacting some kind of legislation that will now be a law. I mean, that’s such an immature way to behave at a show.

Graham: Have you ever had anyone come to your defense in these situations?

Bill: Yeah when the Huffington Post tried to get that stupid Jenner thing going, everybody was just like, “shut up, blah blah,” and it went away. I said “I’m not trying to be a jerk, I’m doing that for Huffington Post type people who overreact to this shit.” And then there’s guy who says, “When you’re not trying to be a jerk, it means you’re being a jerk.” I was trying to soft-pedal this thing so that over-reactive fucking dopes like you don’t overreact, and then the dude overreacted and tried to make me out to be a jackass.

Graham: Do you think that this hypersensitivity helped give rise to Trump?

Bill: Well I do know that there is an element out there that has this, “I’m not politically incorrect, I’m a truth-teller! You just can’t handle somebody saying it the way it is.” They get to feel like they’re Lenny Bruce by strutting around and being “politically incorrect.” I think that there is an element of that. But I have a lot of faith in normal people, like the average everyday person walking down the street. They’re smart, they have empathy, they’re good people, they just get caught up in the shit that comes out of your tv and the stuff that you see online. It can really be depressing. I’ve been fighting this urge to leave L.A. and still be a comedian but go live in the woods for a while. I know that I would then go crazy, but I just feel like I need more quiet time in my life.

Graham: What do you try to express in your comedy? You talked about how you have faith in the ordinary, everyday sort of person, how does that impact your style of comedy?

Bill: I think as much as I’m being an asshole on stage, what I hope people get from my show, to get where I’m at I had a lot of people encouraged me. A lot of people said stuff I’ve never forgot. As much as I’m up there looking like a lunatic, I hope that when I interact with people in the crowd I always try to make it as positive as I can. If someone’s just being an asshole and ruining the show for for people around them, then obviously you take out the sickle and try to chop the head off, but I try and hopefully people leave and it’s a positive experience. Sometimes because of the shit I talk about if I’m in a grumpy mood, it won’t come off that way.

Graham: How’d you come up with the idea to do the podcast?

Bill:  Well I didn’t know what podcasts were and I was hanging out with this comedian Robert Kelly and he was like, “dude you gotta do a podcast,” and he just basically set it up and showed me what it was. It was something that appealed to me. When I started off doing 5 minutes, back when i would hole up someplace and actually record the phone call. I just sort of gradually built my act in. It was just a way to interact with fans and help me get a following. What I wanted to do was make people laugh on Monday because most people don’t like their day job and that was me for the longest time. Friday’s so far away, so if you can give somebody a laugh as they’re going to work or coming home, something to look forward to at the beginning of the week. It just seemed like that was a good place to put it.

Graham: What sort of feedback have you gotten about the podcast?

Bill: Everything from rave reviews to “you suck.”

Graham: So like a normal show then.

Bill: The usual Internet feedback. More negative than positive. The Internet is brutal.

Graham: Your Netflix show, F is for Family, can you tell about the creative process for that?

Bill: Just telling childhood stories on stage. I just wanted to take it to the next level, I knew I couldn’t it in live action. I knew that it won’t influence kids to bully and do drugs and blah blah blah. Once you animate it, for whatever reason those people just disappear, so good for us. It was just an idea I had almost eight years ago. I pitched it to a few people and nobody like it, but when I went to Wild West, they loved it. They wanted to do a cartoon, and fortunately they knew how to get a show on the air unlike anybody else. They are just a force of nature. Through them, I met Mike Price from the Simpsons, who really is the engine behind the show. We all got together and we all started telling stories, and the show became an amalgam of all of our childhoods, which I liked, because the tone of the show is my childhood. My family and friends can watch it and none of them will be mortified, like, “Oh my God you’ve aired all of our dirty laundry.” It’s loosely based.

Graham: The show has a very impressive voice cast, how’d you get those people to sign on?

Bill: Well what happened was once we got one, how it works in Hollywood, is trying to get people to read a script that no one is attached to, nobody that has made a name for themselves, it is very difficult. But once you get that first person, it’s like a script comes in and it’s a great script, yadda yadda yadda, but they always say that. But once you get that, “and so-and-so is attached,” then you can get it to another level where agents will actually give it to their clients, and their clients might actually read it. So once you get two people, then it starts to fall like dominos. What it was was we put together a great writer’s room and we wrote a very funny script. I forget who the first name we got was but the next client and the next client read it and loved it, and once that happened, it was smooth sailing. Once we got three names to it, we felt like we had the pick of the litter, which wasn’t true because we got turned down and things like this. But, basically, the way we got people to sign on was we wrote a really great script.

Graham: As a final question, if you could give one piece of advice to a student at Georgetown who wants to go into comedy, what would it be?

Bill: I would just sit down, I would write five minutes of stuff that I think is funny, and I would sign up for an open mic, and when they call your name, go up on stage and see what happens. And then, don’t judge yourself, your first 15-20 shows it’s not about how it’s going, but it’s about do you have the nerve to go up there when they call your name. After you’ve done it 15-20 times, you can start to gauge things like “am I the person who just keeps the mic in the mic stand or do I take it out and walk around?” Just start the journey, and then once you become a comedian, be a positive force in the world of stand-up. Encourage other people, don’t steal jokes, don’t be an asshole … being a good person is a major part of it.

Graham Piro
Graham Piro is a former editor-in-chief of the Voice. He isn't sure why the rest of the staff let him stick around. Follow him on Twitter @graham_piro.


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[…] He told The Georgetown Voice: “The more I did [public speaking], the better I felt about myself. That was the biggest thing as far as shaping me as a comedian was that I learned how to not be afraid of being in front of an audience.” […]