On The Record With Bill Burr On Being Happy, Old, and a Man

August 17, 2018

Honestly, comedian Bill Burr may have been playing fetch with his kid in his underpants and mellowing in the afterglow from the Red Sox’s extra innings win over the Yankees last night while we talked over the phone. He probably wasn’t. But he did call me at 11:30, only to tell me he had just woken up. And that’s really what it’s about, bro. He’s secure in his career (with his show, F Is For Family getting its 3rd season later this year), loves his wife and kid, and is, generally speaking, happy. Not that he seems to resent being characterized as angry, he knows himself too well to reject that, but he wants people to know there’s more to him than that. Here’s my conversation with him, leading up to his performance in Maryland at MGM National Harbor on August 24th.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

On Mental Health

Max Fredell: Something that’s kind of interested me about your stand up recently is that you’ve been getting a lot into mental health, and you talk a lot about being happier recently, especially now that you have the wife and kids and stuff like that, but it doesn’t really translate into your onstage persona.  You’re still super amped up and paranoid and all this stuff. Does doing this amped up comedy style stress you out? Is it a stressor itself, or does it help you like exorcise your anxieties?

Bill Burr: Ah no, doing stand up doesn’t stress me out.  It’s the easiest job on the planet. But as far as doing that amped up ramped up thing, it’s like, I can’t tell, and it’s probably a combination, if I was born that way, or became that way do to where I grew and what happened to me. And I think it’s like a combination of both. And I’m, right now, trying to figure out if some of my ways of handling stress are by default, or if that’s really who I am. But I would like to explore other emotions rather than chilling out or flipping out. I know that there’s gotta be some other options between that. And it’s just something.

You know something somebody said stuck with me.  They said you know you don’t handle stress well. And I said “what do you mean?” I can stand onstage in front of a bunch of people and deal with hecklers and handle that and blah blah blah blah blah and got defensive, and they backed off. But then I really thought about it, and it’s like, well, you handle that stress well, because you worked on it and wanted to get better at it. And you took mental notes, and it took you 15 years to get better at it. But you never worked on getting better at not flipping out because you’re trying to download some operating system, some guy cut you off in traffic or whatever. So, I started with driving. And I did everything, I literally had a post-it I drew a smiley face on it like that was going to help whenever somebody cut me off like that was going to make me happy. [Now] I just go into this mental space where I just take a breath and completely relax and before I even back out of the driveway. I drive slow, I let people go ahead of me. A big thing for me in the afternoons is I listen to baseball. I listen to the Red Sox. So if I hit traffic, I get to listen to more of the game. And also the guy who announces the games has been doing it forever, so it reminds me of home and stuff, so I’m able to like chill out.

Having said that, you know, I still fail a lot. It was funny, I was joking with a buddy of mine the other day. Do you remember the Police Academy movies?  They had a character in there, and it was this mousy-voiced woman right? And, she’s going to police academy, and she’d go, “Hey freeze,” you know, real quietly, and, of course, the police sergeant was all over her. And then at the end of the movie when all these screw up rookies actually get the bad guys, one of the bad guys would fall over and the mousy woman would jump out and scream, “DON’T MOVE DIRT BAG,” and the whole place would go nuts. And then, you go to the second police academy and she’d go back to being the mousy voice again, only to have the inevitable arc of yelling, “Don’t move dirtbag,” again. And I remember thinking that is such lazy writing. Just having her do the same thing over and over again.  But now that I’ve gotten over it, I’m like, no that is what it’s like to try to change as a person. You have this break through moment when you walk up to the thing you were afraid of. But the next day you kind of tumble back. And you gotta keep running up the hill until you eventually get over it. But it’s like, so she’s actually one of the more accurate portrayals of human beings, in that she never really got over it, but she tried. And then I think that’s why she’s a likeable character, or was or whatever.

Fredell: Does that ever freak you out though, like you have all these bits poking fun at like kind of like a toxic masculinity culture, like you and your buddies—

Burr: I would never say toxic masculinity culture.

Fredell: Well, okay. So I guess, you know you have that bit where you’re about to buy a pumpkin to celebrate Halloween and you pause, and think “What am I, a fag?” You know it’s like, this thing inside you that’s preventing you from fully enjoying shit.

Burr: Like preventing me from actually taking care of myself, and not leading myself to an early death? A lot of that is what being a man is, still.

Fredell: So, does it freak you out being cognizant of this but not changing?

Burr: No, that’s the most frustrating part. There’s the, running around being an idiot, and not being aware of it, that’s bliss. And then there’s the other side, making a change for the good. It’s that middle part that makes you not get from one side to the other. Because when you’re trying to change it, and you’re cognizant and aware, like, the amount of times I’m flipping out and in my head I’m like, “Here I am, doing this again. Come on, Bill Bill Bill, take it down take it down,” and like, in the beginning you feel powerless against it. So what I got good at was apologizing immediately after. Well, not immediately, like within 15 minutes, and I also realized there’s a finite amount of times that you can flip out and then apologize to a person 15 minutes later before they start feeling like a punching bag. At first they’re excited like, “Oh wow he’s apologizing he never used to apologize,” but then they’re like “Oh this is the new thing, you’re going to apologize and not change.” And you just have to let them know like, “Listen I’m thinking about not doing it as I’m doing it.” I have to kind of figure that out.

But yeah I appreciate these question because most people watch my act at face value. Like, “Oh, he’s the king of rage comedy,” but I’m never mad when I’m on stage. I’m just imitating. I’m making people laugh. I’m imitating the emotion I was in, or I’m doing a character. Usually, they are angry characters, because I am so limited.

On Being an Older Celebrity and Comedian

Fredell: Kind of a similar wavelength, not to call you old or anything but—

Burr: I am old! I’m 50 years old. I’m old.

Fredell: Now you’re 50, you have the Netflix money blah blah blah blah, but you kind of came in to vogue as a comedian later in your career. Is it weird to be this fully developed person with all these complexes, now that you’re coming into the spotlight? Or do you feel yourself changing still, even as an older comedian?

Burr: Um, as an old comedian, I really don’t have a problem with my age, considering many of my friends never made it here, so I consider myself in the bonus round. And I also think, that’s a very dangerous thing, in general, you really need to fix if you’re going to enjoy life. You need to be comfortable with your age, dress your age, be your age, and be proud of your age. Especially if you get into this business.

Look I keep myself in shape, I’m as vain as the next person. But like, you know, I kind of made a promise to myself I was going to look like a human being at the end of this. Some of these people with their laminated faces, and the insect legs stapled to the tops of their heads and stuff and it’s just like…

Fredell: Freaking you out?

Burr: No, there’s a power in being your age and saying your age.

‘Cause I know I also have the liberty of having my road gig get money. I always look at it like, I’m going to be honest, I’m not going to lie about it. But I win either way. Either I get to do a movie, or I get to stay home with my wife and kid. And to be honest with you, I’d rather do the latter. Nothing better than being home. Hanging out, you know?

Fredell: Right, I guess kind of a similar question is like, as someone who looks up to the Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy-types, I guess is it kind of funny, being now that you are. You know, Eddie Murphy is only 7 years older than you, but he was in his prime in the ‘80s. Is it kind of strange looking up to these comedians who are your contemporaries, but aren’t in the sense that the material they were producing came out twenty, thirty years ago?

Burr: I don’t look at it like that. There’s definitely been times where I watch a stand up comic that I watched when I was a kid, and in my head they’re still older than me. But in my head I do the math and I realize he’s like 12-15 years younger than me, and he was this good then. And it doesn’t bother me. I’m more blown away, it adds to my admiration of them.

I also play drums as a hobby. And when I listen to Led Zeppelin “Good Times Bad Times,” and I realize Bonham didn’t really get his first drum kit until he was like 14, 15, and he came up. And created that and executed that at 19, four years later.  And it’s just like. Wow. That’s when you really get blown away by stuff. But I’m not. I’m really not.

I fortunately don’t have that thing where somebody else’s success makes me feel bad. I had that when I was younger. But that’s like a normal thing. You’re starting out, you’re unsure, your friends went to college and are getting jobs that pays on their degrees, and you’re sitting there. And you can’t help and be like, “Hey I started a week before this guy, and he’s a week and a half ahead of me, what am I doing wrong?” Or more immaturely being like, “I fucking hate that guy.”Because he reminds me that I’m two and a half weeks behind him.

On Toxic Masculinity, Specifically

Burr: Can I address that toxic masculinity thing?

There’s something that I’m really looking forward to. As other people are getting into power, you’re going to find out that that is not a specifically something that is specifically based on sex. Or race. Right now it’s all “privileged white male this,” “privileged white male that.” Which is really hilarious considering we’re trying to end sexism and racism and all that. And for people who are victims of it, to turn around—like white guys did—and turn everybody into a cartoon. And then themselves say it’s a toxic white male thing. And it’s like. It’s a human thing.

And one thing I have learned in this business is that human beings in general do not handle a position of power well. And I think you’re going to see that. And I cannot fucking wait.

I always joke with my wife, you know, they say “If women ran the world there would be no war,” and I’m like “Do you see what happens on the real housewives?” I know it’s a show, but honestly, can they get through one event? They’re in like Paris or Vienna, and it’s just “That’s why you can’t have a kid bitch,” as you’re walking to the Louvre. And I think it’s this weird thing, where the people who should be in power don’t want it. The people that want to be in power—and now I’m turning them into a cartoon—but it really does attract a certain type of person. And sometimes you need that person that doesn’t give a shit and is going to make the tough decisions. But it’s definitely a precarious personality. We shall see. I honestly, the comedian in me, cannot wait to watch that comedy play that out.

On Wanting to Kill Most of His Audience (Which Devolves into a Diatribe About American Society)

Fredell: Something that’s interesting to me about your act is you’ll talk about killing off 80% of the population. Or just generally highlight the stupidity of the average person. Even though the audience is probably average. It seems like a difficult thing to talk about. How do you get your audience to buy in to something they should be opposed to? Is that tough? Or do you not care?

Burr: The funny thing is, that I like about those jokes, is that everybody agrees, and nobody thinks they’re part of the 85%, everybody thinks they’re part of the 15%. And they’re all just laughing with me, as if I’m qualified. But also, people know they’re at a comedy show. And I say ridiculous things. But I will tell you. As a traveling comic, you do get to see. It’s like you’re running for office for an election that never comes. You can insulate yourself and go to the so called A cities. Or you can go around.

I just did a gig in Rochester, I just did a gig in Youngstown. And you can actually meet everybody. And you know, you can see how truly hot it is everywhere. Right now, you can see this heatwave, everybody’s cranking the AC. I feel like we’re in a game of poker with Mother Nature, and we’re just bluffing. We don’t have anything, and she has a royal flush. And she’s trying to get us to fold, and we just keep putting more chips in, and we’re going to lose.

But now that I have a kid, you have to hope they’re going to figure it out. I will tell you, being on the road as a comedian for 20 years, during the day, I go to the movies, there’s nobody there. I drive over they’re all at work. And now it’s just non-stop traffic everywhere. And the population in this country hasn’t increased that much and it’s just like, you get to this point where you’re like “Does anybody have a fucking job?” And I know everybody is working from home, it’s a whole thing, but I think working from home means driving around. They can’t all be uber drivers.

And then the lifestyle people are living. Like the amount of people I see with Louis Vuitton bags in their 20’s, walking back to go sit in coach on a plane. Which is like, as far as how fucked up your priorities are there. And then, all of this crap where they’re knocking down these old places and everywhere is building these luxury high-rises. Who is going to be able to afford these? All these kids go to school, there’s no jobs, now you’re a hundred grand in debt with luxury high rises for rent, you can’t even buy them. When I was a kid, with Louis Vuitton you had to go to 5th avenue New York, or Rodeo LA, maybe they had a store in Chicago. But like, I did a gig in Mobile, Alabama, and it wasn’t just Louis Vuitton pieces. They had a whole store there. It’s just weird.

I don’t know what it is. I don’t know if it’s social media or Keeping Up With The Kardashians. You know, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, I think that’s what they really mean, can you afford these shoes? Can you get this bag? And what’s funny is, I’m sure they get this shit for free. And so like, economically you predict a downturn. Every 10 years you know. There’s that 2008, 1999, the 2001 dot com thing. The banks 10 years ago. But the thing is, my money is caught up in the game, so I don’t know what happens to me. I’ll just be the crazy old guy going, “You need to downsize.”

On Being Artifacted

Fredell: Bringing up the recession, you have a bunch of specials from that era, 2011, 2008 ish. Talking about some anxieties about the banking system, about the recession, stuff like that. Is it kind of odd, having all this archival footage of you going over the anxieties of the day? Like your last special, right before the election, kind of just talking about the weird mood. Is it weird? I guess it could be cool, too. Having these capsules of how you felt at a certain time in American history.

Burr: That’s why I loved doing it right before the election. A lot of people were like, “Why the hell would you do that?” And it’s like, once the election happens, it’s like the tension is gone, and then what was it going to be? Another guy going on stage talking about how fucking nuts Trump is, or making fun of his hair or whatever. I think it’s way more interesting to watch that special and see where people were right before.

Like post-Kennedy assassination, to take a real jump from your thing. You know where people were at, they were scared, they were depressed. But what was going on before, you know, like November 21, 1963? People are working their way up to Thanksgiving. It was football season. It’s something people don’t really talk about.

I actually don’t think their portrayal of back then is that accurate. Because I know the 1950’s was a really conservative time. Then they show these ads of white women walking around with their appliances but like, I watch a lot of METV. I watch this Private Eye show called 77 Sunset Strip, the first season, it’s 1958. And I swear to god, every married woman, just about, comes on to talk to the Private Eye. Makes a pass at him, kisses him. And what’s funny is he kisses them back, and then judges them. It’s so nuts. But, to see that, you see the precursor to all that free love stuff that came 10 years later. Because obviously, if this was such a conservative, judgmental time people were, you know, frustrated.

Watching that show, it seemed like there were a lot of sexually frustrated married women that they were catering to. Or, these were just horny guys writing stupid bits. But I highly recommend. Some of the shit that they say, the way that they talk. This guy goes, “Hey you get a pretty active elbow at lunch time, are you on the sauce?” Making fun of his friend, an alcoholic. The way they talk to women, “Pipe down, shut up,” it’s just like, kind of funny to watch. Wow, you know, Anchorman really wasn’t an exaggeration.

On Writing Jokes in a Politically Correct Culture

Fredell: I guess, kind of to the point you raised earlier. In an era of Trump and PC Culture, is it hard to write jokes when it’s so easy to make fun of things?

Burr: I stay away from Trump jokes. You know, everyone is doing them. If I was going to do something on him, I would try to humanize him. Try to figure out his relationship with his dad, why he can’t handle anyone making fun of him on social media. I don’t know. My style is, if I go to a red state, I will make fun of people thinking Donald Trump is going to make it better—make it great—and if I’m in say, LA, in the liberal part, Hollywood, just outside of it. I was making fun of white women crying that Hillary didn’t win. Like you’re a white woman in the United States of America, you almost won the lottery. Your life is slightly less awesome than mine, and my life is ridiculous. I’m not saying you don’t have something to complain about, but it’s like, do you really think you’re next in line when it comes to priorities? Like “Native Americans, African Americans –no—white women.” That is what’s next on the agenda. I’m not saying I 100% believe all of that shit . I find it actually almost grosses me out to tell a crowd what they want to hear.

Bill Burr will be performing at the MGM Casino on August 24th. His newest comedy special, Walk Your Way Out, is on Netflix. The 3rd season of his show, F is for Family, is coming to Netflix later this year.

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Good job Max. When will we see your interview of you? I am so proud of you.

Didcot Bob

” I find it actually almost grosses me out to tell a crowd what they want to hear.”
If only some of the liberal, virtue-signalling “comedians” we have over here in the UK adopted that attitude. Jeez, you’ve nooooo idea how tedious most “comedy” is over here these days. Come pay us a visit, Bill ! We need you!

Didcot Bob

“It actually almost grosses me out to tell a crowd what they want to hear.” If only some of the liberal, virtue-signalling “comedians” we have over here in the UK adopted that attitude.

Jeez, you’ve nooooo idea how tedious most “comedy” is over here these days. Come pay us a visit, Bill ! We need you!