The Secret to Bill Burr’s Success

Bill Burr was never an overnight sensation. It happened gradually. He’s a comedian who has been so consistently hilarious, so consistently impassioned about his jokes, and so consistently on edge that after two decades, hardly anybody can remember a time when they didn’t know Bill Burr.

But that’s not to say that he’s never the subject of widespread media interest. In 2006, Bill Burr walked onto a stage in Philadelphia in front of an audience that had booed and jeered every comedian who had come up before him, and they treated him the same. That became his shining moment. Bill Burr unleashed a torrent of witty rage that was so glorious that even the angry, rowdy crowd set aside their own inane contempt to laugh in praise of the miracle that they had just witnessed. That moment was special because it defined Bill Burr.

Since then, Burr has been busy as ever. He’s produced a popular podcast (the Monday Morning Podcast), appeared in numerous movies and TV shows, and released four albums and comedy specials.  I recently had the opportunity to talk with Burr over the phone about his most recent comedy special, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.

So I watched the special! It was great. Though I’m curious as to why it was filmed in black and white.

I love black and white and I just think it looks beautiful. I think standup is beautiful and I don’t like the way the art of standup is shot for the most part. I just think that they shoot them all the same way and that if you took the comedian out you couldn’t tell whose special was whose. I also planned to do a bunch of specials and I always wanted to do one in black and white. If I think about an entire body of work, to have one that was shot like that, just so they don’t look all the frickin’ same, I think it’s great.

I really think that standup should be shot like movies. It’s an hour long movie but for some reason some of those specials – they shoot them like Bourne Identity. They have all these edits and crazy stuff and jib cameras swooping in on jokes. The beauty to me of standup is that it’s just one person standing there, holding the audience. It’s a small thing that connects on this huge level.

So you just wanted it to be more straightforward?

I’m not the biggest fan of HDTV. It was cool when it first came out but now it’s so good, it’s actually, to me, clearer than real life is. If you and I were sitting and talking to each other across a table, at no point would I notice the pores in your skin. It’s getting to the point that you can see the cartilage inside somebody’s nose.

What made you land on Atlanta, Georgia for this special?

It has a beautiful theater, The Tabernacle. It used to be a Baptist church and there are organ pipes in the background. I’m also sort of a film nerd and I want the special to look different. I already have an idea for how I want to shoot the next one. I would like to grow as a person so my material changes and I’d like to improve as a comic with these specials. I would also like the look on each one to be a little bit different so when they look at it, they remember it going “Oh this was from this period, that was from that period.” I feel the same way about having to improve as a comedian; how I shoot the special can’t be stagnant either. I’ll grow and move in different directions, so the whole thing becomes more of an experience than “Here’s my latest hour, this is how you shoot a special, let me get the camera over here, camera over here, camera on the crowd, bing-bang-boom that’s how you shoot a special.”

Like, watch a movie like Seven, like that whole thing that they did where it was raining the whole time; that really helped the story. I just think standup is this weird thing that’s really respected but also simultaneously looked at like the guy at a party with the lamp on his head. A lot of times standup specials are shot with the mentality of the guy with a lampshade on his head, and I think it takes away from the art. In this day and age, I think there are more great comedians that are more prolific than in other times, because now it’s considered normal for everybody to basically put out a special every year. When I was growing up, nobody was doing that except George Carlin.

Right. And now you’re probably busier than you’ve ever been. Does that affect the production of your material?

A little bit. And that’s something I’m trying to figure out how to navigate. It’s a fun problem to have, but if that means my next special, which I have about every two years, if it takes two and a half years or maybe three – I would never put out a special because I felt like it was time for me to put out one again. I put it out when it’s ready. You don’t ever want to screw over the people that are paying money to see you. You can’t do that. They’ve got way too many options and also you’ve got to have a respect for the fact that people actually took the time to figure out who you are and what you do is a really cool thing and you can’t take advantage of it by doing a half-assed special because they will find somebody else. And you know what? They should.

You always have new material. That’s very impressive. You just keep churning out so much new stuff to talk about.

Well, I screw up a lot in life. [Laughs.] I make a lot of mistakes and mistakes turn into material and I’m also kind of an opinionated jackass so I always have an idea about something. Believe me, I pretty much sucked at everything else I tried to do in life so thank God there’s this job.

You’ve said that when you started, you used to work clean. Did that also mean that you would sit down and write out material instead of talk it out?

Yes. The clean thing: I did for probably the first two or two and a half years, and that was because I wanted to make sure I knew how to write a joke, and also I didn’t want to get heckled. I was very afraid of getting heckled, and for some reason I figured that if I was cursing I had a greater chance of offending someone and getting heckled. But then I started talking how I usually talk and moving in a different direction. I guess I still wrote out jokes for the first ten or eleven years of my career. I was always kind of writing onstage. About six years in, I was riffing and doing that type of thing. That whole not writing on stage thing was a concept that the great Tony V once described to me. He was the first guy that didn’t write out any of his jokes, and it just blew my mind. And I’m like, “Yeah, but what if you forget a joke!? What if you’ve got a great joke and you forget it? You know, because you have so many jokes.” And he just goes, “Well that just means it’s time to stop doing the joke.” He just really has this confidence and it took me so long to understand it.

Basically back in the day when you made your friends laugh at school, in the high school cafeteria or whatever, you didn’t go write that fucking joke down and then come in the next day and do it again with the same crowd every day. You were basically coming up with new material every day and you were improvising it. The thing about comedians is there is a real big difference – I feel like you’re working toward getting to that same level of comfort that you had when you were in the high school cafeteria talking to your friends, but now you’re talking to a crowd, but still it’s that thing where in the cafeteria. You didn’t always say the funniest things, but that’s why you need material, because people don’t want to come and see the night you’re off. And when you’re on as a comic you’re barely doing your act. You’re just riffing. But if you’re off, then you do your act and you’re off. Does that make sense?

It’s about also getting comfortable in front of anybody.

Yeah, which to me is what all art is – getting comfortable enough to tap into whatever gifts you were given. Say you played an instrument. You know those guys who are so good they can just play what they hear. They think it and their fingers make it happen on the guitar or something. That’s the same principle. But to me that seems way harder. I’m not musically gifted, but it’s the same thing.

You’re very passionate about the topics in your jokes. I imagine that having people disagree with you only fuels your ability to come up with new thoughts and material. As you become more popular and you get more people praising your material, does that make it harder for you to produce?

Like, when people like it so you don’t get as much criticism?

Fortunately there’s the wonderful world of Twitter and the internet, and there’s always somebody either doing it for real or just joking around and trying to do the whole troll thing. But I have never done anything that was ever on TV or on a podcast or put out as a special or a part in a movie – I’ve never done any project where someone didn’t absolutely obliterate me. The best you could ever get is 90 percent of people liking it. But that 10 percent is still gonna say “ehh” or just say “I don’t think you’re funny. I don’t even know why you’re in this fucking business. You’re ugly.” I mean, every horrific thing they could think of to say. Which comes with the territory. What are you gonna do?

It keeps you humble, I guess. That’s gotta be hard to when thousands and thousands of people are laughing and clapping for you. But somehow you really are great at never becoming smug.

Yeah, you would think it’s gotta be some big ego boost, but it’s so incremental to get to that level that you’re not ever – I should just speak for myself – I’m not ever onstage like, “Wow, I’m awesome!” I’m not thinking that. I’m listening to the crowd and acting as I go. Sometimes I’ll think “Oh fuck, I hope I remember that.” You’re listening to the crowd – this big thing that you’re trying to control and hopefully keep on your side.

It’s really – it’s a job. I can’t explain it. It’s like you’re interacting with this giant thing and you’re listening to it and it’s telling you if you need to speed up or slow down or get more animated. It’s more like you’re listening to it, you’re not taking it in like, “These people are applauding and laughing at what I’m saying!” You’re more listening to it.

A little while ago, Rolling Stone labeled you the new Louis C.K. which I feel like is offensively stupid to have done, just saying you’re the “new” someone else, especially someone who is still alive and working.

I thought it was more disrespectful to him because I’m not the new Louis C.K. If I was the new Louis C.K., I would have one of the funniest shows on television that I wrote, directed, edited, and starred in while putting out a standup special every year. I don’t do any of that shit, and it takes me two years to put one out, so I’ve got a long way to go before I’m the next him.

It also just feels like they’re not taking you for yourself. They’re just comparing you to somebody else.

They’re like “Here’s another balding, red-headed white guy. Put him in the Louis C.K. drawer.”

When you were starting, people weren’t always connected to you on things like Twitter or Facebook or YouTube and always expecting you to produce things to the same extent that Louis is and you are and every other working comic is. Do you think that makes it harder to succeed in comedy now?

No. I think all that pressure stuff and all that crap is just about how much you decide to pay attention to it and give it weight and credibility. The guys who really are successful don’t listen to it. One of my favorite things was this interview with Jerry Seinfeld, and there was a question like “What are you gonna do next? How are you gonna top this?” And he goes “Yeah I don’t know. Do standup?” They were like “Are you gonna try to do another show?” and he goes, “No, I already did a show.” They were like “Oh no!” They wanted him to take that carrot, but he started doing standup and when he came up with an idea that he wanted to do – this Comedians in Cars thing – it’s fucking brilliant. Nobody is comparing that to the sitcom, because he did it at his own pace. And it was perfect. If you want to maintain sanity, that’s how you have to go through it. Because the only person who knows what you should be doing next really is you. You feel it in your gut. It’s like finding the person you’re supposed to be with. You stay with them for a while then you break up but you look back and you kinda knew after three dates, but for whatever reason because of this and that and you didn’t stop dating. It’s the exact same thing. When you go into a room, if you feel like “Oh I vibe with these people,” then I feel excited. Like, “This is going to be a good project.” I really believe that that’s what you listen to as you navigate through this business, and you also have to come to terms with who you are. You’re not gonna be Brad Pitt, but you can play his friend in a movie and that’s pretty fucking cool.

So it’s just doing what you want to do and not letting yourself feel pressure from other people. Keeping your head down.

Yeah, exactly. When you’re coming up, that’s all you kinda get, that pressure. You need to go to this school, you gotta have this, you gotta have this on the SATs, you got to do all that. I understand why they do it, but in a weird way they’re teaching you not to listen to yourself. I thought I fucking hated to read. I thought I was a moron, I thought all of this stuff, but basically it was just I was reading shit that other people wanted me to read and they gave me a deadline. It’s not like I read all the time, but when I do read, I thoroughly enjoy it because it’s something that I want to read and if I’m ten pages in and I don’t like it I can put it down. I don’t owe anybody a report. So all of that pressure is gone. And I mean, technically I’m a workaholic but I love what I do, so I wake up with energy. But back in the day, every job I had felt like jury duty, I just didn’t like them.

But you were always looking forward to comedy that night.

Right. But I did enjoy working in a warehouse unloading trucks. I loved that fucking job. It was physically a good workout, you stayed in good shape, and the people who work in a warehouse – it’s a lot of musicians, artists, and class clowns. It was so much fun to work there. I was working there at 18 or 19, and I used to say “I’m gonna be 30 someday but I’d never leave this job.” I absolutely loved it. We were all young, we weren’t swimming it debt, we had our whole lives ahead of us, it was one of the greatest times of my life.

So you have an ability to find out what you want and just pursue that and ignore pressure from other people. Would you say that’s been the most helpful thing to your career?

That was something I just kinda learned by accident. I kinda fell into being a comedian by accident. I wanted to do it, but I didn’t think it was possible because there wasn’t the internet, it was just on TV and that seemed like a million miles away from where I was. This guy I knew was gonna try it and he was like “I’m just gonna take a shot of Jack Daniels right now, five minutes, let’s go, I’m just gonna get on a stage.” And I thought, “Wow, that’s all you have to do?” Somewhere around then I was like “If I don’t go after what I want, I’m gonna have this regret” so I was like, “I gotta do it.” And then just taking that step, I kinda learned all that stuff that you were just describing, where I think it took me a while to learn to listen to what I wanted to do. And then there was another period where I was doing it but not aware that I was doing it, so I wasn’t equating the success I was having with the fact that I was finally listening and doing what my gut was telling me to do. It kind of wasn’t until I talked to people like yourself who ask questions about it that I was like “Oh I guess I do that.” And made me better at it. So thanks for asking me that question which reminded me again. Maybe I won’t make a dumb decision today.

Phil Stamato lives and writes in New York, where he may also be seen standing up and telling jokes.

The Secret to Bill Burr’s Success