Bill Burr, Renaissance Man

When historians discovered Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, they found plans for a flying machine very similar to modern helicopters. We all know da Vinci was a great artist and inventor, but this was a look into his workshop that showed a vast range of interests and casual curiosities. A much fuller account of the person that created all this work.

Similarly, listening to Bill Burr’s long-running weekly Monday Morning Podcast is like looking into his own little workshop. But when you open the door, he’s not doing standup – he’s in there watching a drum tutorial on YouTube, trying to get his bass pedal foot as fast as John Bonham’s. Or he’s planning a trip to see all the big college football stadiums, or talking about a French-on-tape program for an upcoming trip across Europe, or fiddling with a cigar dehumidifier. It’s a half cliché at this point that comics pick up an endless stream of casual hobbies to fill the afternoons before gigs. But Bill Burr especially – the man just has an astounding number of serious hobbies, including a few weeks ago becoming a licensed helicopter pilot.

Burr is in a very busy time in his career: just off a week in Boston where he played 19 sold-out shows at the Wilbur Theater (I suggested that they rename it the Bilburr Theater, but I guess that didn’t catch on?), slowly but surely coming up on the premiere of an animated show he created for Netflix, in the midst of a respectable run of solid bit parts in movies and TV, and months removed from the release of his Carnegie Hall show Live at Andrew’s House on vinyl.

If you listen to his (actually now twice weekly) podcast, you’d know they had to name it Live at Andrew’s House because it turns out to be extremely expensive to use the name “Carnegie Hall.” In fact, you can learn a lot about Burr from listening to his podcast. You can see how these extra-curricular inform and inspire his main gig: standup. Stories that show up in specials begin as kernels of ideas that bubble up on his hour-long solo rants. Adopting a dog, putting together an IKEA bookshelf. Audiences get to know the ins and outs of his personality and outlook, so they’re already best friends when he walks on stage. Everyone knows if he’s a little on edge, it’s because the contractors are taking forever on the basement; it’s true what they say, everything’s twice as expensive and takes twice as long!! Figures in his stories are already familiar characters: the lovely Nia (his wife), his friends who he texts about football with, even his dog Cleo is a well-established character. By the time you go to watch him do standup, it’s like watching your buddy up there.

Since maybe 2010, there have emerged a handful of comedians whose podcasts have become almost a required supplement to their act in this way. But none more than Burr – he does his show solo (with the occasional help from Nia) and has been at it for longer (since 2007) than almost anyone. When he started, back when you had to use a Zoom recorder and then upload to the internet, and then download to an actual iPod, podcasting was still nothing. This was years before the “oh boy, every comedian’s got one” stereotype. It was just another one of his, again, astounding number of hobbies.

Because that’s really the most interesting thing. In the 2014 special I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, Bill argues for his audience to recognize that Arnold Schwarzenegger has accomplished more with his life than any of us normals could ever hope to accomplish. He went to a new country, learned the new language, became a movie star in that country, married into royalty in that country, and then became a governor. “Meanwhile I,” Bill exclaims, “am on my third try of Rosetta Stone Spanish!”

Well not to ruin a quality bit, but he seems to be living out a pretty awesome fantasy life of his own. Not only has he managed to tailor his road schedule to accommodate his fascination with big-time college football stadiums, but he’s been organizing actual concerts at LA bars where he dresses up like his favorite drummers and then plays with cover bands after doing standup, taking his wife to test their French in Paris, learning to enjoy the finest cigars (much less after Leonard Nimoy swore off smoking on his death bed), surfing in Australia (I don’t remember if he actually went surfing, but…it sounds good), and learning to fly real life, actual helicopters. I mean, that requires studying! And tests! All while reporting his best stories, breathless, to a huge audience and turning them into jokes! Bill Burr is like James Bond if instead of a spy, James Bond was a professional uncle. Which makes him everyone else’s Arnold Schwarzenegger if instead of a governor, he was a comedian. Sorry, that’s too convoluted. Bill Burr’s living the good life.

But really, the interesting thing isn’t that he travels a lot or that he does a lot of cool stuff. It’s that, at his core, he’s a true polymath. Sure, he might have to look up what that word means, but face it: so did the rest of us. He’s living proof that it’s way less important to know a lot of big words – that’s just window dressing. The good life is being genuinely, honestly curious about the world, pursuing a wide variety of interests, and then filtering these experiences through your point of view to create, in his case, interesting jokes and stories. Available fast and free every Monday (and Thursday) on iTunes.

Yes, Bill Burr is a true renaissance man. In 2013 he even dragged his wife on a sort of pilgrimage to that iconic Renaissance masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel. I mean, when you’re in Italy, what are you gonna do, not have that experience??

Of course, the first thing he learned was that it was actually called the “Sistine” Chapel. He always thought it was the “Sixteen” Chapel. Because at the end of the day, no matter how fancy he might try and get, he’s still that Irish kid from Baaaaaaahston theeeeyahhhh.

Bill Burr, Renaissance Man