Bill Burr likes to make word hard for himself. Where most comedians start a joke out nice and easy, explaining the context and getting everyone onboard, Burr does the equivalent of throwing the audience into the deep end and then trying to pull them back safely. Take a joke near the top of his most recent Netflix special, Walk Your Way Out: Burr starts out angry at how the media does stories about how Hollywood creates body issues, building on his premise by pointing out that there are bigger problems in the world than body positivity. The joke eventually comes to reveal, though, that much of that position stems from Burr’s own discomfort with how he looks, and how that fits in the entertainment industry.
This joke the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Listen to the episode and read an excerpt from the transcript of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
In your first album, someone gets mad at one of your jokes and you say, “You can’t tell I’m doing a character up here.” Do you still feel like you’re writing jokes for a character — a version of yourself that’s not yourself?
Nah, it’s me amped up. I would never just rant and rave and have people listen to that! Like, when I’m done doing my act, I want quiet. That guy onstage is me putting on a show. But there are times where I am doing a character and people don’t understand. You know, the word police. Like, that bit I did, “What are you, a fag?”
I remember I was in Seattle, making fun of homophobia, making fun of morons. The joke was about why guys die before women, because women can acknowledge all the softer stuff, like, “Oh, I need to get sleep, I need to watch what I eat, I should take a bath,” and as a guy you can’t do that because people go, “What are you, a fag?” The next thing you know, “I’m not gay! And you’re outside with no jacket on in 40-degree weather!” So it’s making fun of it. But the second I did the character they were like, “You fucking homophobe!” and they stormed out. I remember three days later I got this over-the-top email. I emailed them back: “You know, if you fucking dopes hung out for the rest of the joke, you’d realize it was making fun of homophobia.”
Where did the joke about body issues start?
I was doing a gig in Mumbai, India. It was this amazing trip, but the level of poverty I saw was devastating. When I was over there, I saw this kid who was like 3 years old taking a shit between two parked cars. I will never forget that! I just wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. Then I came back here and the big thing was Hollywood body shaming. I was like, “Really? You have to lose ten pounds to star in a fucking movie?” It was hilarious to me. There’s a bullying that goes on on the left that they don’t see because they’re so up their fucking asses. They don’t see how they’re the Fox News of the left. I thought I was liberal till I moved out to Hollywood.
You come back from India, you see this contrast. Then when did it start becoming something that’s going to be onstage, what do you do first?
When I started it I didn’t tell the India thing. I just went with the thing that I thought was funny. Sometimes as a comic you can forget that everybody else doesn’t live in your head, so you just start in the middle. It just sounded like I was going off on fat people. People went, What the fuck is this bald guy doing making fun of fat people? Why the fuck is he going off about this? It wasn’t until I added the India thing that it started to work. Because what I do is I say it that way first, then I bring up the India thing, just to get people to go, “Aaaah!”
What do you think the audience gets out of a bit where it starts with you pushing them a bit first and then explaining the context after the initial shock?
I used to do it to get people to listen. I’d be doing these awful gigs where I was in bars and no one would be listening, so you’d just start saying something that sounds like, “Oh my god, is this guy gonna say something homophobic or racist? Is he pro-Hitler?” These are things that get people to put their drink down and go, “What’s going on up here?” You keep pulling the football away and they go flying, but they start paying attention! Then they get into your rhythm and you can actually do your act.
I heard you used to be letter perfect to the jokes, and now you write onstage. At this point, how deliberate are you with the phrasings of things?
Oh, I learned that from the late great Patrice O’Neal. He would switch up the order of his jokes and the jokes themselves. He’d say, “Bill, as long as you have the essence of the joke, you know where it’s going. It starts here, goes here, ends here. Then you can improv within the joke — expand, contract, etc.” It keeps it fresh. There are nights where I don’t feel like I’m on and I have all these games. It’s funny, I had all these improv teachers who are like, “A stand-up cannot improvise.” You can go up there and just have an act and recite it and be thinking about other shit in your life, and then there’s this unbelievable other side of the level of fun you can have, that I learned from guys like Dave Attell, where you can step off the cliff and see where this goes and then it grows into something else.
The joke ends with you talking about sixes and how you consider yourself a hard five. And it can be argued that that part makes it all okay because then you’re punching up. Do you care about that or not?
No, I hate that term — “Punch up. Don’t punch down.” Like you’re this hero if you go after the same old fucking things. There’s only so long you can make fun of the one percent! And it’s fun to go after, like, shit that you’re not supposed to go after. I just don’t see the sport in going after the thing everyone’s mad at. It’s like watching the Women’s March. It was so anticlimactic because everyone was in agreement. That was a fun thing to make fun of because then you have all the celebrities there who can’t help but make it about themselves. I thought it was hilarious that Madonna showed up and she was wearing the beret, so you knew she’d be a rebel that day! She made a “fashion statement.” And then she says the deliberately over-the-top thing about blowing up the White House, knowing that she’s gonna get free press, end up selling albums. That’s the shit that I love. That’s also why my wife loves and hates to watch TV with me. I just sit there talking and she’s like, “You can’t just shut up and watch this?”
I wanted to talk a bit about political correctness and people who get offended easily. It’s a bit of a paradox. Some comics say audiences are easily offended, but if people weren’t offended, you’d would be pushing boundaries. You’d be preaching to the choir.
I don’t think they’re easily offended. You don’t need that many people flipping out and they’ll turn it into a story. People, generally speaking, are intelligent. They know they’re watching a comedian, and they understand that it’s a joke. But you could do a show for 1,500 people and if one person gets offended, all of a sudden that’s the story. “Controversy!” No! If you were president and 1,499 out of 1,500 approved of you, you’d be like a king! It’s lazy journalism.
I don’t go up there to offend people. I go up there to make you laugh. I understand that now with your phones and YouTube and everything, regular people are so much more educated on what’s “funny” and what’s “real.” You go up there and you just have to go into original areas. I’m never going up there to be like, “Oh, who am I going to offend tonight?” I don’t look at it that way.