Though he’d probably take issue with the suggestion that he represents anything more than being an exceptionally talented stand-up comic, Bill Burr’s success is a rebuke to the idea that comedy should heed any rules but the big one: be funny. “I hate all this shit now about what you can or can’t make a joke about,” says Burr, a plainspoken provocateur, leaning back on a couch at the Burbank, California, studios of All Things Comedy, the media company he co-founded. “The people who say that kind of stuff are the most unfunny people to be around in the world.”
As for himself, Burr isn’t exactly wanting for an audience. His expertly crafted stand-up — he’s almost always on tour — has earned him arena-headliner status, his Monday Morning Podcast is a hit, and his Netflix animated sitcom F Is for Family is a critical favorite set to return for a third season this fall. “There’s just this thing I have,” Burr says, “that if I see a bunch of people thinking one way, I just gotta go at ’em. I don’t know what it is. I just gotta do it.”
As someone who’s in the business of both comedy and podcasting, do you see the explosion of outlets for comedy as the result of an explosion of good comedy? How many of these podcasts are justifying themselves in terms of quality?
Well, back in the day there were probably too few opportunities for comedians and now, yeah, you could argue that there are too many. But the situation now is better because the performers have so much more control about what they put out. It’s mostly up to the comedian: If you sink, you know it was you.
So it’s a meritocracy?
There’s always going to be the thing where something simple — he got kicked in the balls! — will have a zillion fucking hits. And then there’ll be the people who are into comedy who’re saying, “No, this is the guy you need to listen to.” But I do what I think is funny and ignore 90 percent of the rest of it. I just saw something today on Twitter where someone wrote, “Thank you fake feminism. Here’s something else we can’t make fun of.” That whole thing of, like, “Thanks a lot, Group A. I guess I can’t say this is funny now” — I don’t get that. If that’s what someone is thinking, you should go harder in that direction.
You mean get a gig in front the people saying something isn’t funny anymore?
Yeah. That’s why feminists are some of my favorite people to do comedy in front of. It’s so easy. They’re so fucking sensitive. They take themselves so seriously that you can’t be absurd enough — they still act like you’re presenting legislation. When I was in L.A. during the election I would just trash Hillary [Clinton]. But when I go to Oklahoma, I make fun of gun owners and their AR-15s. I don’t mean trying to piss people off so much that they leave the show, but just trying to bug ‘em. That’s where the fun is.
Is the impulse to bug people on a certain side of an issue more about your disagreeing with their position on that issue or is it more about the pleasure of making people uncomfortable?
I don’t know. I hate the feeling of somebody trying to control what I think. It’s claustrophobic. And in the part of the world that I grew up in, if you see a bunch of people excited about something you have to make fun of it. That’s an asshole thing to do offstage, but onstage it’s funny.
When’s the last time you did it?
The other day I was in Pittsburgh and started making fun of Mr. Rogers. I don’t know why I brought him up as a reference. I didn’t even realize he was from there. But I got this huge laugh and afterwards, I was like, “Wow, that’s a killer bit.” Then people went, “No, the crowd was laughing because they thought you knew he was from Pittsburgh.”
What’d you make fun of Mr. Rogers about?
About how he made me uncomfortable. He was just so nice.
Yeah, no one’s that nice without a reason.
And he had this Norman Bates build.
Who’s wearing a cardigan all the time anyway?
And all that make-believe and talking to puppets. I don’t know, it was probably hacky shit but the crowd assumed I was doing it onstage to get a rise out of them. And I’m there thinking, I’m killing with this!
Just to go back to feminism for a second, because it’s a subject you joke about a lot. How much of your material about feminism is about taking it on for the sake of taking it on and how much is rooted in real disagreement with it? And if it’s the latter, do you worry that it’s punching down at people trying to address a power imbalance?
Oh, it’s totally not punching down.
Because you can ruin your career doing it.
Whose career was ruined by making fun of feminism?
What do you mean whose career was ruined?
I’m talking about jokes. Whose career was ruined by making jokes about feminism?
Not ruined, but you know what I mean. You have to then apologize for shit. That whole punching-down thing — I absolutely cannot stand people who say that. “Punch up. Punch up.” That has got to be the most boring thing you could ever do onstage. It’s yelling into an echo chamber. What’s so fucking funny to me is that what’s really going on is never brought up. Who donates to the president and who pays for the advertising on all these big news networks? That’s shit people should be upset about. But instead, if you do a fucking feminist joke in a strip mall you make the news. So that’s just a load of shit.
The punching-down idea?
It’s an utter load of shit. Smarmy people who aren’t funny say that. Comedy is a pastime. The pastime is making fun of something you’re not supposed to make fun of because that gives you a mental break from all the taxing shit you have to do. Not everything has to be important. There’s a swirl of trash in the Pacific Ocean that’s, like, two-and-a-half times the size of Texas; all the trash we throw out is a much bigger problem than this other crap that people talk about. I honestly think the world is so fucked-up that if you actually looked at it, it’s too depressing. So going after comedians and building them up and ripping them down has become this sort of distraction.
But the non-comedy issues you’re talking about do get a lot of coverage. The front page of the New York Times is not about who’s getting offended by comedians.
It’s about what?
I don’t know. Michael Cohen.
You tell me how much people pay attention to that.
I think people pay a lot of attention.
No, how about the nationwide heroin epidemic and where that might have come from instead of “somebody did a Caitlyn Jenner joke!” Look, I’m not saying that comedians are being crucified. I’m just saying that the magnitude and the weight that is given to some shit a comedian says versus the weight that’s given to the government shutting down every August — I don’t know. No one gives a fuck what I think.
I think they do.
No, they don’t.
Have you seen those compilation videos people have made of your stuff where they’ll cut together a bunch of jokes you’ve done about, like, gun rights or feminism and then give them a title like “Bill Burr Destroys Feminism”?
Yeah, it’s all bullshit.
Because it’s frustrating to have your work taken apart and put back together that way?
It would be frustrating if they were only doing that to me but that’s been done to everything. That’s done on CNN and on Fox. Politics and news didn’t used to be like it is now. When I was a kid, when you went over to somebody’s house, you didn’t bring up politics because you wanted to avoid a fight. Now it’s all people bring up and it doesn’t get you anywhere. Who has ever screamed at somebody and then the other person said, “You know what? Now I see your point.” Screaming just causes you to say horrible things to people that you would probably like if you actually knew ‘em. But both sides are completely delusional. They say everyone else is either a libtard or a fascist Nazi.
What makes people talk to each other like that?
Something happens to human beings when they get in groups. Suddenly you have an agenda. My hate for that is probably what drove me into doing what I for a living.
You say you don’t pay attention to 90 percent of what’s out there, but it seems like the 10 percent you’re paying attention to still gets you pretty agitated.
I try to listen to individuals who come up and talk to me. I don’t listen to the hissy fits on social media. Social media is good for promoting gigs and it’s fun if you play an instrument. I play drums, and you can watch people play drum covers and figure things out that way. But the internet-speak — like when the Michael Jordan crying fucking thing gets applied to everything — I don’t get into that. If I wasn’t in this business, I wouldn’t be on social media, but you have to know what’s going on there to remain relevant as a comic. But I’m trying to do a new thing with it.
I’ve been trying to put my phone down. I have this solitaire game on there, and then it’s like, “Oh, now I’m going to learn how to play spades.” And I’ve got the gin one, too, like I’m going to have this second career as a fucking gambler or something. I get into what I’m doing. That’s how my brain works. I get into something and then I disappear into a room for eight years. So I have to watch what I point that impulse at or else I will not be productive. But getting back to that stuff you were talking about earlier, I do feel that people watch you for eight seconds online and then go, “Oh, he’s an angry guy.” They just sum you up. But if other people are doing that, it means on some level I must be doing it, too. That’s how I stay relaxed in traffic.
What do you mean?
When somebody does an asshole move it’s like, All right, I’ve done that before, too. I don’t mind aggressively bad drivers. I just hate the pot-cookie energy that people drive with in L.A. on surface streets. Then they get on the highway and it’s like they fucking did an eight-ball.
I don’t quite follow the connection.
I’m just saying as far as if somebody comes at me and sums me up, how I handle it is I just try to think, If they do that, it means I’m doing it, too. So to have contempt for people doesn’t make sense.
Ah, okay, I get it. Do you think your act gets misrepresented online a lot?
I do feel I get misunderstood. My favorite thing with those videos you’re talking about is when whoever makes them renames the stuff. There’ll be a video of my stuff and it’s called “Women Ruin Everything.” I never fucking said that! That’s why when someone gets offended by a joke of mine, they’re offended by something that’s not even what I really said. I say a joke and it goes in your ears and gets cut with all your memories — it’s like drugs that have been stepped on. My joke is processed with whatever happened to you in your life. But you can’t control who’s going to show up to see you and how they’re going to hear your shit.
Is there any value — and I’m asking not in terms of you specifically but more generally — in hearing people explain why they’re offended by certain jokes? Isn’t it good, even on some minor level, to be asked to think about whether the idea behind a joke is outdated?
Comedy is irreverent. It’s rebellious. That’s what it’s supposed to be: “Whatever you do, don’t say this.” That’s the setup and then you fucking say it! This whole weight that is put on comedy now is hilarious. Then there’s the comics doing comedy for a cause. That’s a whole brand-new thing. There’s no laughs. It’s just applause breaks as they’re up there making statements they know people will agree with and then the occasional joke.
I know you’ve talked before about Louis C.K. and #MeToo, but I’m wondering if you’ve seen any of the stories lately about the prospect of his comeback? Is there a right way for something like that happen?
Look, personally, I think he was punished pretty extremely. They took everything he had. Do people want him to become homeless?
I don’t know the answer. I know these are complicated questions.
I don’t have the answer either. I definitely think Louis is going to come back. I believe if you do something wrong and get punished then it’s over. I don’t know. This is obviously a whole new thing. He admitted that what all the women said he did was true. He’s been punished for what he did. So now what? I like Louis. I do. He’s a friend of mine. I feel horrible about the whole situation. I feel horrible about the people that he did that to. The whole fucking thing, you just wish it didn’t happen. But it did. And he got punished and he should be, at some point, allowed to move on.
This idea you’ve mentioned that comedians are given so much more weight than they used to be given …
Why do you think that is? Because I don’t get it. What do I gotta do for you to realize that I’m a fucking idiot? I’m literally doing a job that is the silliest job other than dressing up like a clown. And I say in my act I don’t read. I say that I don’t research shit. Why would you put any weight to anything I’m saying? There’s that argument where people go, “You’re influencing the people that come to your show.” What I always say to them is, “Are you homophobic?” Of course they say “no.” And I go, “Now what joke could I tell in an hour of stand-up that would undo that?” Because these people are acting like somebody could walk into a show not homophobic and then you can make them homophobic. If stand-up had that power, it wouldn’t be legal.
Okay, I understand what you’re saying about comedians being treated as if they have more authority than they really do, but you also hear comedians themselves talking about their work as an important form of honesty and truth-telling. It’s not just people on the outside.
I find that all hilarious. When people say, “He trained like a boxer for that special.” Yeah, sure he skipped some rope, but he didn’t take any head shots.
Does it ever seem like certain comedians kind of want it both ways? They’re fine with being seen as important artists and truth-tellers but when someone takes issue with the work, the response sometimes is “It’s just a joke!” You know what I mean?
Just because somebody else says what I’m saying is important doesn’t mean I think it is. If I never say what I’m saying is important, then you should never take it seriously. If some other comedian’s dumb enough to say that, then hold their feet to the fire, but don’t hold all of our feet to the fire. Throughout my career I’ve said I’m a fucking idiot. I am hyperconscious that I don’t know shit.
Does it seem crazy to you, then, that people hold up your work as being especially truthful?
But they don’t say that.
They don’t. Who?
Look online at anything you’ve ever done and it’s loaded with comments about how you much you tell it like it is.
Can I ask you a question? Do you comment on YouTube videos?
I don’t, no.
So why would you read that shit? You don’t have to get very far down before somebody drops the N-word or says Obama ruined the country. Half the people making comments are just trolling the other half. So to go on YouTube and read comments and think that you’re picking up on the pulse of anything…
I get what you’re saying.
It’s just that there’s so many different levels that you can watch a comedian on and the most boring is face value, which is what a lot of those comments you’re talking about are. It’s all, “He said this, therefore he’s that.” But hopefully we evolve. I look back and so much of my stuff was about fear of that next step in life. That’s all it was.
What were you afraid of?
Wanting to be married. Wanting to be a dad. I don’t know — I’m not saying there’s not some mouth-breathers out there, but who wants to walk around in the middle of fucking hysteria all the time. That’s what it is to read comments. It’s like, I got into the conspiracy theory thing and it almost fucking ruined me. I was into chemtrails; I was becoming that guy. “Hey, here’s all these problems that I have no solution for that you’re not thinking of. I’m going to put them in your brain and ruin your fucking day.”
How’d you get out of that?
I got a dog and the NHL Center Ice package. I have a little life now. I do my F Is for Family, I do the podcast network thing, and I tell my jokes. If I’m not doing that, I am at home playing with my kid or hanging with my wife.
Do you still get ideas from the things that scare you?
Yeah. People say, “You’re going to get married, and you’re going to have a kid, and then you’re going to be happy and you’re not going to have any material.” I’ve been telling guys that what really happens is, once you get that happiness there’s this whole new fear that you’re going to lose it. Stephen King cannot fuck with the things that you think could happen to your kids. I’ve learned how to deal with those thoughts, and I know the tricks to get me out of depression: playing drums, working out, playing with my daughter, trying something new.
What would you do before you learned those tricks?
I would let that bad feeling drag me down to the bottom of the lake and I’d lay down there. The only thing that would pull me out of it would be getting a new chunk of material. And to get a new chunk of material you have to go out into the world. But when you’re in that funk you don’t want to go out and then you get writer’s block. When I was younger I even used to think all that clichéd sad-clown shit. Now I don’t want to fucking be that guy. I want to be the happy guy, which believe it or not, I am.
You’re turning 50 soon. What does that mean to you?
It’s fucking awesome. I didn’t think I was going to be a dad, but I also didn’t want to be that old comic that never had a kid. And now I’m not that.
I have questions about two things that are sort of related …
That’s my whole act. Two things that are sort of related welded together.
First, what made you want to be a stand-up?
This is how much I wanted to be a comedian and didn’t realize it: I had a paper route for years when I was a kid, and when I was on my route I used to recite George Carlin bits, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy — I used to recite his “Hit by a Car” bit word-for-word. I would fantasize about doing it in front of my entire grade in the school auditorium. But I still wasn’t able to make the connection of maybe that means you want to be a comedian. It didn’t seem possible. But I know the exact moment when it seemed possible. I was working in a warehouse with this guy and he was into comedy — first time I’d ever met somebody who was into comedy the way I was. And I used to go over to his house to drink beers before we’d go out that night. To save money we’d get a good buzz before we got to the bar.
Yeah, and what we would do while we were drinking is we’d watch An Evening at the Improv on A&E. We would sit there and watch and if someone stunk we’d be heckling and saying all this shit that we thought was funny but which probably wasn’t. And I remember my friend goes, “We’re funnier than these guys.” And he goes, “One of these nights I’m going to take a shot of Jack Daniels and go up onstage.” And it hit me: Oh, you can just do that.
That there was no magical barrier separating you from the people doing comedy?
Yeah, and that was fucking ’89 or ’90 and it took me two years to get to Boston to actually do it.
What made you finally do it?
I was at Emerson College and in ’92 I made a New Year’s resolution: I gave myself a whole year to, at some point, try stand-up comedy. Then the school newspaper had an ad about how Nick’s Comedy Stop was having a find Boston’s funniest college student competition. I went home, took a deep breath, called the number and signed up before I could chicken out.
Can you remember any of your material?
I remember making fun of myself for being a commuter and having no friends and being alone all the time.
No, no — I was doing it in a funny way. But I didn’t bomb. I did okay, and I remember it was just like, This is what I’m doing now. Comedy is the only thing in my life I never had any doubt about. I obviously learned from a bunch of masters, but it always flowed into me. When you find what you’re supposed to do there’s not a lot of thinking. It just is. And if you love what you do, you transcend so much bullshit. My life was really unbalanced before.
I had found love in my job and I didn’t know how to do it in my personal life. I got to a pretty advanced age and comedy was a thousand miles down the road and everything else in my life was at the starting block. I wasn’t married. I didn’t have any kids. I was sleeping on a futon.
But you got where you wanted to be.
Yeah, I did. But I also had this thing where, when I was growing up, I got picked on a lot and I also beat some kids up. [Laughs.] I had a nice balance. I also felt like a freak because of how I looked. And I thought that if I became a comedian, people would see me on stage and go, “Oh, he’s a great, funny guy,” and then everyone would stop fucking with me. I thought that becoming a comic was going to fix these other problems. Of course, it didn’t. I just believed that it would for 15 years.
How’d you get your life and your job into better balance?
I stopped blaming the world for my problems. You can only walk around so long being like, “Chicks, man. They’re psychos.” At some point you realize that you’re the common factor. I wasn’t exactly the easiest person to be around. I’m not the most sane person. But until you sit down and talk to somebody about your issues, they’re foreign to you. I realized I was pretty fucked-up.
I read somewhere that when you started as a stand-up you worked clean. Why was that?
I didn’t want to offend people in the crowd because I was afraid to get heckled. Also I wanted to make sure that I knew how to make a joke before I started talking the way I really talked.
What’d working clean teach you about writing jokes?
Oh god, I don’t know. I just learned how to set the joke up and punch it and tag it. Comedy is the weirdest thing in the world. You can’t practice it in your bedroom. You can’t explain timing. You can’t explain any of it. But it was the late, great Patrice O’Neal who said to me back then, “Dude, that’s not you up there.” I was like, “I know, I know.” Then all of the sudden I started telling my real stories and talking the way I really talked and people were saying, “What is he doing? He’s blowing it.” Twenty-six years later …
And what helped you get more comfortable with hecklers?
Getting heckled. I remember one time feeling down that I got booed. And it wasn’t that I got booed, it was that I didn’t put up a fight. I was going back to the hotel room thinking, Jesus, you could’ve at least made fun of that guy in his stupid fucking jacket instead of just standing there.
It’s funny to think of the guy who did the Philly rant as ever being timid about hecklers.
I was mortified after that Philly thing happened. I was riding home with Bobby Kelly after and thought everyone was going to make fun of me for getting booed. And Bobby was just going, “Do you realize you just told that whole city to go fuck themselves?” I was so relieved when other comedians saw a positive side in it. And you know, at the next stop on the tour we went to Cleveland, and I walked onstage and the crowd started booing me. And I was just like, “Guys, insulting your city isn’t going to be my thing now.”
The second sort-of-related thing was also about your earlier career. I went back to your first special and there are moments of tension in it between you and the audience. Part of the fun is hearing you win them over. Now I imagine that since people coming to your shows already know who are you and like you, that tension isn’t there anymore. Do you miss it?
I do, but I don’t miss not selling tickets. It is there sometimes if I just pop in at the Comedy Store or something. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of getting out of my comfort zone. I think that’s what you should do. I understand the temptation if you’re an alternative comic to just do alternative rooms. Or if you were a club comic to just do club rooms. Or if you’re a white comic just to do white rooms. It’s because bombing is so humiliating that you want to avoid it. But humiliation is where the growth is. This is also like why I enjoy drinking and I don’t like pot. I feel like with drinking you have to earn it. You gotta get those drinks down.
Getting high is too easy with pot?
With pot you take a couple puffs and then you sit there and wait for it to happen, man. I don’t feel like I’ve earned it. That’s why I would never take pills: It’s so fucking easy. This goes back to that whole punching-down thing. There’s a challenge to it, and there’s also something funny listening to someone in the crowd go, aw. Then you talk to them and they’re not doing anything about the problem they just got offended about. It’s like, “So what are you doing about childhood obesity? You’re not helping it. You just feel bad about a joke and now you think you’re this good person because of that.”
So you’re saying the only way you’d accept a negative reaction is if the person who reacted were, in their life, working to positively affect the issue you were making fun of?
That’s a tough standard to meet.
It’s just funny because people sit there and think that they’re a better person because they didn’t make the joke, and that means they care about obese children, but at the same time they’re not doing anything to help.
Isn’t that like saying a guy who flinches when he hears a joke about getting kicked in the nuts also has to be working in his life to reduce nut-kicking or else his reaction wasn’t genuine?
No, the difference is that I’m not judging the audience and I’m not going to blog about being offended afterwards.
Fair enough. Do you find that your ideas come to you fully formed in the moment? Or do you start with a kernel and then do a ton of revision?
It’s hard to explain. But I’ll tell you one thing that made me die laughing recently — I could develop a whole bit out of it. I went to my nephew’s college graduation. The people running it said, “Please refrain from cheering.” And there were some black students who were doing dances and shit and then this white guy had to come over and be dragging them off the stage like the Sandman at the Apollo. It was the funniest fucking thing because everybody was yelling at the guy like, “Look at this racist fucking blah blah blah blah blah.” Everyone immediately had to show how not racist they were by trashing this dude. But he’s just the poor bastard that was given that job. Obviously what he was doing is fucked-up, but the amount of shit that he got — it was like he was the Grand Dragon in the Klan. But for all anyone knew, he’d been saying, “You want me to do what? I gotta go up there as a white guy and put my hands on a black man and tell him to stop celebrating?” And in this silly way, the thing is a microcosm of how white people have treated black people: They’re literally dancing, having a good time, and the white guy comes in and goes, “That’ll be enough of that.” There’s so many fucking themes in that situation. Can you imagine what Patrice O’Neal would’ve done with that situation? Or what Dave Chappelle would do?
I want to go back to something we were talking about earlier: Rightly or wrongly, I think people do hold your stuff up as a counterweight to the party lines on certain subjects. You’re saying that’s a mistake on their part?
You can try to hang that albatross around me, but the reality is that I go up onstage and I make you laugh for an hour. That’s all it is. And what I like is when people get offended and they never ask what your intent was. Somehow they know what you were thinking. “No, that’s not how I meant the joke.” And they’ll go, “Well, fuck you, that’s how I took it.” But just because you take it seriously doesn’t mean I meant it seriously.
Aren’t you making a similar assumption when you’re deciding that the people who go aw about fat-kid jokes don’t really care about fat kids?
Well, that’s like what I was talking about earlier.
About how you’re guilty of doing the same things that annoy you when other people do them?
Yeah, I do that all the time. Everything that I’ve said, you could poke holes in. Ask two follow-up questions and all my points fall on the floor. I have philosophies that are working for me, that’s all. But dude, I don’t know. Paying attention to all this stuff — and the conspiracy stuff that I was into — it’ll drive you crazy. That’s why I got a pilot’s license.
So you could escape the surface of the Earth when you were tempted to go online?
No, what it was is that about ten years ago when the bankers tanked the economy I was living here in L.A., and I started thinking, What if the whole economy collapsed and this city went crazy. How would I get out of here? You can’t get out of this city even when it works. Up and out was the only way. So I learned how to fly a helicopter. Now of course I know how to fly one, but I don’t own one.
But you took the first step.
I did. I took a major step. But the funny thing is when you watch those zombie movies and they start a helicopter up and they fly away — that’s not how a helicopter works. At least the ones I fly. There’s a whole process of starting the fucking thing up. Those zombies are going to be eating you before you even get halfway through your preflight checks.
These were some serious reasons to learn how to fly!
[Laughs.] No, but the truth about any of this stuff is that I don’t take myself seriously at all. Because I’m a lunatic and I yell, people think a certain way about me. People meet me and they go, “I thought you were going to be a screaming asshole.” Why would I be like that? It’d be obnoxious. But somebody always ends up not liking you no matter what you do. So you might as well just fucking do what you think is funny.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.