When Bill Burr produced the first two seasons of his animated Netflix series F Is for Family, his own immediate family consisted of just him and his wife, Nia Hill. That changed last January when the couple had their first child, then six weeks later, Burr went to work on season three of the show, which premieres on Netflix today. Burr says he was just a rookie dad at that point, with so much to learn about being a father, but things are definitely different now for the veteran comic, who can see a lot changing in how he’d write a fourth season.
That’s not all that’s changed this year for Burr, now over 25 years into his career as a stand-up. He signed a production deal with Comedy Central in September that will result in three hour-long specials and a half-hour original stand-up series hosted by Burr to introduce up-and-coming comics that he likes. He has started to write his first movie. And now F Is for Family, the first show that Burr has ever written for, is set to return with the notable addition to the cast of Vince Vaughn, who also serves as a producer.
That won’t stop or slow down Burr from doing stand-up, a career he says he’d never be able to walk away from, but there’s a lot more on his plate both at work and at home.
You’ve said that in the very beginning of creating the show that you wanted it to be episodic, but that Netflix suggested a serialized version of the show. How has that aspect helped you evolve F Is for Family over the last three seasons?
I said, “Nah, let’s do it like The Simpsons!” and they wanted it to do it serialized, and I didn’t get why. All these other cartoons that I like are not serialized. And then 20 minutes in I was like, Oh, shit, we can take this to a whole other level. Three seasons in, you see what Vic has gone through with his substance abuse, the growing pains to Kevin, Kevin and Frank’s relationships, Bill getting his first girlfriend … it’s pretty awesome. It’s way more fun to write that way.
You’ve surrounded yourself on the cast with some pretty big names already like Sam Rockwell, Laura Dern, and Justin Long, but this year you’ve added Vince Vaughn as the voice of Chet. What was the process behind getting Vaughn to step over from producer to a part of the cast?
It was inevitable that he was going to get on; we just had to find the right [character]. But even having said that, what he did with that character Chet, he was really big on being in the booth with me as much as possible, so I got to watch him develop that character. That guy is one of the funniest guys of all time and definitely, I think, the funniest guy of a generation, as far as how fast his mind is. His work on Swingers, Old School, The Breakup, Wedding Crashers — so much of that is not on the page; that’s just him riffing, and he did that with us. Once he got the character down — which took him like 18 minutes of playing around with it and then all of a sudden he had this crazy laugh, this cool accent — he just started throwing all this stuff in. It’s one of those things where you’re standing there and thinking, I can’t believe I know this guy and I’m working with him and get to watch his whole process. It was pretty awesome.
You’ve made a show that is set in the ’70s with a certain cultural vibe to it, including having characters who might be racist, sexist, or homophobic. How important is it to keep that vibe and not compromise because it is set in a different era?
As far as those topics, there’s always an absurdity to it. It never reflects on the people that it’s directed at — it’s always directed back on, Wow, can you believe people use to say stuff like that? It’s ridiculous. When I was a kid there was so much racism that was like that. There was something about black people not being able to swim and it had to do with body fat — they didn’t float, they just sunk to the bottom of the pool. It made no sense! But everyone was saying it. It wasn’t until you sat down and thought about it that you realized, This is the stupidest shit I’ve heard in my life. We try to stay in that world when it comes to that stuff rather than harping on shit that unfortunately still exists today.
It wasn’t until last year that you became a dad for the first time, so how much did that change you in writing a show about a family?
It’s a good question. When I wrote it, my daughter was only months old, so I was still a rookie. I was brand-new to the league, so I would think subconsciously it had an effect, but I would say in season four, if we’re lucky enough to get one, that’s gonna be … I’ll tell you a story that’s really affected me since being a dad. There was a story that went viral online about this college student who was on an athletic scholarship. She was gay and she didn’t tell her parents because she thought they’d have a negative reaction, but on Instagram she had pictures of her and her girlfriend. Long story short, her parents find out and they disown her to the point of dropping all her shit off at school saying, “We’re not paying for this; you’re on your own.” And I just remember, it’s like when your kid is a baby and the first time your kid hugs you and you feel their little hands grab a handful of your shirt, when that happens it’s so amazing, and also you think, If I live to be 200 years old, I’ll never forget this. Reading that story and seeing people that could somehow forget that, I had a real reaction to that. What if I did that to my daughter? And immediately there was that worry of, Oh my God, where is she, is she okay? That’s the kind of stuff that I didn’t have access to before, because I didn’t have that ridiculous joy that comes with the balance of life, fear, and worry that happens the second you become a dad. That would probably go in season four.
Would that be seen in your stand-up now?
It’s more showing itself in my travel schedule. At this point, I don’t choose to talk about my kid because I feel like when you do the job that I do, there are a lot of things that change. Putting yourself out there like that is a great thing and everything, but there are always negative aspects of it, so I feel it’s a real personal decision. I just think that if my kid ever wanted to be out in the light, that’s a decision she makes — I don’t make it for her.
Surely you must have had past meetings and offers to make a sitcom, but this is the first one that saw the light of day. What was the difference between those shows or meetings and the one that ultimately became F Is for Family?
The business was way different just ten years ago, and I think that’s the influence of streaming services like Netflix and Amazon and just the sheer amount of options that are available to anybody out there. I got a buddy of mine — his kid, the thing he does the most is watch somebody who gets paid to play a video game. He watches it on his phone. So I think now it’s like in order to get viewers, all of these networks had to let the creative people just run wild a little bit — let them off the leash and see what they could do because there are so many friggin’ channels that you need to be making some sort of unique noise to get somebody to even notice that you exist.
Back in the day, if a comedian had a show, every comic knew he had a show and what it was called. I remember one time I was talking to another comic and I said, “I really like your show,” and we were talking for ten minutes about it and then she goes, “Oh, no, that one got canceled. I thought you meant the one that I’m on now.” Then I told her I was on a show and she said she had never even heard of it. How crazy is it? The other day I saw Tim Meadows on this billboard and I thought, “That guy is aging great. He looks great.” So I thought, I’ll go check out his new show, and I find out it’s in its second season. It’s just like, how the fuck does Tim Meadows have something, a guy I’m a fan of, and he’s gotta have two seasons and a giant fucking billboard before I see it?
What lessons have you learned after three seasons of writing a show for the first time?
I’m writing a movie right now, a feature film with a buddy of mine, and now I’m much better at how to put together a story, and that’s all been thanks to Mike Price, David Richardson, Emily Towers, and all the people in the room, these great writers. I really don’t try to break down whatever it is that I’m doing because then I start looking at myself and it all goes off the rails. If I just focus on the job at hand, it’s fine. Sometimes if I’m onstage and I’m talking, if I start thinking like, I’m not doing jokes; I’m just talking, and the second I start thinking, Why are they laughing? the laughs immediately start to subside and I start bombing. I’ve kind of learned the way that my brain works [is] to not analyze what I’m doing and just keep going.
Do you ever see yourself not doing stand-up?
No. I just went out for the first time in like eight days. I had done six weeks in a row on the road, I was hanging with the family during Thanksgiving, and then I went to the Belly Room at the Comedy Store and did 12 minutes, and it was just euphoric. I’ve taken a break from stand-up — and by “a break” I mean a week — and never not felt dying to get back onstage. I love it. I was riffing, came up with a few new things. It’s still always exciting. I love it.
Is there anything you think people get wrong about your comedy or point of view? About Bill Burr as a stand-up or as a person?
That’s none of my business because that’s all their perception. I’ve said for a while that the fact that I say something means that it’s not what I’ve said anymore. Because it goes into somebody’s earholes and then it’s cut with all their life experiences. It’s like drugs that get stepped on, then they process it, and five people hear it five different ways.
I would say that the perception of me is that I’m an angry guy, that I walk around angry. I don’t. A lot of my comedy comes from that place, a lot of the characters I do, but I grew up outside of Boston and there were a lot of crazy, volatile people. Believe it or not, I like chilling out, smoking a cigar, and after a show I like going to some place quiet. I’d rather listen to someone else talk and not me. And if it’s a crazy place, I’d like to get out of there. I’m a lot more mellow than people think. Having said that, my wife would laugh at all of that and disagree.