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Bill Burr Almost Had a Heart Attack on The King of Staten Island

Bill Burr. Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images

As much as Bill Burr enjoys playing the Hollywood game, releasing acclaimed stand-up specials, running Netflix’s animated F Is for Family, and reaching millions of listeners with his podcast, he’s still a pretty regular guy. In fact, when Vulture called him up to discuss his role in The King of Staten Island, he was balancing a lot of things people can relate to: preparing for the birth of his son, juggling a dinner delivery, and figuring out how to use his landline, after he’d accidentally crushed his cell phone in his car door.

It’s Burr’s everyday demeanor that makes him perfect for the role of Ray, the fireman who starts dating Pete Davidson’s character’s mother, played by Marisa Tomei, in the new Judd Apatow movie. Though traces of his Boston-ness shine through, Burr brings gentleness and subtlety to the role, which might be a shock to viewers who only know his brash persona. That’s still there, of course — the role was written with him in mind, and there’s plenty of “fucks” flying throughout the dialogue — but it’s Ray who helps turn life around for stoner, depressive Scott (Davidson). Burr chatted about meeting Davidson, working with Tomei and Steve Buscemi, thinking firefighter training would kill him, and why the movie’s themes about mental health didn’t change a thing about his views on sensitivity.

So, how did you end up in the movie?
Pete was writing it with Judd and got an idea of writing something for me. Pete’s somebody I’ve known for quite a while and he texted me, “I’m writing this thing with Judd. Would you wind up doing this thing?” I was like, “You and Judd Apatow? Absolutely.” And you know this business — six months goes by and Judd came on my podcast and said, “You want to go grab something to eat and I’ll pitch this movie to you?” I played the whole Hollywood thing like, “Yeah, go ahead and pitch it to me.” [Laughs.] Like I was going to say no. The bonus was like, “Wow, this sounds like it could be a really good movie.”

How do you know Pete?
First time I met him, I was doing a gig in Atlantic City. The next day, I got out of the elevator and there was this woman standing there with this tall, lanky kid. She said, “We were at the show. We really enjoyed it. This is my son.” He had that awkward energy of a future comedian and she was saying, “He wants to be a comedian. I just took him to do his first show at the Looney Bin in Staten Island.” He had that star thing, so I remembered him. He’s always had poise and confidence. I’d seen enough great ones that I was like, This is gonna be one of the guys of his generation. It’s been fun to watch.

I remember, probably because of what he had gone through, he just seemed wise beyond his years. Younger comics, myself included, tend to be rushing a little bit because it’s I got a laugh on that, I gotta get to the next laugh, and you’re expelling a lot of energy, sweating, all of that stuff. He was just standing there, killing, in total command of the crowd. They give him shit, he’d give them shit back. I watched for like three minutes and was like, This guy’s going to do something.

Did you reconnect with him quickly?
No, he made it so fast. When he started coming around to the clubs, I was already living out in L.A., so I would come back and see him. It seemed like overnight, he was on SNL. I would talk to him on the phone, he’d be asking me advice, and at that point, he’d already passed me in the business, as far as success. I think he was asking some questions about touring. He certainly wasn’t asking me anything about being on SNL, ’cause I’ve obviously never been anywhere near that show.

What was it like getting into the role of being a fireman? Did you do a mini boot camp or model it after any guys you knew growing up?
We used to deliver papers to the firehouse, and that was great because they always tipped well and let us look at the trucks. I got hit by a car and one of them came down and helped me out, made sure I was all right, and I remember drawing like a picture of the fire station, coloring it in.

You got hit on your paper route?
No, I was racing my brother home and rode right out in front of a Jeep. [Laughs.] I remember I was knocked out for like a few moments. I came to, laying across the double lines. My bike was totally mangled and all I could think is My dad’s going to kill me.

So, yeah, we did some training. They had us pussy actors put this [equipment] on, like [whining]: “This stuff is heavy!” Wearing all of that, the first time you went into the building that was on fire — they have this building you train in and you had to walk up one flight of stairs — I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. The next time, you went into this smoke-filled room where you had to crawl along with the mask on and all that shit, and that was two flights of stairs. I literally thought that I was going to die. I remember looking at some of the firemen and, man or woman, any one of them could’ve thrown me, upside down, through a wall. I already had a respect for what they did. You see them as a kid and they seem like superheroes. It seems like a cool, fun job and you don’t really think about the death elements. [When] there’s a fire, your natural instinct is to go away from it, not to go into it.

Buscemi was FDNY. What did he bring to that aspect of the movie?
We talked to him about that a little bit. But I’ll be honest — mostly, we just asked questions about Reservoir Dogs and then we were all doing a bad version of Jay Mohr’s unbelievable impression of Harvey Keitel. We played it for him and he loved it, and we just started doing it. After a while everyone was doing it, Jay Mohr doing Harvey Keitel. He loved it.

How about working with Marisa?
She might be the best I ever worked with, and I’ve gotten to work with some great people. I don’t know how to sum it up. She was unbelievable. I was going, Oh my God, I hope I’m holding up my end of this. I’m thinking about my lines and not messing up and stuff. I showed up. I tried to do the best I could.

Between your comedy and your podcast, you’ve got a reputation as someone who’s not a fan of sensitive people. Did working on this movie, about Pete and his mental health issues, change your perspective on that at all?
No. [Pauses, then cracks up.]

No, just no. I do what I do and if you like it, you like it. If you don’t, you watch something else. I am a clown. I’m a comedian. I’m fucking around. If people want to take shit seriously and act like my jokes are written into legislation and actually affect their lives, that’s okay. I understand. Why deal with bankers and oil companies dictating our foreign policy when you can really tackle the tough issues of a comedian at a Chuckle Hut doing a Caitlyn Jenner joke? I mean, that’s when you’re getting to the crux of what’s wrong with this country, a comedian doing 45 minutes at a club that’s in a fucking strip mall.

How about podcasting? Any Joe Rogan money in your future?
Listen, there’s podcasters and then there’s Joe Rogan. He’s on a whole other level. Someday they’re going to do The Last Dance about podcasting and it’s going to be about him. I’m just a clown that does my bullshit and I’m happy. He literally gets people who are running to be president of the United States. Marc Maron’s had a standing president, Barack Obama. I just sit in my garage and talk to myself.

Are you working on any stand-up during the pandemic?
No, I haven’t even been thinking about it. And I will be fine when this is all over. I will get right back and pick up right where I left off. I’ve been doing it for 28 years. I would love to get back onstage, but I’m having a baby boy here in a couple of weeks, and I can’t go out and do stand-up on the beach where everybody’s at and get COVID. I can’t do it.

Anything else on the horizon? Any more Mandalorian or maybe Better Call Saul?
No, none of that. Once these two things [King of Staten Island and F Is for Family] come out on the same day, the well is dry. I got nothing. So we shall see.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Bill Burr Almost Had a Heart Attack on King of Staten Island