If only all the cancel-culture, free-speech, devil’s-advocate contrarian naughty boys of stand-up were more like Bill Burr. The comedian is far from perfect, and the fact that he knows it goes a long way toward softening the imperfections: It’s harder to write off someone who says something asinine and then follows it up with deep introspection about his own anger issues. What’s more exciting, though, is that Burr’s openness about examining himself and his ideas makes for vastly more interesting, surprising comedy, which is on full display in his new Netflix special, Live at Red Rocks. He is noisy and sharp-elbowed and irascible, with stories and jokes that dodge around lightning-rod topics with the nimble slyness of a man who enjoys throwing his audience off guard.
Over the course of Red Rocks’ over-80-minute run time, Burr appears caught between versions of himself, unwilling or unsure about how to integrate them into one whole person. He’s so good at that contrarian persona, so unusually smart about how to set up the pins of a joke about vaccines or feminism or Me Too and then knock them down in some unexpected way. He is a man who loves thumbing his nose at accepted wisdom, who delights in discovering some widely held truth then swerving through its inner logic until he’s turned the whole thing inside out. Sometimes he fails, and fails miserably. (A joke about body positivity and how fat people actually do just eat too much, for example, tries to be subversive and is instead insultingly boring. It’s as though Burr tries to twist around conventional wisdom too many times and instead ends up right where he started.)
And yet Live at Red Rocks is also occasionally tender — sometimes so overwhelmingly emotional that Burr can barely hang onto the artifice of it. The middle section of the special is full of material about his childhood and role as a father. Burr begins it with a forthright declaration that he had a mind-altering experience after eating mushrooms and then pulls that emotional idea all the way through the sweetest, most heartbreaking descriptions of what it’s like to love and be loved by his children.
Red Rocks does not attempt to tie those different sides of Burr together into one coherent picture. He is the angry yelling man. He is the man who regrets his anger. He is the man who rants about feminism. He is the man who has been changed by his experience as a father. Red Rocks has no palpable design for how these different aspects of Burr clash against one another, but one emerges anyhow. At the beginning and the end, it’s furious, frustrated Burr, smiling cheekily when he knows he’s made you mad. Those jokes are roadblocks. They’re a patch of brambles, surrounding the self-loathing, anxious, reflective comedian Burr reveals midway through the special. And then, lest you think he’s gone too soft, he pulls out of the nosedive into gentleness. The whole thing ends with a joke Burr has carefully calibrated to be maximally offensive to every person in the room. “See, I’m offensive!” that joke says. “I live down to your expectations.”
Whether or not Burr intends it, there is something self-fulfilling about that lowest-bar expectation-setting. When this is a comedian’s primary identity — this persona built out of buzzwords and fury — a certain segment of Burr’s audience arrives for that alone. To a degree, Burr appears to love it, especially when it’s a trap he’s set deliberately. His opening joke about vaccines looks primed to set up an anti-vaccine rant about bodily autonomy, and he can feel his crowd starting to roar in approval. His performance works like a surfer on a wave: He waits out the rising emotion then skids neatly down the side of it, turning vaccine skepticism into a joke about patriotism that caves to self-interest and laziness.
Just as often, though, he gets annoyed, chiding the crowd when they start cheering for a joke setup he’s obviously about to skewer. When female voices in the crowd start to “Woo!” a joke that begins by stating that women are more intelligent than men, Burr pauses to scold them. How do they not realize he’s about to make fun of them? “You know I’m an asshole!” he tells them. Then, when he pivots to material about family and his anger, Burr says, “I am a changed person,” and a male voice in the audience yells, “Bullshit!” “Are you saying ‘Bullshit,’ sir, because you don’t believe me? Or cause you don’t want me to leave? Is that what it is, the little angry circle that you’re in?” Burr shifts into an exaggerated male voice, pretending to be his audience interlocutor. “Don’t be goin’ and gettin’ happy, now!” Burr says, in the voice of this fan who loves Bill Burr, the Angriest Comedian. “Don’t be goin’ and gettin’ soft on me! Don’t start hugging people and loving yourself!”
The last moment of audience interaction comes right at the end, as Burr cues up his closing joke. “I have a really weird take on abortion,” he begins. “I’m 100 percent pro-choice, always have been.” Female voices start cheering, and Burr cuts them off. “Ladies, I said it was weird! For the love of God, stop getting in the trunk of the car. Wait until the end! You’re supposed to vet me first.” Then it’s back to the joke, which dodges from being pro-choice to insisting that fetuses are babies and then swerves back to arguing that it’s totally fine to kill the babies we don’t want. Burr performs it with the smug self-satisfaction of an overconfident magician performing a well-worn trick: I will now make every one of you mad. Abracadabra, outrage achieved.
It’s not hard to see why Burr wouldn’t want to give up that element of his persona. He’s so good at it. It’s what his audience comes for. And to be fair to every Burr fan, even the ones cheering for the premises he’s about to dismantle, he’s better at outrage production than anyone else. He is so adept at playing bothsidesism hot potato, and he’s legitimately exciting. Nine times out of ten, you truly don’t know where he’s going to land, and if the entire cohort of proudly offensive ranting-dude comedians were as consistently good at it as Burr is, stand-up as a whole would be stronger for it.
But that much dodging and weaving is exhausting. It’s a perpetual dance of anticipation and undercutting, the kind of defensive stance that succeeds because it plays offense first. It is tiring to watch: Will this joke’s punch line be the one that I hate? Oh God, brace yourself, here comes the section on how Me Too has gone too far. In Live at Red Rocks, it starts to look like it may also be exhausting to embody, especially if the audience pushes back when you try something else. Live at Red Rocks is a special by a comedian who has mastered the art of his act. In its most intriguing moments, it also looks like a comedian yearning to try something new.