How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.” While this time-worn show biz adage might ring true for some, in 2011, comedian Bill Burr hit that legendary stage after spending nearly 20 years honing and sharpening his standup craft, fueled by ranting, cussing, and calling bullshit on contemporary life. In 2014, the recording of that performance, Live at Andrew’s House, was released by Jack White on his Third Man Records imprint. The next year, Burr performed to a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden. These two impressive achievements are merely a glimpse at the greater picture of Burr’s career.
Burr’s razor-sharp mix of dark satire and blue-collar vibe has earned him a loyal fan base and critical accolades. While the now-47-year-old Burr routinely riffs on the almost-expected topics of observational humor — relationships, politics, family, race, etc. — his strengths lie in his willingness to lob a grenade in the middle of the mix, and letting the shrapnel fly.
And his aim is pretty damn good. Both The New York Times and The New Yorker have given Burr highbrow props, and his gruff Boston accent was featured in the 2008 video game, Grand Theft Auto IV. Appearances on Chappelle’s Show helped push the wisecracking everyman into the spotlight.
Burr’s shows routinely sell out, and with each performance, his act has become progressively irate, erudite, and on-point. “Standup comedy is this thing you get to do, so you have to treat it with respect,” Burr once remarked. And at this stage in the game, Burr’s reverence for his craft continues to fill houses and open doors for greater creative endeavors.
Burr may be best known to larger audiences for his role on Breaking Bad as slick-talking con man Kuby. And with a part in Mike Bender’s 2014 indie flick, Black or White, Burr is now branching out, quite successfully, in dramas.
Most recently, Burr and writer Michael Price (The Simpsons) created the Netflix animated series F Is For Family, which follows the exploits of the Murphy household in 1973-era America. And in the online sphere, Bill Burr’s Monday Morning Podcast is a twice-weekly platform allowing him to vent at length on everything from sports and barbecue to STDs.
Folio Weekly Magazine spoke to Burr, who was at his home in Los Angeles. He gave us his take on the presidential candidates, tricky clickbait, and shooting guns in Jacksonville.
Folio Weekly Magazine: You’ve got about eight shows in May that take you from
the southeast U.S. to Canada. It seems like it’s the same thing as music tours, where you’re just traveling and waiting, where’ve you got 22 hours off and then perform for two hours. What are you doing in the downtime to stay sane?
Bill Burr: I usually do a run of three or four days, so it’s usually getting to where the show is during the day. Then I get there, have a little something to eat, do the show, hang out afterwards and come down from the high of being onstage. Then back to the airport or rental car the next day. Like back in the day when I was doing more comedy clubs, when I’d go to Jacksonville for The Comedy Zone, I’d be there for, like, a week. Last time I was in Jacksonville, I went to a gun range, I went to a Jaguars game … I had a great time. [Laughs.] Some guy came out to the show and let me shoot a gun with a silencer. I’d never done that, so that was pretty cool. [Laughs.] Before I was doing these one-nighters I was having a great time; I was having fun in all of these cities.
When you set out for a tour or run of shows, and you’re traveling — like you said three days — if some political scandal hits or some celebrity does some foolishness, will you necessarily inject that in the show?
Sure, if it’s something to talk about. It’s not like I have a passion for it. I just do it because it’s something new to talk about, since it makes my whole time on stage feel new. If whatever thing I riff on becomes something I actually like, then it becomes part of the act. But there’s so much stuff over the course of the year, that it might make an appearance over the course of one, two, three different shows. And then it just goes away. I gotta admit, going onstage with the election stuff, there’s not a lot of meat left on the bone with these three clowns that are running. I find the election more depressing than I find it funny.
Yeah? How bad do you think it is?
Honestly, want me to go through it? I think Hillary is the devil. Trump is a reality TV star who always claims how rich he is, which is funny to me that he found the time to go on TV and decide who’s going to make a better CEO for a company: Bret Michaels or Cyndi Lauper. I really don’t think that if you gave Trump three weeks, he could get you six grand in cash. You know Bernie, I love that he doesn’t have any money behind him but I don’t think he goes far enough. Even if he could do what he wanted to do, none of the Democrats or Republicans are going to work with him. They’d pout and then they’d devour him. You have a guy who’s not filthy and then he’s going to try to interact with people that are filthy. Like, politicians are grossly, grossly underpaid; and they’re set up to be bribed. The president makes $400,000 or $500,000 a year. And you need $100 million to get that job. He’s not getting that $100 million from you and me. And I think the Clintons are some of the filthiest fucking people on Earth. I can’t stand it. They’re the devil. Because Democrats pretend that they’re for the working class. At least Republicans have the decency to let you know that they could give a fuck about you. [Laughs.]
Let me ask you about this and, look, I’m not at all trying to throw you under the bus. But you’ve gotten a little flak for being politically incorrect for comments made about Caitlin Jenner, and talking pretty openly about bigotry.
Can I tell you this? I’ve gotten microscopic shit for anything I’ve ever said. It’s just clickbait. It’s an easy story. Dude, there’s a heroin epidemic in this country brought on by the pharmaceutical companies. There should be a class-action suit against them. Nobody’s talking about that, but if you do a Caitlin Jenner joke, every news outlet picks it up because it’s more interesting to go, “Oh, a comedian got in trouble,” than go after these fucking people. The greatest thing about a corporation is that they’re nameless and faceless, as far as individuals. It just becomes, “Exxon had no comment,” and it just goes away.
It’s like misdirection in stage magic. “Look over here at what Bill Burr said, but ignore all of this evil that we do.”
Well, it’s safe. It’s safe outrage. If journalists actually went after pharmaceutical companies, they’d actually have to do their fucking jobs. To me, if comedians wanted to stop having these little dustups in the press, all they’d have to do is pool their money together and donate it to the Republican and Democratic candidates; we’d have advertising on the CNN and FOX News channels. You’d never see another comedian get in trouble. We’d become a nonstory because now they’re protecting their money.
I want to talk about your dramatic work. It’s always interesting to me, since a fair number of comedians seem to do so well in drama. Now you have Bob Odenkirk, but Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Lily Tomlin, Eddie Murphy … and that’s just a few. Some comedians appear to seamlessly transition into drama. Do you think comedians go to an emotional place that gives them an edge to play dramatic roles?
Well, I would just say that if you listen to a comedian’s act, if they’re up there talking about their life, they’re talking about very dramatic moments in their life. They’re just making fun of it. The reality is, whatever was happening to them, they weren’t joking about it; they were dealing with it. Comedians, like all people, deal with those dramatic events that happen in life. You lose people, you get into arguments, you worry about money, or somebody breaks your heart. I think what people see, when they see a comedian, is that they think, “Oh, that’s how he is, he jokes all the time. I’d love to hang out with that guy. He’s always happy and laughing.” Which is a cartoon version of any human being, since nobody’s like that. I don’t think you could sustain it. It’s one of the reasons why I have difficulty with the concept of heaven. Like, you’re going to sit there forever going, “Isn’t this great?” Because I live in Los Angeles where the weather is exactly the same 300 days out of the year and you start to go fucking crazy.