Comedian Bill Burr performed at Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Hall on June 18. Burr’s comedic style offers a smattering of strongly delivered uninformed opinions and a refreshing dose of empathy and wisdom shrouded by shouting and excessive cursing.
He hosts The Monday Morning Podcast, and his fourth and most recent special I’m Sorry You Feel That Way aired in December 2014 and is currently available on Netflix.
Burr’s animated series F is For Family will air on Netflix later this year, featuring Burr, Laura Dern and Justin Long.
Colleen Leary: Hey Bill. Happy birthday.
Bill Burr: Thank you. I had a great one. We were in Paris and we had an awesome time. Now we’re desperately trying to reduplicate it—no, duplicate it, reenact it, duplicate it—or as I like to say, reduplicate it.
We went out and bought some wine and cheese. It’s not the same in your living room. We’re so stupid…we were actually laughing that we were thinking, “Hey, I don’t need to go to Paris. I can just buy some wine and cheese and hover over my coffee table.” As if that’s the same experience. But whatever, it was an awesome time.
CL: What’s been your experience in Portland?
BB: I’ve never played anything other than comedy clubs. Back in the day, I used to play Harvey’s. Then I was at Helium [Comedy Club] one of their opening weekends. I love that city. Seattle, Portland—that whole part of the country is just awesome. Great food and all that stuff.
CL: What have you been up to since your last special came out? Are you working on building new material for the next one?
BB: Oh yeah. I do them every other year. I taped the other one last June. So this was my year of putting the special together and shedding the other act.
I have a whole new hour of stuff since my last one—probably an hour and fifteen. I’m really excited about it. Over the next year I will hone that down while writing probably another half hour…and trim it down to an hour and 15 for the special.
People ought to feel like they got their money’s worth. Unless the hour stunk, which can always happen. People can always think that.
CL: Once you’ve taped your special and have to burn all of this material, where do you start in looking for inspiration and new material?
BB: Well, the key is to not panic. There’s definitely a sense of urgency. But your special isn’t going to come out for at least three, sometimes upwards of five to six months. So you have time to put it together.
When I did the “Rich Bitch” tour with Charlie Murphy and Donnell Rawlings, Charlie literally just started doing stand-up. And we were building the tour off of his face. So he would only do five to 10 minutes, and me and Donnell would do the rest of the time.
We started in June and by the end of August, Charlie could do 50 minutes, and I remember thinking, like, “Wow, man. That guy wrote 50 minutes of material in 60 days because he had to.” It was funny, because a brand-new comic taught me 12 years into my career how to write an hour, so you can definitely do it.
It’s the race against time. It’s like the hourglass is turned over before your special comes out. And I always make sure I can talk for an hour by the time my special airs the first night, because I always assume the entire world has seen it and if I do even one minute of it, they’re all going to stand up and point at me like Invasion of the Body Snatchers—like I’m a complete hack.
Then you just continue living life. You can’t be afraid to walk away from the comedy club to build a new act and try something different.
Over the last year I got a pilot’s license, I took a vacation, I had construction done on my house, which was a nightmare because I had water damage. I’ve gotten older, it’s harder for me to stay in shape. I’ve been to a couple weddings—I don’t like going to those things. There’s always social situations I’m going to feel stupid in. Fortunately I fail a lot in my personal life, so that always adds to comedy.
CL: Yeah, I wanted to ask you more about your helicopter experience. I heard your wife Nia veto you getting your pilot’s license on a podcast.
BB: Eh, she was alright with it. At first she was like, “You’re not doing that.” I’m like, “Yeah, I am.” So she said okay. She’s cool as hell.
I’m a real big believer in trying new things and encouraging the person you’re with to not be pulling back on the reins or be frightened of trying something new. A lot of relationships I’ve been in—and I’m sure you’ve been in relationships like that—there’s always a sacrifice because your life is intertwined with somebody else. But then you can really start to feel like this person’s a drag, and they’re preventing you from being happy.
So I’ve learned over the years that I don’t like being around somebody that is going to break my balls every time I want to try something new. And then conversely, if they want to try something, it doesn’t have to be anything huge like flying a helicopter. They could want to take a cooking class or learn how to ride a horse or take a day trip down to whatever city.
It makes a relationship way happier when you’re with somebody that’s excited about something that’s going on in their life. It puts them in a great mood, and when they hang out with their friends who don’t get that freedom they also realize they’re with somebody cool.
Same way I do when I hang out with my friends—I just did a stand-up show in this town and there was a high school buddy of mine and he wanted to come out to the show. I hadn’t seen the guy in like 15 years and at the last second he couldn’t go because his wife said he needed to be home. It’s like, “Really? Fifteen years and you just had to be home?” What happened? Did somebody catch polio? I mean, how bad was it? What it really was, was she nagged the shit out of him and he caved. At least that’s how I’m looking at it.
CL: Yeah, that’s crazy to me when I see people’s romantic partners dictate their lives.
BB: Yeah, my thing is, how did you get yourself into that position? This is what kills me: this guy was a big-time athlete and the captain of the sports teams. This guy’s a leader. He’s been broken down to this level that he can’t even go out. Now, in defense of her, maybe he had been out on a 10-day bender before I got there. There’s always that option. I don’t know, I’ve asked him some other times and from talking to my other friends they say, “Oh, no. He’s under lock and key.” But you know something? That’s on him. He has the power to say no.
You don’t have to be mean about it either, you can sit down with somebody adult-to-adult and tell them, “Listen, you have to let me do things like this once in a while or I’m going to be miserable. If I’m miserable, I’m going to start acting a certain way around you and you’ll be miserable and then we’ll be miserable together. We don’t want that, right? So, can I go out to a fucking comedy show tonight?”
CL: What do you think you’d be doing if you weren’t doing comedy?
BB: Something fun. I always wanted to have a fun job, so I would be maybe playing drums, flying helicopters. I definitely would not be a business man. I wouldn’t have an office job or any sort of a boss. I always needed that.
I remember when I first started doing stand-up and meeting headlining comics and they didn’t have a day job. Comedy was all they did. I remember they’d be like, “Hey man, I’m going to go to the movies tomorrow, you wanna go?” and I’d be like, “Nah, I gotta go to work.”
I remember thinking, “That guy can go to the movies on a Wednesday if he wants to—any Wednesday out of the year.” The freedom of that was mind-boggling to me. But it’s funny once you get it, though—you’re still working during the day because you’re trying to hustle for gigs. There is something great, provided I’m not in the middle of working on an acting gig. Like today, I got up when I wanted to.
CL: Which is when?
BB: I was jet-lagged, so I got up at like two in the morning. Which, Paris time, is 11 in the morning. So I’m still sleeping in pretty good, but I’m just on the wrong time. How lucky I am that I fell into a job where I can do that. That has never, even for a second, ever worn off. It’s never worn off.
I always say that to other comics, and other comics have an appreciation of it. Every once in a while I’ll be hanging with a comic on the road and be like,“Hey man, it’s three in the afternoon right now and we’re going to the mall, or we’re gonna go shoot some hoops.” You get to live like a kid your whole life. It’s phenomenal.
CL: How does your acting side of your career fit into your stand-up schedule?
BB: My agent books my year like I’m not going to get any acting work. And whenever I get acting work, we just move around the stand-up dates. So if my career was a car, stand-up is the engine. It’s what keeps the whole thing going and it always will be. I would never be dumb enough to quit doing stand-up. Then all of a sudden, now I have a day job. Now I have to be a working actor. I have to write on a show and I can’t sleep until 11 if I want.
That’s the weird trap of this business, where you become this traveling comedian and you don’t have a day job. A working comedian living in the United States of America and you have a following, that’s about as much freedom as they’ll allow you to have. I mean, without being in the Illuminati. You’re crushing.
Then if you actually get a TV show, especially a one-camera shoot show or something like that, then it’s like you’re back in a factory in this weird way.
Those guys who work on those one-camera shoot shows, they work like 14 hours a day, like five to six days a week for like months on months on months and months. These are comedians with an NBA schedule where they get 82 games, then the playoffs, then they get two months off to try to heal up. Then they have to go back in again. I guess they make a lot of money, but to me I don’t know if that’s worth it.
CL: I was reading a New York Times article from last year where they called you a rage-filled comic. People seem to say that about you a lot. I’ve listened to the Monday Morning Podcast for a while, and one of the things I’m always impressed by is that you seem to apply empathy to every situation, putting yourself in other people’s shoes and considering their perspective.
BB: Oh yeah, that’s something I had to learn throughout life.
CL: Do you agree with people when they say that your comedy is angry or rage-filled?
BB: If I just saw me one night, or maybe a couple of times, and you see someone screaming and yelling during a particular part of their act, I can see somebody thinking that. But a lot of those people that have to write those blurbs to describe it really quickly, they also have to then go look at ten other comedians and a band. They’re going to sit there and watch it and they have to sum it up.
Nobody who is in a position to write that blurb to describe to my comedic style is going to do what you do, which is to take the time to listen to my podcast for enough time to actually look past that initial thing that you see—the screaming freckled psycho—and notice there’s something else to this.
Any band that I was ever really into or any TV show that I really loved, whenever I read a blurb about them I always thought that they were way off.
Like, take Jerry Seinfeld—I said this to him on Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee—I was a huge fan of Seinfeld’s show, like most of America. They used to always say, “It’s a show about nothing.” That used to drive me nuts as a fan. I was like, “No, it isn’t. It isn’t about nothing.”
This show is about these four really selfish really people who have contempt for humanity and I always felt like watching the show or listening to Seinfeld’s act, you hear a man that has a very short list of activities and people that he will hang out with that he feels are worthy of his time. And he laughed when I said it, which really made me feel justified.
Or even being a drummer—I’m a fan of Jon Bonham, everyone thinks he was just bashing away. That was really because his sound was so enormous. It sounded like that’s what he was doing. But if you watched him play, he was all wrist and technique. The finesse of his playing and his technique was phenomenal. But there’s the misinterpretation of that.
Or [how] Eddie Van Halen introducing the tapping solos created ten years of all these guys in hair metal bands thinking what Eddie was doing was playing sixty-fourth notes a zillion miles an hour and that constituted a solo. They weren’t hearing the form, they weren’t hearing the blues in his playing.
Eddie Van Halen is the only guy I ever heard really do a tapping solo that gave me the chills, like I was listening to a blues guitarist playing that one note from his soul. But the misinterpretation was like, wow, this guy is playing a zillion miles an hour. If it was the first time you’re ever seeing Eddie Van Halen, it wouldn’t be wrong if that’s what you thought.
I just brought up two of the greatest artists in the world and they were both misinterpreted. So, some idiot like me—yeah, they’re going to say, “He’s just some loud leprechaun.” But there’s the empathy again. There you go. There you go.