Wednesday, 30 September 2015 13:28

Q&A: Bill Burr and The Art of Stand Up

Written by  Rich Tupica
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DeVos Performance Hall
Monday, Oct. 26, 7 p.m.

Over the years, Bill Burr has become known for his edgy stand-up bits — he’ll rant about how stay-at-home moms are taking it easy and “living the dream” and then smoothly segue into the positive aspects of population control. Monday, Oct. 26, he brings some of that heat to DeVos Performance Hall.

Many were introduced to Burr in 2005, when he got a big break by landing a recurring role on the second season of Chappelle’s Show — a string of performances on the Late Night television circuit didn’t hurt his résumé either. Since 2007, he’s also kept busy hosting his weekly streamed show, Bill’s Monday Morning Podcast — a hilarious one-man ramble session available at

But the real game changer for Burr was when Netflix began streaming a few of his comedy specials — the latest being 2014’s I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. The international exposure has helped Burr pack houses not only in the U.S., but across the globe. Netflix is also home to his upcoming animated series, F is For Family — it debuts in December.

Here’s what Burr had to say.

When and how did you first get exposed to stand-up comedy?

It was probably sometime in the ’70s. I remember hearing “Sister Mary Elephant” on the radio, which is that classic Cheech and Chong bit where she was going, “Good morning, Class, Class … Claasss! Shuuuut Uuup!” Those comedy albums, when they used to do those sketches, the way they layered in all of that stuff was just absolute genius. I remember the comics my dad liked, like Don Rickles and Rich Little. In the later ’70s I followed guys like David Brenner — I used to see him on the Mike Douglas Show.

When did you start seeking out comedy records?

In the ’80s I just started buying comedy albums. I was just into it. I would judge albums by the cover. I remember buying Richard Pryor’s album because he just looks funny. It’s That N-word is Crazy — you can’t even say the title anymore. He just looks funny. I went from Pryor to Carlin, then to Eddie Murphy. With Eddie Murphy it was like, well — Richard Pryor is hilarious, this is another black guy — they all have to be hilarious. I was a kid, I don’t know. I was like, “Black guys are funny!” So I bought the one where he had the rose behind his ear (self-titled, 1982 LP). I was totally hooked. Then in the ’80s I listened to everyone from Sam Kinison to Jerry Seinfeld. I didn’t care if you were squeaky clean or if you were just freaking the crowd out. If it was funny, I didn’t care — male, female, clean or dirty.

What year did you graduate high school, what clique of kids did you hang with?

I grew up in the suburbs of Boston and graduated in ’87. Should have been ’86 but I stayed back in the first grade. I hung out a little bit with like three groups. I knew some popular kids and hung out with them during the week but not on the weekends — I wasn’t cool enough to hang with them on weekends. Then I sort of transitioned into hanging out with the middle of the pack kids who didn’t do drugs or play sports. Finally, I started hanging out with this group of knuckleheads I’m still friends with. They just sounded like they were having a great time on the weekends. They always had a case of beer and were going to a game — and they were screwing up in school like I was. So I fit right in with them. We were such nerds. We used to call ourselves “The Brew Crew.” It’s so stupid now, but we thought it was so bad ass. We used to just go out and drink a 12-pack every night on the weekends.

I heard the first time you got on stage was while you were attending Emerson College back in the ’90s, is that true?

Yeah, I made a New Year’s resolution in 1992. I gave myself a year to do it. I was going to get the nerve up to try out stand-up comedy. The second I made that promise to myself the whole universe worked out for me. Not to get all corny and spiritual here, but within a week or two I was reading the school newspaper, The Emersonian, there was an ad in there for Nick’s Comedy Stop. They had a contest: Find Boston’s Funniest College Student. It was a ploy to get all of these college kids in there, buy drinks and watch their friends bomb while the club made a bunch of money. I wish I had saved that ad. But I tore out the ad and I went home and immediately called before I lost the nerve. I still cannot believe that who I was back then actually had the nerve to try it because I was a very walled off person at that time in my life. I let a lot of opportunity go by in a bunch of other areas in my life. There was something about stand-up where it was my last life line — without it I don’t know where I would have ended up

In an interview awhile back you said in your early stand-up days you’d pace frantically on the stage. Now you have a natural, conversational vibe. When were you finally able to relax?

I went from pacing back and forth like a lunatic, sweating profusely, to just leaning on the mic stand. That started clicking for me somewhere around the time I did Why Do I Do This? It was taped around 2007. So, it took me about 15 years to just stop moving around. Some people get there quicker. Some people have it right out of the gate, I didn’t. Part of the whole thing about performing and creating is just learning how your brain works.

How do you write these days? Do you sit down and write, or do you wait for someone to cut you off on the highway and then just insert that into your show?

Yeah, I used to write the whole thing out. Now it’s what you said: Somebody cuts me off and I just go, “I’m talking about that.” I went from writing the whole thing out to just writing a phrase: “Asshole cuts me off on highway.” Then it went all the way to not even writing that down. Then I’d be sitting at the club going, “Damn. What was that thing I wanted to talk about?” Basically, this is what it is — let’s say somebody cut you off on the highway and you had a funny exchange with them. If you were going to go meet your friends or girlfriend or whatever, you wouldn’t write the whole story out and memorize it — you’d just come in and tell it. That’s the level of comfort I try to work with as a stand up. I just want to be able to walk on stage and say, “You know what this asshole did to me today?”

Have you ever had to cut a funny bit because you were worried it would offend a crowd?

Oh yeah, sure. But if I’m in a situation like that, like “I know this is funny, I know in my heart there is no hate in this, but I’m worried about how people are going to take this — am I going to be adding to ignorant thought when I do this?” What I then do is try it out in front of whatever group of people that I think I might offend. I just try to see if they’re laughing and it’s the right kind of laugh. I came up with something recently — a black/white thing — all you do is go down to one of the comedy nights when it’s an all-black crowd and try it out. If it’s an all-black crowd, and you’re the white guy, they know that you know that they’re there. Not to say that things can’t fall flat and go off the rails and then become uncomfortable.

One of my favorite Burr bits is the one where you go off about stay-at-home moms — and how they spend all day putting in DVDs and playing hide-and-go seek. Did that offend anyone at your shows?

Some people got offended. The biggest kick I got out of that joke was when women would come up to me and tell me they thought it was hilarious. They’d say, “That was totally me.” Obviously, I don’t think it’s an easy job. It’s just a joke. There’s nothing better than a person who comes up to me and tells me they enjoyed a joke about them. I love meeting people like that, they’re always cool and have a sense of humor about themselves. And, conversely, the worst people to me are the ones who sat there and listened to me for an hour and a half blow through 70 subjects, 69 of which they thought were funny — all except the one that pertained to their life and they then decided to take it seriously.

I recently saw a link to a story called “How to Write Comedy Like Bill Burr” on a comedy-clinic website. What do you think about people dissecting your comedy style. From what you’ve said, it doesn’t seem like you follow writing structures like this.

Well, yeah. I don’t write. And that’s what happens when business comes into the mix, he has a comedy class that you’re paying for, now he’s got to turn it into a formula. It’s so funny, that guy never interviewed me, never talked to me and he’s going to stand in front of a group of people and post up an story saying “this is how he does it.” He doesn’t even have the decency to say, “Hey, this is what I think he’s doing.” Then, I would actually read the article, if he had that angle to it. I’d respect the fact that this guy respects me enough to be like, “I haven’t talked to this guy, but …” I’ll always listen to someone if they have a dash of, “Hey, what the hell do I know, but I think this.” That’s worth listening to. But when someone goes, “Hey, this is what the United States' foreign policy really is!” All I start thinking is, “Dude, you’re a carpenter.” Or, “Dude, you work in customer service.” But, God bless the guy who wrote that article, I hope he makes a lot of money. But what he’s turning what I do into a formula – it’s not an art anymore. Then a bunch of people take that formula and are going to sound alike. If I was to ever teach a stand-up class it would be all about freeing yourself up. It would be nothing about “how to write a joke” or “how to get the crowd.” It would be all about just going up there and getting yourself as comfortable as you are when you’re not on stage and you’re just sitting with your best friend. When you’re that comfortable you then have access to whatever gifts you’ve been blessed with. That’s how I would do it. I wouldn’t be sitting there going, “OK, now George Carlin – what he did was ... and this links to this and if you do that then you’ll have a George Carlin bit.” It’s like, you’re not George Carlin.

How do you prepare for a comedy special? How do you know when you’re ready?

I have a loose time frame, like every two or two-and-a-half years I’ll do one. You know when it’s ready, you’re like, “All right, I’m feeling the itch.” I’m thinking, “I need to put this out, because in six months, if I don’t document this, I’m going to be sick of doing these jokes.” You’re like, “I’ve done this, this is what I feel now but I feel myself starting to change.” That means a new hour. There are also a bunch of extra tricks you have to use when you do a special, which is to basically pretend the cameras are not there, slow down, relax and remember to have fun.

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