The Interview: Bill Burr
Comedians are a notoriously challenging interview, often preferring to save their punch lines for the stage and clamming up during Q & As. So I didn’t know what to expect when I spoke with Bill Burr, the Canton native the New York Times has dubbed “one of the funniest, most distinctive voices in the country.” Turns out, Burr had plenty to talk about: He’d recently finished putting the final touches on Walk Your Way Out, a new comedy special premiering this month, and his animated comedy, F Is for Family (loosely based on his own 1970s New England childhood), had just been picked up for a second season. With him and his wife expecting their first child, though, Burr is about to find out what it’s like to play a dad in real life.
With a successful show on Netflix, a podcast, the standup specials, and a new kid, have you thought about touring less?
No, God no! I can’t because there’s no syndication with Netflix—it’s streaming. So it’s not like the old days where Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano do a show, then at the end of it they get syndication and get all this money. Amazon, Netflix—they just stream, so it’s automatically in syndication. It’s a whole new model. There are advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is the artistic freedom and the stuff I’ve been able to do. The downside is no syndication. However, I have to be honest with you, I would rather do a show with the amount of freedom that Netflix provides than to have to censor so much of myself and my idea of what is funny to get a syndication check. But I might regret that when I’m 70.
What’s it like working with Netflix as they make the shift to produce more of their own movies, shows, and comedy specials?
There’s like three or four people over there who come by the table read, and they’re all cool. The great thing about them is I agree with 80 percent of their notes, which is unheard of. Their notes on the first season of F Is for Family were like, “Can you push it further?” It’s usually the other way—the artist would create something, then the industry guys come in with their notes, and then you want to tear your hair out.
Is it tempting to drift too far away from reality when writing an animated show like F Is for Family?
I think everyone in the room knows what the tone of the show is, and you write to the tone of the show. I’ve been guilty of being in the writers’ room and going too dark; other people have gone too wacky and zany. It’s something that we really try to be mindful of. For us, a lot of the cartoon and crazy stuff on F Is for Family is tertiary characters; it happens on the television in the show. We try to keep whatever problem the Murphy family is dealing with rooted as much as we can in reality.
You’re about to have your first kid. Congrats on that. Are you freaking out?
Thanks. Anything you can do that will make your wife happy is a great thing, and that’s about the greatest thing you can do. I was worried that I was too old to do it, so the fact that the plumbing still worked was a relief. I was hoping I wasn’t going to have to do the whole Westworld thing where I was going to have to go into a lab and they were going to have to milk some sort of life out of me. I was very excited. Believe it or not, I always wanted to be a dad.
Do you feel a weird sense of responsibility you’ve never felt before?
I think it hits everybody differently. Occasionally I’ve freaked out, asking myself, “Am I too selfish?” I have all these hobbies I do and all this free time, and that was the initial freak-out after the elation.
One of your hobbies is flying helicopters. You’re actually a licensed helicopter pilot now.
It’s one of my big accomplishments in life. It was something I had no interest in. Then I moved out to L.A. and it was so claustrophobic, and I was reading up on the Federal Reserve and thinking the economy was going to collapse, and I was just like, “How am I going to get out of this city when the shit hits the fan?” It seemed like the best way was up and out. That was the joke from my special—something like, the helicopter is the ultimate “Fuck this, I’m out” vehicle because you don’t need a runway.
Is it scary to actually fly one, though?
It’s a very humbling privilege that they allow you legally to get in one of those things and fly it over people, you know? The level of responsibility you have—because if you screw up, it’s not even about your own life at that point, it’s about the people on the ground who didn’t make the dumb decision to try to defy gravity.
What’s your drink of choice?
Right now it’s the Macallan Rare Cask. The bottle looks like a Super Bowl trophy. It’s unbelievable. It’s better than Johnnie Walker Blue. It’s one of those things you drink without any ice in a nice little glass and you just sip it. Every time you sip it, it’s like you’re doing a cheesy commercial—you look at the glass, like, “Oh my God, it’s unbelievable.”
Greatest cartoon of all time?
Oh, Jesus. I would say the greatest social commentary of the past 20 years is South Park and The Boondocks. Growing up, my favorite cartoon of all time was Jonny Quest, because when people got shot, they actually died.
What’s your spirit animal?
I don’t like that expression, and I don’t even know what that means. What does it mean?
I don’t know. Let’s say you could live the life of any animal in the wilderness for one day: What would it be?
I’d like to be a leopard and I’d like to kill a baboon, because those baboons harass the leopards all the frickin’ time and I don’t like bullies. I’d like to be a lion and kill a hyena, because they’re always stealing their food. And if I just had to chill, I’d be a bear.