The Interview: Bill Burr

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bill burr

Photograph by Koury Angelo

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.

Who’s the greatest comedian alive right now?

Oh man, that’s too hard. The reality is that if Eddie Murphy ever gave a shit to go back to doing standup, everybody out there would take a giant, giant step backward.

You were way ahead of the curve on the podcast trend and launched your Monday Morning Podcast in 2007. Did you think the medium would become so popular?

No, no, no. I didn’t.

You’ve been known to trash your advertisers on your podcast. Do you think they’re listening?

I don’t trash them as much as I keep the jokes going. They absolutely listen—they listen every time and we’ve lost advertisers because of it. But the cool ones understand that because I keep making jokes right through the advertising, people don’t want to miss the jokes so they listen to the ads.

Do you think there’s a podcast bubble that will eventually burst?

No. It’s just radio on the Internet. And comedians, generally speaking, are really good at radio because when we go on the road and we’re not selling tickets, we call in to radio shows. You have to show up at 7 in the morning and be on like it’s 9 at night. It’s a skill. Some comics run from it and they hate doing it, but the comics that are pros understand how important it is, and they get good at it.

Does it ever feel weird if you’re just sitting in a room alone ranting into a microphone for the podcast?

If you do live shows long enough as a comedian, you can still hear that rhythm of laughing. It’s ingrained in you and it’s not something you can really teach somebody. It comes from doing hours and hours and hours and years and decades on stage, performing in front of live crowds. You get to a point where you can walk into a room and be there for, like, three seconds and understand if the crowd is good or not, if something crazy just happened, if the crowd is all one group. You can feel when it’s wild—you walk in and there’s an energy. It’s almost like developing your musical ear—when you can play by ear, you start to hear the notes. It’s the same thing with a comedian.

When you come back to Boston, are there any old haunts that you insist on visiting?

The challenge now with my advanced age is trying to find a place that hasn’t been torn down or turned into a Forever 21. If I drive up from New York, the second I get on the Mass. Pike there’s a D’Angelo and I always stop at that and get a steak and cheese—every time, because for whatever reason, they don’t make steak and cheese in L.A. There’s a bunch of pizza places I go to. My spot was always either Town Spa Pizza, in Stoughton, or the Lynwood Café. Somebody just introduced me to that recently. I’m actually trying to get a buddy of mine to send me frozen pizzas right now because the pizza out here sucks.

You once said, “Eating a doughnut is the easiest way to tell the world you don’t give a fuck.” Do you have any crazy diet restrictions?

It all depends on how out of control I’ve gotten. I always try to make sure I’m doing some cardio, but I haven’t done that in a couple of weeks, and I gotta get back to it. So I’m just going to do a half-hour of cardio every day and try to stop eating around 6, you know? I never let it get more than 10, 15 pounds in the wrong direction.

The New York Times once wrote that you are baffled by the “tyranny of nerds.” Did growing up near the land of Harvard and MIT expose you to this tyranny?

I don’t even know what “tyranny of nerds” means. That was their phrase. But it had nothing to do with Harvard and MIT. When I was a kid, if you were a nerd or a geek, and I was more of a geek, you were trying to be cool. Then there just became this embracing of it, which was cool, then somewhere in the embracing of it, it became obnoxious. It’s like when a cool guy is trying too hard to be cool; nerds were trying extra hard to be nerds. Literally, they were doing everything but using pocket protectors and taping the middle of their glasses and shit. That’s around the time of the hipster-nerd overlap. It got to be a little redundant after a while. It’s like anything. It starts off cool, but once it becomes mainstream it becomes oversaturated and then you make fun of it.

But you do have some strong views on nerds.

People used to think I was nuts. Ten years ago I said the NBA was fixed and I was talking about robots taking over the world. We found out that the NBA had a corrupt ref, and I thought I was vindicated. Then a few months ago, I’m watching 60 Minutes, and Charlie Rose is talking to a robot. And he says, “What is your goal in life?” And the robot goes, “My goal is to become smarter than humans. And immortal.” I used to say, I don’t care how smart you make those robots, the failsafe is that if I tip it over, it can’t get back up again. But they want to make robots as good as human beings, because it’s a bunch of nerds in the lab that want to fuck them because they don’t know how to talk to real women. And these fucking nerds are going to be the end of all of us.

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