Talking to Bill Burr About His New Special, His Alt-Room Statements, False Outrage, and More
Bill Burr would like to remind you that he is a comedian. It’s not that many, many people don’t know that — he’s the host of the very popular Monday Morning Podcast, and last year he received the Comedian of the Year Award from the Boston Comedy Festival. But if you are inclined to take the self-styled “uninformed logic” of his act at face value, he’d kindly remind you that he’s just joking.
Burr’s latest special, You People Are All the Same, premiered on Netflix last month; it is now available as a $5 DRM-free download on his site. I got the chance to speak with him last week about releasing specials, being taken seriously, and not apologizing.
You released your special last month on Netflix, and now it’s available to download on your website. Why did you decide to do it in a two-step process like that?
Because I wanted people to see it to get a little buzz going. Part of my contract with Netflix was, for thirty days it couldn’t be released anywhere else. And the thing about Netflix is, Netflix is in the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Great Britain, and now into Scandinavia. And I imagine that soon they’ll be in Australia. Netflix is like international HBO [or] YouTube.
If you’re on HBO or Comedy Central, they show your special, and maybe they rerun it that night, and then you have no idea when they’re going to show it again. So people come into work going, “Oh my God. You got to see this guy. Just look out for it, I don’t know…” Netflix, it’s just on there. I mean, I went from clubs to theaters with Let It Go when it went on Netflix. Those guys are great, and they help pay for part of the special when they buy it. You know how these kids are. [Laughs] One copy feeds the world. So we’ll see what happens. Either way, I’m really proud of it. And I know my hardcore fans are going to buy it. And it’s only five bucks. I’m hoping I’ll break even.
Selling specials for five bucks has become, in the last six months, something that so many people are doing. Do you think the old model of going through Comedy Central or HBO is dead?
I wouldn’t totally write it off. I think it all depends. If you’ve got a development deal with a network and they’re really behind you, when you have that machine behind you, that’s a great thing. If you’re more in my situation, where…I really don’t do set-up, punch, set-up, punch. I kind of tell stories. So my jokes are longer. And I curse my brains out, so to put me on a network where there’s commercials, so they’re going to be beeping it. You’re already cutting out a quarter of the special. Netflix is perfect for me. It’s absolutely perfect. I couldn’t be more happy with those guys.
I re-watched Let It Go, and then I watched You People Are All the Same. And I noticed that in Let It Go you talk about wanting to not be the angry guy any more. But in the new one, you seem to be back embracing being angry. Is that fair?
Hmm, am I embracing anger? No, I’m not embracing it, and I’ve never been embracing it. I don’t want to do it. But it’s like an alcoholic. You slip, you fall, you get back up. You try it again. To look at my act and say that I’m an angry guy, it’s more of a surface thing. If you really look at it, you just see somebody that needs a hug. [Laughs] You really shouldn’t be taking me that seriously, you know?
I also want to ask you about the book, Cheat, that you wrote with Robert Kelly and Joe DeRosa did. How did that become a thing?
It came about because we wrote a short film called Cheat. We set it up like it’s a thriller, it looks like these guys are gonna rob a bank. And it turns this guy’s girlfriend is out of town and he wants to cheat on her. Then his two dirtbag friends tell him all the ins and outs about it.
We got it into Tribeca Film Festival and we were trying to get some of our money back. Well, how the hell do we promote this thing? So we came up with an idea: “Hey why don’t you write a book on how to cheat.” We were thinking that’s really funny because so many people out there are getting busted, right and left, with all these cell phone videos and emails, and all that. It was right when Schwarzenegger went down.
So we just had a bunch of comics and friends be honest and tell their cheat stories and how they got caught, and break it down. It’s basically like three bank robbers that got caught robbing a bank, tell you how to rob a bank. But in the back of your head you’re like, “Well, all these guys got caught.” So it’s ridiculous. It’s yet another thing that you shouldn’t take that seriously, but I’m sure people will.
Does it bother you when people get up in arms about things you say?
Not at all?
It’s not in my control. People have every right to take a comedian seriously. If they want to take a comedian seriously, that’s okay. But just because you take something I said seriously, that doesn’t now mean that I meant it. You know? I’m still joking around. So, I learned a long time ago, you can’t control how somebody processes what you say. It’s going into their brain that has all their life experiences.
I’m not saying, the person in the crowd, he’s wrong. Sometimes they’re right. Sometimes you are being mean. Sometimes you pushed it too far. But most of the time, they’re just kind of being selfish. Because they sat there and they laughed at 20 different topics that didn’t affect their life, but then all of a sudden, there was something that they were sensitive about and then they start coming up to you. They always say “statements.” “The statements you made…” Which is hilarious. I wasn’t making any statements, I was joking. And you knew I was joking until I joked about something you didn’t find funny or hurt your feelings, and then all of a sudden you say I was making “statements.” You know, it’s bullshit.
You’re going to Sydney in a couple weeks, and I know you’ve toured Europe. I think of you as having a very American voice. How do you find crowds in other countries react to you?
As long as I don’t get in my head, they laugh the way they do over here. I just go over there and I act like I’m in the States, and I just start doing my act like they’re going to get every single thing that I’m saying. And I just plow forward, and then when I hit something that they don’t get, I address it. I talk about how dumb I am that they’d know something about Jacksonville, Florida, or whatever. And then they laugh at me, and then I just go right back to just acting like they grew up across the street from me.
What do you think it is that draws people to you?
I don’t know. You know who thinks things like that? Comics with catchphrases. Comics who do characters and stuff like that. They think shit like that. Which, I think is an ass-backward way of looking at what you do.
You’ve never wondered that? Who are these people that listen to my podcast and come to my shows?
No, I just think I put out a funny special, and then people watch it and they laugh: “Oh I want to see this guy.” I don’t go beyond that. The second you start sitting in the crowd, watching your act trying to figure you out, I think you’re done. You’re done at that point. Yeah, it’s like, you’re breaking down your own process. It should be natural. You should just go up there and talk about what you want to talk about.
That’s like a cliché, the person who just kept doing what everybody wanted him to do and then he’s selling out arenas, hating his act, but can’t abandon it now because he lives in a nine billion dollar house and unless he gets up there and says “wakka wakka” after every joke, you know? So, I don’t look at it that way. A couple times a month, I will be onstage thinking, “Why are they laughing at this?” The second I think that, I start bombing, so I really try to avoid that thought. [Laughs]
Do you have a favorite topic? Is there something that you get excited to get to talk about on stage, over and over again?
Yeah, you always have your favorite bit. I kind of touched on that Steve Jobs thing on Conan, but that’s a whole long bit, where I’m walking around the office, acting like him. Every night it kind of comes out a little bit different, so those are the fun ones.
Your act is almost like you’re playing tag. Your act is the base, where you’re safe. So, you just kind of run around, improv it, and if all of a sudden, it’s starting to go bad, you just go back to your act. Do a couple of bits, get them going again, and then you just start improving it. On the nights I’m having the most fun, that’s basically what I’m doing. I’m barely doing the act, and the set list is all over the place, and I’m just sort of reacting to everything. I did a third of my act and I was almost out of time. But then nights when it’s not going well, you feel like you burned through an hour of material in like 11 minutes. That’s brutal.
Since this is Splitsider, I feel like I can’t not ask you about the controversy last spring about alternative comedy. What kind of reaction did you get from the alt comedy world after that whole thing blew up?
Nothing. It was a non-story in my world. Nobody cared! I said so many ridiculous things in that podcast. It’s not like I went out of my way to make fun of alternative comedy. Somebody was talking about nerds. So they brought up the subject and I have to keep it funny, so I just went off on nerds. You know?
I mean, I’m not going to lie to you. I meant a lot of the shit I was saying, but I would never tell somebody to not go do an alt room. There’s plenty of funny guys in that room. That’s one of those things where — I feel like comics recently have been getting filmed, and then they have to apologize? Every time they show the bit, the crowd laughs. And then they’re like, “sparked controversy” and they show him telling the joke in the club, and the crowd’s laughing. It’s like, dude, there was no controversy. One person in the crowd didn’t like it, and then they blogged about it. And then, it’s out there on the internet, and people just start saying that there was a controversy. I had a couple people come up to me to say it was funny. You know what I did that night? I actually performed in an alt room. That’s how seriously I took it.
Looking back on it now, I didn’t really see that many people disagreeing with a lot of the things you said.
Okay, so nobody disagreed with it. Then, where is the controversy? You gotta have disagreement for controversy, right?
Okay, maybe controversy is the wrong word. Maybe what I mean is just that people talked about it. And that is interesting, because it was a conversation for a week.
Oh yeah. Yeah. No, it was definitely a conversation, but it wasn’t like Mothers Against Drunk Driving called me up and I had to issue some sort of statement clarifying what I said.
But it’s all about how people hear what I’m saying. You know what’s really funny is, when people post my bits on YouTube, they name the bit. And how they name it is how they’re hearing it. Like there’s a bit on there, it says “Women Ruin Everything – Bill Burr.” I never said that. I never said that, that’s not the name of the bit, and it’s on there. Once again, you have no power over how people hear what you say. One of my pet peeves is watching somebody say something, and have somebody else interpret it a different way, and then the person who didn’t mean it that way actually goes on and apologizes. Which, at that point, you validate somebody else’s misinterpretation of what you said. Jesus! We’re getting deep here, aren’t we?
Yeah! That’s what I like. It’s…
This is the part where I tell you that I’m an idiot, right? So, don’t take this too seriously.
Alright. But, you don’t think comedy should ever be taken seriously?
As an art form, yes. And then, if you’re just on stage going, “you fucking cunt,” yelling at some woman in the crowd, because you had a bad day. Not because of her behavior, because you had a bad day and you brought that on stage and then you choose to let it out on her because she was being loud and disruptive. Yeah, you’re wrong. You reach a level of maturity where you can realize it in the moment and be like — well, I don’t know how you apologize for calling somebody a fucking cunt. The show’s kind of over at that point.
But, okay, say a tragedy happens. And comedians have jokes about it. No one ever addresses the fact that humor is a coping mechanism. It’s a form of denying bad feelings. Like, you’re going to start crying so you make a joke. People over in Iraq right now — they’re over there, humor is over there. They’re making jokes. They see something horrific, somebody makes a joke. So, you’re not just sitting in that nightmare. Cops make jokes, firemen make jokes.
I talked to a defense attorney one time, and she had to defend a guy who murdered two toddlers. And I was like, “How the hell did you do that?” And she just was going, “So we’re sitting there, spitballing some angles of defense. Within a minute, we were crying laughing, because we’re like, oh you know, these little kids have been lifting weights…” It was so absurd that you would defend somebody like that, that the only thing that could save it from everybody just bursting out crying, was humor. But, people who don’t understand humor will then be like, “They’re joking about this, so they think killing two toddlers is funny.” And then comics go on TV and they validate that ignorant way of looking at you.
I see what you’re saying. It’s a funny…
Are you going to chop all of this up and I’m going to look like Hitler? Or is this going to come out alright? [Laughs]
It’ll be fine. I promise. It’s a funny thing to try and interview you, because it doesn’t feel like there’s stuff that you just keep to yourself, waiting for someone to ask you about. You have a podcast every week, and you say what comes into your mind. I guess that was my way of saying, is there something that you wish you could talk about that you never get to?
Yeah. I wish I could tell people to buy Patrice O’Neal’s CD Mr. P, or his DVD Elephant in the Room, because the proceeds go out to help his mother and his wife. And also, speaking for myself, he was the benchmark. I always envisioned trying to battle him special for special, because he was going to be the guy that I was going to use, to see if I was funny or not. So for him not to be around anymore is an unbelievable void. Because I wasn’t anywhere near that guy. So people need to know that.