Marbles in the Ass: A Brief Look Into the Hilarious History of The Billburrderburger Group
Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones. This is the first one. Thank you for reading.
“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything.”
Patrice O’Neal: You know why the NSA is fucked up? Last time I got on a plane, check this out: I carried — you know those little plastic knives? I carried one of those on the plane, just to see if I could get it on. Then on the plane, I started cutting my hand with it! To see if the flight attendants or anyone would stop me, and they didn’t! That’s because the NSA is fucked up!!
Louis CK: No, your brain just doesn’t work correctly.
—“Louis CK on O&A #21 – Oh You Dir-ty Bitch”
At this point Bill Burr is better than George Carlin. How’s that for a fucking first sentence, comedy fans? And you know what? I’ll go even further: he’s way better than George Carlin. (No disrespect, of course.) Let me explain.
As you may have noticed, many comedians have podcasts now. Podcasts are real big. You might even have noticed one of the NY Times or Daily Beast articles about how NPR is this big grand model for audio entertainment that all these new podcasters are drawing from. Well guess what, motherfuckers? Half of podcasters are trying to be Terry Gross, sure; but the other half are trying to be Stern, baby.
I don’t think I can overemphasize how explicitly true this is. Whenever his podcasting origin story comes up, Joe Rogan 100% of the time jumps to, “I started podcasting to try and do the Opie & Anthony template, full stop. I owe this all to that show and Stern.” I don’t know if he’s had any success, but I hear he’s still podcasting (he plays to a larger weekly audience than a network sitcom).
But wait, how can all these 24-year-old podcasters know so much about shock jock radio? Podcasting was invented in 2014 when NPR started doing Serial! Well luckily there is a virtually bottomless archive of thousands of shock jock hours on YouTube, and you can believe me when I say that young comics are watching a ton of it. On a podcast a few months ago perpetually up-and-coming comedian Mark Normand casually referenced “The Patrice Roast.” And no, not the Charlie Sheen one. The one at the Boston; the one where Bob Kelly taped his set and sent it in (or rented a VCR — I forget), Keith Robinson came late and ate shit because he tried to wing it. Everyone in the room (younger than Norman if I recall correctly) immediately knew all of these details. For a club show that happened in 2003. People are watching the shit out of these old clips! And they are way better than any podcast or present-day radio show ever could be, tbh!
So okay, what exactly am I talking about? Well again, there is such a sea of content out there on YouTube that you can hang out in a certain area (the shock jock radio wing) and pick up on these narratives over enough recollections of certain events from enough points of view in enough contexts. Like in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo where they use a bunch of photo negatives to recreate everyone who was on the bridge that day or whatever.
The Patrice Roast is a pretty bad example, actually. A better one is “The Artie Lange Addiction Saga”: a literally epic (not like Bill Murray bacon epic) story of Artie Lange developing a heroin addiction and Stern realizing it and dealing with it. Another good one is Opie & Anthony’s Joe Piscopo story arc, where they talk a huge amount of shit about his terrible HBO one-man show, then he calls up a bunch of times and they become friends. I think Patton Oswalt once described this storyline as “like a great Miyazaki film.” Another fantastic one is “Louis CK on O&A 1-42: Snake in the Ass — Ford AIDS”. Sound like gibberish? It’s not! It is but it’s not!
But possibly the best of all of these, for my money (which of course is backed by the illegal federal reserve and when the big one comes will be mere paper and that’s why I have gold buried in my back yard) is the Billburrerburger Group (they actually call it “The Bill Burr Group” but that’s way less funny). This refers to the recordings that make up a certain era/brand of NYC standup where this close-knit group of comedians (the Tough Crowd crowd) had this ongoing conversation on each others’ podcasts and radio shows about conspiracy theories. Remember on his episode of WTF when Jim Gaffigan pointed out that if you think about it, a lot of his jokes are actually from a pretty paranoid point of view. Which is true: he tends to be paranoid about food, and this group of shock jock regulars often with three hours to kill and nothing to talk about are paranoid about the most high stakes conspiracies possible. (Why not juice it up a little, right? They don’t have day jobs to worry about.) And I guess it’s worth pointing out that this whole little micro-era started a few years after 9/11.
So think about what that would actually be like, though. To be on the spot and have to engage with the most fringe ideas imaginable, while remaining unpredictable and edgy for the audience without also burning down your reputation by being “9/11 truther guy.” Patrice O’Neal once described this weird tight rope as, [paraphrasing; there’s no way I’m combing through all those videos again] “You never want to be the guy pulling marbles out of his ass. You see those guys sometimes talking about some conspiracy and actually making a little sense, but then he does something like start pulling marbles out of his ass and it’s like ahhh everything this guy just said that was reasonable is now retroactively crazy!!”
And how hard does the Billburrburger Group go? Well, Alex Jones? Not a marbles in the ass guy. Totally reasonable. That’s right, one big string of the Billburrderburger Group narrative is all the InfoWars podcasts with people like Bill Burr, Doug Stanhope, Joe Rogan, Patrice et al. Another big source of material for digging out the Billburrderburger Group narrative is a lot of compilations that some superfan has conveniently edited together. These are like getting into a classic rock band through their best of album: a safe bet if you kinda don’t give a shit. Or if you have more time, you can get a more subtle appreciation of the finer points about Burr’s “they can’t put fluoride in the water because then the White House would have to install a special pipe of non-fluoride water or something” micro-takes by listening to the albums of the shock jock world, the meticulously maintained playlists of each 1-4 hour appearance of a given regular, presented in order, titled, and with the commercials and shitty production bits edited out. The Louis CK one has about 100 hours over ~45 appearances. Patrice O’Neal was on over 150 times for roughly 300 hours.
This may well sound like craziness, but once you fall into one of these rabbit holes (Hint: you can rip audio as mp3 and put it on your phone regardless of length) you really have a strong connection to it. Radio is the most intimate medium etc. etc. In my experience this was one of those things that I didn’t even want to tell anyone about, lest I blow up my own spot. But then when I did happen to write something tangentially related, sure enough, you meet other people who thought this was their own personal thing that they weren’t telling anyone about. My Twitter buddy Kaleb Horton, an incredible journalist and writer for places like MTV, VICE, and Vanity Fair, once messaged me to deliver roughly this same message. I asked him to elaborate for this story, and sure enough:
Success in creative fields means lots of time alone, and conspiracy theories are largely the domain of lonely people. You can only really get hooked by them in the dark, by yourself. It’s secret information. Patrice even articulated that frustration in one of his albums, where he yells out, “I can’t even share this with you people!” And loneliness ran through Patrice’s work as much as conspiracies did. It was all part of the same thing.
That is some seriously good shit, folks. It’s definitely true that there are some practical circumstances that push these guys to get obsessed with the moon landing and the JFK assassination. (Bohemian Grove, if I recall correctly, is kid shit. A cute training wheels-level conspiracy theory.) And what a great insight that the whole concept of paranoia rests on this fear of people knowing too much about you. And that dovetails nicely with another observation: the only real hard conspiracy theories that Burr is willing to entertain any longer are the ones about Silicon Valley nerds hoarding our data. This one is so resilient perhaps because it’s almost definitely true and going to be a huge problem very soon. And that’s why Burr implores people at every opportunity to cancel your “savings club” cards and do cashiers a favor by not using self-checkouts (they’re taking their jobs!) Now that I think about it, it seems like Burr only thinks about conspiracy theories any more when he goes to the grocery store, but fair enough. We are all fucked because companies have harvested all of our data and now dudes who want revenge on the world from their shitty high school are going to ruin humanity.
But I think the idea that artists are drawn to conspiracy theories because they are lonely could perhaps be better expressed in the language of standup. Comics like conspiracy theories because they love to get to the bottom of things. Usually things of such dire importance as where do socks go when they get lost in the dryer. But then when you do that all the time, it probably feels good to work those rhetorical muscles on a high-stakes and purely hypothetical topic. Because really, at the end of the day, the government’s not going to just announce one day “Okay, we’re all conspiring against you. Insurance is a racket, the 10 richest families in the world have the same three last names, but I’m still the president so fuck you.” Or could they ever do that?! Well there is at least one excellent break where Louis CK poses this scenario and then riffs on it. (Oh and speaking of CK, this is the best video on the internet — you gotta listen from the beginning, though for the whole context. A few videos later, CK admits that this Rumsfeld interview stunt was almost purely to promote his upcoming road dates, for which he booked theaters on the promise that he would be able to pull in audiences somehow. “I came into the studio that day to cause trouble and sell tickets.” Please show me a funnier story than that. Please.)
It turns out radio is very good at selling tickets. This was the period of road work and radio appearances that helped CK get the traction for where he is now. But that was radio. Podcasts can’t possibly be the same, can they? It’s not really a meritocracy, is it? Well it certainly is. Right up there with Burr’s and Rogan’s podcasts on the charts you will find Guys We Fucked, hosted by NYC comics Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson.
“We’re usually right around Maron,” Fisher told me yesterday. Monday also happened to be the day of the first date on their Guys We Fucked standup tour, but she was nice enough to answer a few questions. For one, yes, the podcast has been an incredible tool for building an audience. After a Daily Beast article, their numbers shot up, they found themselves selling out weekly 150-seat shows in New York and drawing on the road. And fans, not just people going to see comedy.
With this, of course, came some responsibility. Quickly they realized that a lot of their audience was young women who may very well look up to Fisher and Hutchinson. “We try to have a message behind everything we say. The most important thing is that it’s funny; I mean, we are comedians. But we definitely know we’re accountable for things we say.” So like you know you’ll have to defend it somehow? “Yeah, yeah, like that.”
(Also notable: they have a strict rule against advertising alcohol (although certainly not against talking about drinking) and rejected many advertising proposals for various reasons before finally letting someone sponsor them. Podcasters: you can do that.)
As far as style and writing process, just as I suspected, podcasting has had a huge gravitational pull on their styles. “Last summer Kyrstyna and I each wrote 20 new minutes of non-sex, non-relationship material. We were just so sick of talking about sex. At a certain point, I was like, ‘I’d rather talk about anything; I’d rather talk about driftwood.’ I even hosted a series of shows with Katie Hannigan where we asked comics to come on and do a set about anything but sex or relationships. And you know, it turned out a lot of comedians had some of their best sets ever at that show.”
Is talking about sex the female equivalent of talking about conspiracy theories? Could it be true, reader?? Please text or email your answers; all my info is available online.
So this seems like maybe there are a few runners out there about to be the second four-minute miler, and then of course there will be many more. Is it a lot of pressure, for the internet to call your bluff and rocket your podcast up to the rarefied air of big-time podcasting? “Haha well, you know, every day I wake up and think this is all going to go away. I’m a glass half-empty person, but Krystyna is a glass half-full person. So it evens out. At the end of the day, we’re just so thankful to have this opportunity to help our standup. […] It’s just so awesome to find someone who thinks you are as cool and special as you think you are.”