Stand-Up Comic Bill Burr on the World Series, Bad Analogies, and Scary Hecklers
With his red hair and thick Massachusetts accent, comedian has Bill Burr amassed a legion of devoted fans—and that started even before his stint on Breaking Bad.
Burr's comedy specials give him a platform to articulate his particular worldview, which is crude but not without a kernel of bluntness. His dog, his girlfriend, and sports are among his regular topics, but he’s never better (or more risky) than when he’s talking about men and women. Burr once devoted nearly 10 minutes to an edgy set about domestic violence, and marched onward after he, clearly picking up on a vibe, remarked, "Look at how uncomfortable it is in this room right now."
Burr, who performs at DAR Constitution Hall tonight, has a way of cutting through the bullshit until—often despite ourselves—we may feel a slight chiseling away at our own perspectives.
The World Series was in full swing when Burr and I spoke on the phone, so our conversation began there.
Washington City Paper: So how do you feel about Game Six tonight?
Bill Burr: I’m a little nervous. I don’t want to wish a bad start on a kid that young, but I hope we somehow get to Michael Wacha. It’s far from over, trust me. In these last two series, trying to score one run was like walking on the bottom of the ocean, I swear to God. I’ve never seen pitching like this in my life.
WCP: Are you superstitious at all? Is there any ritual you have before a big game?
BB: Nah, I let go of all of it. I used to have certain things: I had to be sitting in a certain chair, for example, and if I moved I’d be the reason the game’s not going well. But I did start to feel that stuff creep back during this series. I was driving home at the beginning of one game, and I was in one lane but when I switched to another lane I thought, “Oh, I need to back to the first lane. It was going good over there.” Then I realized how ridiculous that was.
WCP: Assuming the game goes well, knock on wood, how do you plan to celebrate?
BB: I’ll be very happy, but I got to tell you I’ve been a fair-weather fan this season. The first two games I watched this year were the first two games of the playoffs. I’ve been really busy, but I really haven’t watched [baseball] since 2010 and the fallout of the steroids scandal. That whole steroid thing, I don’t understand it... Eventually I think steroids are going to be legal. We’re all going to be doing them, jacked at age 80 with full heads of hair. It’ll be to the point where if a singer can’t make a gig because his voice gives out, he’ll get a steroid. And when you watch ESPN, they say that A-Rod—one of the best players of this era, possibly all time—is a cheater when the scandal breaks, but they also starting hyping his return from suspension. I thought that people needed to pick a side of the fence, which really drove me away from the game. With the singing of “Sweet Caroline” and the pink Red Sox hats, it’s not really the same team anymore.
WCP: What’s your issue with “Sweet Caroline”?
BB: It’s an absolutely fucking horrific song. Listening to a sea of humanity go, “BA BA BUM” is just so fucking embarrassing. Didn’t the song come out of romantic comedy, right?
WCP: I’m not sure.
BB: I don’t know when it started, but now there’s a movement to have [Red Sox] stop singing the song. You know when you get overwhelmingly depressed with the direction this country is heading, but you have this faith that maybe, as human beings, we can turn it around? Whenever I see people going, “BA BA BUM,” I’m just like, “It’s never going to happen. We’re heading for the sun, and there’s nothing we can do.”
WCP: Is there any sea of humanity behavior that you find humanity-affirming?
BB: You know what? I was really impressed with how life went on after the government shutdown. Unless, you know, you work for the government. I thought that after the shutdown, we’d literally see people with torches up the street. I was surprised that I could still go down to the deli and buy a sandwich, and people were obeying traffic signals.
WCP: So you thought the shutdown was going to lead to anarchy?
BB: Yeah, we have a child-parent relationship with the government. Actually, the government is the mom and the banks are the dad [cackles].
WCP: How are the banks the dad?
BB: Because they’re runnin’ shit. That’s what kills me whenever you see a political debate: [Bankers] do this Hatfield-McCoy shit, blaming each other. Bankers get $300 million bonuses, and the president makes $400,000 a year. I’m not great at math, but I’m not a moron. Too big to fail? Can you imagine the balls it takes to say that to the government of the most powerful nation on the planet? What they did absolutely fucking reprehensible. Nobody went to jail. They got the houses back, they can do it again. They’re runnin’ shit! [whispers] Cleo, Cleo! Come on inside! Sorry, it’s my stupid dog.
WCP: How’s she doing, by the way? I loved your bit about her.
BB: She’s great! She loves six people, and she has no use for anyone else. She loves me and my immediate friends, but everyone else she views as a Defcon-5 threat. Cleo, get over there and lay down! Go on! Get over there! She wants to go outside but I’ve got another hour to do interviews.
WCP: Going back to before, if the banks are running shit, how would that make the government matronly? You mean that it takes care of us?
BB: Listen, dude, if you’re going to break down my analogies, they’re all going to fall apart [cackles].
WCP: [laughs] That’s a fair point.
BB: Yeah, I’m a moron.
WCP: How much do you tinker with an analogy when you’re coming up with new material?
BB: They sort of develop as they develop. If there’s something there, it goes. If there’s nothing there, it’s frustrating but I leave it behind... Still, I’m having more fun than I've ever had doing stand-up. I’m pushing myself to get better, and there’s a lot of stuff I still have to work on. That’s sort of the name of the game: You've got to keep improving because there are so many great comedians out there, and there are so many young ones coming up. There is a strong generation of comics that are coming of age right now. I just don’t want anyone to ever say about me, “Oh, he was funny three years ago.”
WCP: Who are some of the younger comedians that have impressed you?
BB: Oh, there’s a bunch. Chelsea Peretti, Sean Patton... actually, I could say Chelsea broke out because now she’s on that show Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Reggie Watts blows me away every time I see him. Then there’s Pete Holmes, who has a TV show after Conan. They’re all really original. I try to have many come on the road with me, but they all break so damn fast. I get really inspired by the comics ahead of me, and the ones that are coming up. There’s nothing better than seeing a comic that you know is going to be great. They love it the way that you love it, and you see them working, getting frustrated, and then working harder. I just love seeing that.
WCP: Do you feel competition with other comics?
BB: No no no. If I felt competition with them, I couldn't enjoy them, and I’m a fan of stand-up first. That would be unbelievably selfish and petty if I did that. The reality is that stand-up does not belong to me, and it does not belong to anybody. It’s this great art. It’d be like if I played guitar and I wanted to be the best instead of trying to communicate what I feel through this instrument. Look, there’s going to be a number of people [laughs] that start after me that are going to be funnier than me. It’s supposed to happen. It’s the natural thing, so I’m enjoying where I’m at right now. Who knows where it leads? I’m going to do this until the day I die and if it happens in front of 18, I’m still going to be having a great time on stage because it’s just fun.
WCP: How does the size of a venue change your act, if at all? I know you’re playing Constitution Hall, which is gigantic compared to, say, the DC Improv.
BB: When you get to places that sit five or six thousand people, the timing of [my act] is different. I put the joke out there, and there’s the pause before the wave of laughter. I wouldn’t want to perform at any place bigger than Constitution Hall. A lot of times it depends on how they’re built. In a lot of those old theaters, you don’t even need a microphone to reach the back of the room. Those are the best venues. I also feel that stand-up is a very small, intimate thing. Once you get past a certain size, it becomes a different thing entirely. Subtleties get lost.
WCP: So what would you call it when a comedian plays Madison Square Garden? Is that still stand-up, or something else?
BB: One time I opened for Dane Cook at Madison Square Garden, and the brilliant thing about him was that round stage. He puts it right in the middle of the venue, which cut the room in half. I remember before I went out there I said, “Jesus, Dane, what’s the deal on this one?” He goes, “It’s simple. It’s just like four theaters.” It was genius the way he broke it down. It didn't feel like I was in Madison Square Garden; it felt like a theater gig where every direction was a new theater, and they’re all sort of locked together. I will tell you at one point I looked up and saw the Rangers’ Stanley Cup Banner and I thought, “Wow, I don’t think I’m ever going to see a championship banner again when I look up at a place I’m performing.”
Look, I’m not saying that if you play those places you’re not a comedian anymore. It’s more of a personal choice for me. Once you get beyond a certain size venue, it’s just different. When someone heckles you in a small venue, they think, “I have to be on my game because the comic is going to come back at me.” But if you’re sitting in row LLL, I can’t see the heckler and they can do whatever the hell they want. That’s why I’d rather do multiple shows at a smaller venue. I’ve played shows with a radio station where the venue is so big the crowd has lawn seats and they’re watching me on a JumboTron. It’s still fun, but I worry the crowd thinks they’re watching me on TV.
WCP: Wasn’t that the type of gig you had when you insulted all of Philadelphia?
BB: Yeah that’s what that was. It was the Opie & Anthony Show—one of the biggest radio shows on the air—and they draw 10,000 people. I was getting heckled by people so far away I couldn’t even throw a baseball at them. But because I did that show, we captured that great moment.
WCP: When do you treat hecklers differently? Is there more animosity when the venue is bigger?
BB: Hecklers are a case-by-case basis. There’s some who are just being silly. They’re some people who enjoy a comic trashing them; they laugh right along with the crowd, and they love it. I actually like those people. They have a good sense of humor about themselves, and they’re just trying to have fun. I don’t mind that kind of yelling out. Then there’s the person who had a bad day. There’s the person who was a good audience member until you brought up something that pertains to something bad in their life, so they get mad at you.
Ugh, the worst one ever is a drunk beautiful woman. That’s the hardest to deal with because beautiful women are not used to someone telling them to stop talking. They’re used to men hanging on their every word, regardless of whether it’s interesting. When you come at them [on stage], they’re looking around thinking, “Me? I’m somehow in the wrong here?” They can’t wrap their beautiful heads around it. Also, it’s scary when you get some straight-up psycho who has this vibe that he has no problem coming up on stage.
WCP: Has that happened before?
BB: Yeah, people have come on stage before. I grabbed the microphone stand and used it like a cattle prod to keep them at bay until someone else arrives. I once had a woman in slow drunk motion chase me around a small stage in New York City. I didn't know what to do. There was no security, and it was a woman so I couldn't get physical.
WCP: So what happened?
BB: She eventually went to sit back down. I kept repeating, “Ma’am, you can’t do this. Go sit down,” while walking backwards in a small circle. She got tired of it.
WCP: I’m glad she did.
Bill Burr performs at 7:30 p.m. tonight at DAR Constitution Hall.