Bill Burr is widely considered by comedy fans and comedians to be one of the best and most brilliant performers working stand up today, and so everyone has been buzzing all week with excitement about his newest hour- his sixth- out on Netflix now. Like Dave Chappelle, he is considered among the best of the best in the craft. Also like Dave Chappelle his new hour will create both excitement and controversy. Also like Dave Chappelle, his new Netflix special sets out to prove that comedy can’t hurt you. I spoke with Burr just days before the premiere about his hour, comedy and more.
Bill Burr: Paper Tiger dropped last night. If you didn’t get up early to check it out yet, you can expect two things. First, comedy fans are going to love it. Really love it. Burr’s signature rant and his hardcore dont-give-a-fuck attitude are back in full force and he delivers a packed hour of laughs to a thrilled crowd at Prince Albert Hall. You can also expect outrage and controversy from media outlets, for basically the same reason- that hardcore don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. Burr’s jokes venture into that un-woke territory that create the blowback we’ve all become familiar with. When I talked with Burr late last week about the hour, he told me that his press tour promoting the special has already been full of reporters who only want to ask him about social responsibility, about controversy, about outrage potential. The questions that make no sense to him, because as far as he’s concerned, it’s all just jokes.
Comedy, he told me, doesn’t matter. It’s not Important; it doesn’t change the world.
I pressed him on the issue, trying to insist that comedy does influence culture, and is precious, but he wasn’t buying it. “That’s not true, that’s not true. That is simply not true. It’s just not true. Nope. No,” he said about my insistence that comedy is culturally significant. “No comic has ever told a fucking joke that changed the society. If a comedian had that level of power, you wouldn’t be allowed to do it, or it would be totally monitored and censored. You know what effects change? Bloodshed. That’s what, a fucking revolution. That effects change. People have to go in the street. There’s riots. People get fucking killed. I mean, did you watch the ’60s? Did you ever watch a documentary on it? I mean, if you watched the 1960s, what I get from it is if you’re truly effecting change in a way that whoever is running shit doesn’t want it to go in, conveniently, a crazed lone gunman will take you out, black, white, male, female, student, or whatever. That shit is going to go down. Yes, and a stand-up comedian is a far cry from that shit.”
That’s where the title of his new Netflix special- Paper Tiger- comes in. A paper tiger refers to something or someone that claims or appears to be powerful and/or threatening, but is actually ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge. He explained: “Yeah, it’s just making fun of how … the country’s bankrupt. The bankers got away with what they did. Our food’s been turned into poison evidently. All of this shit is going on, and it doesn’t seem to be get people’s energy up the way a joke does. So I’m just reminding people I don’t read, I’m just an idiot, and you’ll live. You’ll live past your three days of outrage.”
So he’s not worried about all the PC culture and the reaction he anticipates he’ll get from the media. He refers to the phenomenon as “Chicken Little” insisting that the media is blowing the outrage response to comedy out of proportion. He says that night after night when he performs, everybody shows up, laughs and goes home. “And then once every couple of years, somebody has an issue, and then it’s just, “Oh, my God.” The contrast between reality and the way outrage is reported in the news has made him question everything he reads. “It’s just simply not the case” he says referring to the supposed anger at edgy comedy.
He doesn’t just blame the media for the problem, he’s also blaming “certain comics” for fueling the fire. They need to get over themselves, he says. “I probably shouldn’t say this”, he tells me, “certain comics like to think that they’re dangerous, so then they just fan the flames. Like, “Hey, man, I don’t give a fuck with this fucking political correctness. I’m going to talk about whatever … ” It’s like, you’re not dangerous, okay? You’re not. You’re telling knock-knock jokes. Get over yourself.”
Some may accuse him of setting out to be dangerous with Paper Tiger, but Burr insists that the material didn’t come out of some plan to cause outrage. “I don’t think that much about what I say onstage,” he said. “I don’t fucking care.” In fact, he said that if he thinks too much about what he’s going to talk about, he can’t do it well. “The second I start thinking about what I’m doing or saying, it’s like a plane that loses its forward momentum. It loses lift, and it just fucking … now it’s just a heavy thing in the air, and it just crashes.” He compared doing stand up to having a dream that you can fly, and then thinking about it too much causes you to start falling. “That’s what doing stand-up is. If I don’t think about what’s going on, my jokes stay aloft. But if I actually think about them ..Because I’ve had times where you catch a zone, and you feel like, “Jesus Christ, I’ve just talking for the last 10 minutes. I’m not even … These aren’t even jokes. Why are they laughing?” The second that thought enters my head, immediately, I start a nose-down attitude, plummeting towards the earth.”
The media’s concerns aren’t coming out of nowhere. In Paper Tiger, Burr spends a full 20 minutes getting laughs at the expense of a variety of women’s issues- the me too movement, #believewomen, no means no, and even first ladies. And there are definitely some “triggering statements” that will that cause people to gasp and get upset. But if you look closely at the material, you see that it’s mostly smoke and not, in fact, a stand against progressives. Burr will undoubtedly be accused of being out of step and out of time, and maybe he is on some issues, particularly those dealing with gender, but ultimately the special will be judged on whether it’s funny, regardless of whether he’s telling jokes about #metoo or sex with robots. It’s all just jokes, a harmless Paper Tiger. It can’t hurt you.
And although the attention on social media and in critical commentary will likely center on that provocative 20 minutes on gender issues, there’s much more in the special to be excited about. There’s some incredibly nuanced commentary on race, becoming a dad, male vs female reactions to stress, and a hilarious self reflective section covering self improvement and rage.
Burr’s at his funniest when talking rage, and in Paper Tiger, he expertly covers the topic with analysis and example. Off stage, he is careful to point out that he’s not some two dimensional angry ranting guy. “When you go on a stage, people are going to boil you down to the most basic thing that you are. So the most basic thing that I am is a bald guy yelling, so it’s just like, “Okay, that’s what he is.” There’s no layers to it.”
He’s not actually angry on stage, he says, at least not anymore. “I’m just doing a character,” he told me, “like imitating some guy flipping out, some Southern guy. Do you understand the energy and the splitting headaches that I would have if I actually went onstage for an hour and was angry? And believe me, believe me, I’ve done it. When I was a younger man, when I was an angry younger man, I did that. And I would come offstage, and I felt horrible. I was like, “I need to figure out what is wrong with me.” He has done that, he says, and he’s still working on being less angry.
But the rage is there, at least a little bit, I noticed, as he shared his theory about rage stemming from a surprising source- politeness. Angry people, he told me, are actually considerate people. “What happens is, is when that consideration isn’t coming the same way they’re putting it out.” He explains that when he realizes he’s being the loud guy on his cellphone, and someone gives him a look, he realizes it, and quickly hangs up, thereby restoring order to the world. “But when you’re sitting there, and you give somebody a look, and they just look at you like, ‘yeah, whatever. This is my space, man. I’m going to keep talking,’ that’s when the rage comes up”. If it’s not people on phones, it’s standing in lines. “When you stand in the security line at the airport and people are looking at you in front of you, rolling their eyes about how long it’s taking. And then when it’s their turn, they just begin getting ready to do it. And it’s like, “The balls of you to roll your eyes like you’re not part of the fucking problem. That’s the shit that sets me off.”
“I don’t walk around angry because somebody’s doing well. I don’t get angry because somebody’s happy. People being inconsiderate and having their head up their ass when there’s a group dynamic going on. Okay? We’re all boarding a plane. Okay, have your shit ready to put in your overhead compartment. Stop the line for as little time as possible, because you were just standing in the line, and it was frustrating. Empathy.”
Burr’s ability to communicate what’s so damn funny about rage is so fine tuned, that he can’t turn it off even while explaining that he’s not angry. And it’s priceless.
Burr recorded the hour at the stunning Royal Albert Hall in London. He chose the venue because his favorite concert footage of all time is Led Zeppelin at Royal Albert Hall. And anyone who has been following Burr’s career from the early days is going to feel a surge of pride to see him step out in front of that crowd. I asked him what it felt like to walk out into that stunning theater– if he realized how cool it is to be on such a historic stage. He beamed, audibly, even thanking me for asking the question. “It was an incredible venue, it was breathtaking. It was the second time I’ve played it, and it was so beautiful. I needed to play it one time before I actually shot a special there, because the first time, it was such an out-of-body experience, I didn’t feel like I deserved to be there. I kept thinking, John Bonham’s drums were right behind me. All of these people that I saw play there. It was just … I couldn’t 100% sustain being comfortable. It’s the most beautiful venue I’ve ever been in. It was incredible, and then it’s such an honor to be able to perform there and have all these people from another country care enough to show up. It was very, very humbling experience.”
Bill Burr: Paper Tiger is streaming now, exclusively on Netflix.