You may know comedian and actor Bill Burr from his HBO and Comedy Central specials, frequent appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman or his forays into acting on Chappelle’s Show or more recently in films like Date Night, with Tina Fey and Steve Carell. Bill took some time out to share his thoughts on hand-washing, show business, dictators, John Travolta, reading, writing and stand-up comedy.
As a longtime fan of Bill’s, I was pleased to learn that he is not completely unlike who you see on TV. He’s outspoken and has an opinion on just about every subject, only he (mercifully) does not yell quite as much. It was suggested that I ask Bill about his “upcoming” Comedy Central series and I learned from the man himself that the show, which had completed a pilot, did not get picked up by the network. Awkward, you might think. But to Bill, a near 20-year veteran in the business, it’s just another part of being a hard-working comedian.
The funnyman will soon be out east when his You People Are All The Same Tour comes to Count Basie Theatre, Friday Feb. 18.
I listened to your podcast from Monday [Jan. 31]. Is the Road AIDS still plaguing you?
Yeah, I forgot to bring vitamins. Flying from the West Coast to go back east—you lose a couple hours—and then they get you up early in the morning to do the radio, and then you can’t sleep ‘cause it’s sunny out and you shake hands after the show. So, I don’t know—the wintertime—more times than not, you’ll end up getting sick. So, that was my definition of Road AIDS.
While I was listening to the podcast I was wondering if, as a comedian, it’s hard doing that without a crowd in front of you? It was pretty funny, for the most part.
Yeah, [the podcasts] used to only be on for like five or six minutes. It’s becoming a comedian. When you first start out as a comic they give you five minutes. You hang on for dear life, and after a while five minutes becomes 10, 10 becomes 20. With the podcast, listeners kind of dictate. I throw out topics and if everybody responds to a topic I get a bunch of questions or comments, then I read those. Topics live for a little while and then people get sick of them and respond to other stuff that I’m talking about.
You’re working on the new Comedy Central series, what’s that going to be like?
Oh, it’s not gonna happen. It didn’t get picked up.
Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I was looking forward to it.
It is what it is.
When did you get that news?
Last week or so. I was kinda surprised, I thought we had a good shot. I’ve moved on to the next thing. You just roll with it after a while. It’s like getting heckled now. When I get heckled it doesn’t bother me at all. When I first got in the business it went right to my heart and I’d be questioning, ‘Oh my god, what the hell am I doing, am I good enough to be a comedian. Should I get a real job?’ I’ve been through this shit before, that’s all I’m trying to say.
We had a deal that, no matter what, they were actually going to shoot the pilot, so I’d gotten it that far. They never tell you. They never tell the performers why. They always say, ‘You were great, everybody loved you. It was the most awesome thing ever, and we’re not picking it up.’
Had you tried pitching your own show before?
Yeah, sure. I’m doing it all the time. It’s what you do. If you’re not on a show, you’re pitching a show. Then if your show gets on, you try to keep it on and when it goes off you come back with another idea. Unless you’re like Seinfeld and you’re brilliant and you made an awesome show and made a ton of money and you can go, ‘Alright, see you later.’ He’s got the greatest career I’ve ever seen.
I keep coming back to get slapped in the face (laughs). I’ve been on shows that have been on the air. I was on Chapelle’s Show, and that thing was a big hit and that was a lot of fun. But it is what it is. At the end of the day, dude, I’m a comedian. Whatever else I can get in this business is awesome, but I’m never gonna not do stand-up. It keeps me employed, so I appreciate every person who comes out to see me, because it’s a great job.
That’s another reason why these pilots getting picked up or not getting picked up doesn’t bug me. If I was an actor, I’d be devastated, I have to go back to wait tables again. But now I can just fly out to Red Bank, NJ, and act like an ass for an hour (laughs).
Even if you got a TV or movie deal you would keep doing stand-up?
Absolutely. Because stand-up keeps you relevant. You can reinvent yourself within your act. Everybody has ups and downs, even the big stars. Look at [John] Travolta. Travolta was the biggest thing ever, then he fell off the map and he was doing movies about talking babies and stuff and then Pulp Fiction comes along and bam—he’s right back up there, riding that for the next 10 years.
But I think it’s a lot harder for an actor having to reinvent himself than a stand-up comedian, when you can always just go and do a special. It’s really an unbelievable privilege.
I love the comebacks, you gotta love seeing somebody make a comeback. Especially nowadays, the ability to get trashed is unreal. With the fucking Internet, man. Who’s that chick on the Food Network who was bugging everybody?
Yeah, someone made a website dedicated to how much they hated her. Everybody has been guilty of being a loser, but I don’t think I ever explored that level of it—to make a fan club to just hate somebody. A fucking cook (laughs)!
I could see it if it was some evil dictator or something, but she’s fucking making s’mores and people have more passion and hate for her than these fucking bankers who steal out of everybody’s check every week.
Do you have a game plan when you go into a show? Like an outline?
Yeah, I definitely make a set list. I always have a set list up there, just in case. I have this little game I do that frees up my mind. I go up there and I talk about whatever I did that day or whatever I’m feeling in that moment, and that frees me up. It’s weird. If I go up and just go right into one of my bits, I go into like robot mode. And it’s like, ‘Now I’m doing the bit about my dog and now I’m talking about my dad.’ So it’s one of those things where I know my jokes and the basic order, the basic flow of the hour. But, if I’m on stage and I think of a joke I just do it. And then I deal with it with the rest of my act.
There isn’t any sort of, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this one comes before that one.’ What’s funny is, at the end of a weekend, the wait-staff will be like, ‘Jesus Christ, you did six shows and you did six totally different hours!’ And, it’s like, ‘No, I didn’t. I switched it up and I left some shit out and I dragged some stuff in from six months ago.’ But that is one of the areas where the podcast has really helped me out, just rambling for an hour. And I listen to all of them after I do them. There’s times where I listen to them and I see what I could have done better or where I could have gone off. I don’t write anything down, I just make like a mental note to myself and hopefully it just happens. I don’t know, I’m lazy.
I lie to myself that I’m kind of doing this sort of—I don’t know how to describe it—this spiritual way of creating, but it’s just laziness (laughs).
Do you have a set list for the shows on this tour that you specifically are going to go through?
No, I just have the jokes that I enjoy doing.
Is that going to be stuff that’s been on the DVDs?
Oh, no, no, no, God no! I would never do that! That is the kiss of death right there. People pay all that money to come see you at a club or a theatre and you go out and do the exact same shit that they just saw on TV? They feel like they never have to come see you again. I shoot a special and the second I’m done shooting I begin dumping that hour.
What happens is the next night I go to a club and I have a new 10 minutes that I’m trying out. So 10 minutes of my former act is now gone. And hopefully I can turn that 10 into 15, the next month, then 20 to 25 and then I’ll have a good half-hour. And a special takes about six months to come out, so by the time it comes out I have a new hour of shit that I can talk about. I’m not saying it’s great, but I’m not coming down, getting the same stuff. And that is the secret, I think.
Chris Rock and Brian Regan and Dave Chappelle and Louis CK, these guys who’ve been doing it for I don’t know how many years at this point—I’m coming up on 19 years doing this shit—it’s like, you go and see those guys because they killed you when you saw them on TV and you go and see them live and they kill you with a brand new hour. And who doesn’t like to laugh? I just think that that’s like priceless.
Have you ever thought about writing a book?
Yes, yes I have. I’m doing a collaborative thing right now but it has nothing to do with my stand-up. But as far as the actual stand-up book thing, yeah, that’s something where I feel like when I have something to say, I’m going to do that. I mean, I could do it.
You know what’s cool? Keith Richards finally just wrote a book. Like a 500-page book, I got it right now and I’m reading it. Keith Richards, and the name of the book is Life. This is a guy who, between 1960 and 1980, any month outta that guy’s life is a book. And this guy waited 30 years after that period to write this book, and it’s amazing. It’s an amazing read.
I don’t know that I’ve lived enough life at this point. Like, I could write a good book, but I wanna write a great one.
You’ve done a lot of humor regarding racial issues. Did you ever have reservations talking about those kinds of things?
No, not really. I found it more fascinating that people didn’t talk about those things, because everybody has an opinion about that stuff. But I was trying to do it from a place where I’m just saying my opinion. I try to avoid that tree-stump thing, although I was kind of guilty of that last week during the podcast. I really try to avoid any sort of preachy kind of stuff. Because I find it so annoying and it causes me to tune out. It’s a combination of just making sure that people know that this is just my opinion, that I’m not 100 percent convinced of it, and that I also realize that I’m kind of a shithead.
Not even that. There’s so much information in the world. And to really have a truly informed opinion, that amount that you have to read is really ridiculous and I just don’t have the stamina to do it. I always describe myself as a comic; I’m just a loud guy in the back of a bar who makes you laugh. In the back of your head, you know that I flunked everything in high school so you don’t take me too seriously.
Bill Burr will be performing at Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank on Friday, Feb. 18. More info at billburr.com