Interview/review: Bill Burr, Why Do I Do This?

Bill Burr has a new CD out this summer, Why Do I Do This?, and the live video recording of Burr’s performance gets its broadcast debut Aug. 31 on Comedy Central, with the DVD available Sept. 16.

On the DVD, loaded with more than 80 minutes of extras, we see Burr engage in a drumming battle with his XM Radio co-host on Uninformed, Joe DeRosa. Burr also gives us a tour of the Skirball Center for Performing Arts at NYU where he taped the special, with backstage asides, and then a walkabout of the city and some of his past haunts, because, as he says on the DVD: "I don’t know how to tap-dance." So he sits down at Gotham Comedy Club, stands outside the old Boston Comedy Club (then Comedy Village before it closed), a club "that kicked my ass" when he first moved down from Boston. He exorcises demons at Dangerfield’s. He recalls the first time he sold out at Carolines. The DVD also includes the fan recording of his 2006 performance in Philadelphia on the Opie & Anthony Traveling Virus tour. But back to the actual show.

I saw this special live and loved it. You can read about Bill Burr’s DVD taping here. Before we get to our most recent chat, here is a clip from his June 2007 apperance on The Late Show with David Letterman, which includes a medley of bits you’ll see in a much longer, different form on the new special:

First, Bill Burr wants you to know he has new jokes for you after watching this DVD.

"I already have a new hour of stuff," Burr told me. "I want to do that. See, when Carlin passed away, I knew he had an incredible volume of work, but when they did the retrospective and showed he had 14 HBO specials, and it was all ‘A’ material…He never burned out. That was really inspiring."  Burr mentions Chris Rock and Louis CK as contemporaries who also inspire him with their ability to write new material year after year. "That’s the road I want to go. So I’ve got my next hour," he said.

And that means planning for the next special, which he learned especially from this past experience. "How far ahead you have to plan," he said. "Theaters get booked up. Theaters are union, some are non-union. All of this stuff, you have to plan."

One thing he doesn’t have to plan or worry about is having his jokes remain timely.

"I don’t do too much topical stuff," Burr said. "I still listen to old Pryors and when he talks about Ali, I
don’t think, oh, he was champion 30 years ago?! No, if it’s a funny joke it’s

I meant to tell him before the taping that his joke about Hollywood’s fascination with movies on African-Americans overcoming all types of racism had extended to school debate teams. Not that it changes the joke. "It’s literally a genre now!" Burr said. "The funny thing about the swimming movie is I never even saw it. I just saw the trailer. It’s already bad enough to know that people wanted to go swimming and they got s@&# for it. But then to make it cartoonish. There’s no sense of reality…it’s just done from a very, this is right, and this is wrong and every character is either 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong…Eddie Murphy did something about AIDS, and 25 years later, some group got pissed about it and was talking about it and came after him, and I thought that was unbelievably unfair. If he said something and someone didn’t like it…to play Monday morning quarterback 25 years later is pretty ridiculous." Burr said the same holds true for those critics who brought up old footage of Arnold Schwarzenegger "grabbing ass in Brazil in the 1970s" after he ran for governor of California some three decades later.

Burr tends to talk about race in America in a really honest and funny way that few other comedians seem to even try it. Why is that? "It’s not like it scares them," he said. "There are a lot of comics who say, well ‘I can’t get away with that.’ I hate that expression. Because it implies that
you mean something malicious and the crowd is too stupid to realize it."

"You can talk about what you want to talk about as long as
it’s funny. It all comes down to your intent. The funny thing is,…comedians in
general are pretty stubborn people…It’s more like white people don’t hang out
with other kinds of people, so they haven’t had any sort of interaction. Once
you’re dealing with a demographic like that that’s isolated in that way, they
start thinking in columns. This group is like that. And that group is like
this. I remember one time I was in a barbershop." He said a woman wanted Burr to talk to one man from a group of three. Two of the guys were white. One was black. But the woman didn’t want to identify the guy by race. "She whispered black as if she meant something bad. You’re dealing with a herd mentality. If you’re doing stand-up and a group is dealing with herd mentality,
you tell a joke and it causes them to relax. For the most part, people are
decent people."

"A lot of the jokes I do, I deliberately am walking along a
path…Is he going to say something f&*@ed up? It’s a way of keeping peoples

And yet, there was a guy in my row (almost front and center) who managed to fall asleep during the taping. You waited until you had taped enough for the special to lay into him, and it was hysterical. But it’s not on the rough cut of my DVD. Why not?

"People were standing outside for longer than they should
have…I joked that he fell asleep out of boredom but he was f&*@ing wasted," Burr explained, saying one of the guy’s friends called afterward and described what had happened. "To be honest, I completely forgot about that. We taped it. I
did it and we moved on. There’s so much involved in selling it. The cover. The
photo shoots. The release of it. All this stuff. It was a great experience and I’m going to continue doing it that way. I hope to get to the point where I can
put up the money myself."

The DVD extras include your 2006 battle with the O&A crowd in Philly. Was that something you wanted saved for posterity? "The Philly thing, a lot of people were asking me, so I said, yeah, I got to put that on there."

But the DVD special itself is much more fitting for a typical night in the life of Burr as a stand-up comedian, particularly the period in which he lived in New York City — opening with him standing on a subway platform, waiting, then writing out his set list for the night as he would normally do. Burr notes that if you look closely enough, you can see they replaced the normal subway ad cards with shout-outs to bits from Burr’s act. He gets off the train, walks upstairs, then onstage. Afterward, he goes back to the subway for a ride home.

"It was such a huge part of my development as a comedian," he said of making the move from Boston (he grew up in suburban Canton, Mass.) to New York City. "It was a dream of mine to be in New York
and work all of the clubs and have 12 sets on a weekend and hop in a cab to get to the next club…’Take me to 82nd and 2nd!’ It just
sounded cool to me. And that hasn’t worn off. That I can go into New York City and walk into a comedy club and have them
know me and ask if I want to do a set. That stuff blows me away."

Earlier this summer, Burr also sealed a TV pilot deal with Comedy Central. "We finally just got the deal done," he told me earlier in August. "Me and Jeff Cesario, we’ve got a pilot script done. I’m really excited about it." Was having your own show something you thought about when you were a role player on Chappelle’s Show? "When I was doing Chappelle’s Show, I was just happy to be there. And I didn’t want to screw up," he said. "When I was doing that show, I was right where I should have been, which was third or fourth banana in a sketch. Learning where I should be, and learning how to be comfortable."

This is his own chance to shine. It’s not quite like what Chappelle did — "they gave it a generic description, which it’s not" — and it’s not a sitcom, either. "The sitcom, I’ve tried two of those. I can’t shoot what it is
that I want to do into a sitcom, at least not on a major network, because they’re
trying to appeal to too many people. It’s strange because you watch sitcoms from the
1970s and they took way more chances."

So, so true. Sad, but true.

Burr has spent much of 2008 in Los Angeles. Was that part of your plan to move to Hollywood so you could get TV deals moving forward? "Believe it or not, I was tired of New York and I just wasn’t making the inroads that I wanted to to make it to the next level. And then I moved out here and there was a strike. So that was great…But the move was great for my peace of mind."

How about the comedy scene there for you? "The stand-up scene was definitely a little depressing when I
first came out here. Until I got to know some of the guys who were good. It’s L.A.
There are a lot of funny and talented people here," he said. "But there are definitely a lot of people who are onstage
here for something other than their stand-up chops. You’re the fat guy. You’re the
chick. You’re the Asian guy….that part is depressing. Then I realized, there are a lot of rooms outside of the
city. The Comedy Store, I’ve loved. It just seems the most like a New York club. A place where comics can hang out. But
there are a lot of random rooms out here where you can have a good time."

And of course, living in Los Angeles means more auditions for TV and movies. "Right now, I’m waiting to find out about a movie," Burr said. "I’ve learned how to stop from being crazy in the audition process and just go in and kill it. But it’s been a lot of fun. I f&^@ing love it out here. I lived here 10 years earlier and never got a chance to love it."

Bill Burr’s "Why Do I Do This?" debuts at 11 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 31, on Comedy Central. He also performs live Aug. 29-31 at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, N.J. His special will be available on DVD beginning Sept. 16.

: We talked on the phone until someone from Punchline
Magazine called. When you read their interview with him, see if you can
spot where Burr mentions our discussion.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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