No matter how you try to pin the work of Dave Chappelle or Shane Gillis or any other comedian to him, Bill Burr is not having it.
On Monday night’s Lights Out with David Spade, the Comedy Central host wanted Burr and Jim Jefferies to weigh in on SNL firing Gillis. While Jefferies was quick to invoke the buzzword “cancel culture,” Burr wondered: “Did they go back and also try to look at good things that the person might’ve done, or are they just looking for the bad stuff?”
Truth is, Burr doesn’t really know Gillis’s comedy. Nor should he be required to. Heck, when I talked to Burr on the phone just 10 days ago, Gillis wasn’t making any news at all yet. Way back then, everyone who could ask Burr a question was asking him about Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special. It didn’t help that Netflix’s promotional team cut a trailer making it sound as though Burr would spend his hour railing against critics just as Chappelle had.
Of course, Burr named his new special Paper Tiger. As in, someone who appears or sounds powerful and threatening, but in fact poses no threat and crumbles upon inspection.
I’d given Burr’s previous special mixed reviews, mostly for taping it before the 2016 presidential election and releasing it afterward, despite making jokes in which he suggested it wouldn’t matter who won. No second thoughts from Burr about that move. “No. I thought that was great. Do you want me to be another jerk off? You actually have a time capsule of how the mindset was right before the election.” He said he much prefers having that documented, rather than putting out “the same 20 minutes about Trump being crazy” that other comedians have had since 2017.
The opening for Paper Tiger references Burr’s decision to film it in England, away from American audiences. As he told me: “It’s this weird time, where 3 pecan fo the population is bullying the other 97 percent.” Mostly via social media.
Burr laughed, then scoffed at me for daring to ask him to expand his answer on that. “If you can’t figure out why I do the things I do…if you’re even remotely paying attention to what’s going on…it’s one of the great jokes of this era that we’re living in.” And in that moment, I realized he’s telling me the same thing he’s telling his wife, offstage, and to us the audience via Paper Tiger. Can’t any of us see why he’s an angry mess more often than not?
In this hour, though, he actually delves deeper into his overwhelming emotions, how he inherited them from his family, as well as his concerns about passing them along to his young daughter. Here’s a bit in which he describes how his wife handled getting rid of their dog much easier than he did.
One thing you won’t find in Paper Tiger: Jokes about the Earth’s overpopulation problem. It had been a running bit in each of his previous specials. Why no more? “I’ve given up. They’re just not going to listen to me.”
Nor does he talk much more about his helicopter, although as he told me: “I’m currently trying to get instrument rated on my pilot’s license.”
So he’ll still be ready for the end of the world, no matter whether it’s due to overpopulation, or, gulp, robots. Burr has a hilarious bit in Paper Tiger about how automation may really screw us over.
He’s also worried about what life will be like for the next generation. “It’s unsettling how young people handle privacy, which is no privacy whatsoever. I feel bad for kids that lost a fight or got kicked in the balls,” Burr told me. That footage goes viral. “All that shit happened to me, but there wasn’t video evidence for it for the rest of my life. The Internet is not a nice place. They’re demanding a decency that they’re not holding themselves to.”
He’d much rather reflect on the gratitude for convincing Mike Binder to direct Paper Tiger and filming it at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Though Burr also recorded his performances the previous year at Madison Square Garden, and he’ll put those out in vinyl, he didn’t want an arena special. “That wasn’t the look I was going for.” The look and feel he wanted was Led Zeppelin, circa 1970.
“Jon Bonham’s my favorite drummer…and that’s still my favorite concert footage,” Burr said. “I loved the way it looked.”
Burr described it as “an amazing crazy feeling” to perform at Royal Albert Hall, and was glad he didn’t shoot his first performance there a year earlier, because he felt he was in his head the whole time just from being there.
So he loved the special. Loved having his family there to share it with him.
He regrets the fact that the media likely will go overblown on any negativity — “It’s not because they care about the issue, it’s because they care about hits and money. It’s perverted. And it’s silly.” — he’s more laissez-faire about how audiences react.
“If you like it, you like it, if you don’t, you don’t.”
He says a variation of that in his new hour, too.
Meanwhile, Burr has plenty of other projects ongoing, thanks to his Netflix series, F Is For Family, his company with Al Madrigal, All Things Comedy, and his various TV and movie gigs.
Burr is for having the chance to help other comedians break out via podcasts and stand-up specials and more. “We’ve been producing these specials. We did three of them for Comedy Central. What’s great is they trusted who we picked,” he said. “It’s very seldom that the person who should’ve got picked got picked. There’s so many variables. What happens in that is the cruelty of chance is some very deserving people get overlooked…what’s funny is just out of picking people we were fans of we were accidentally progressive.”
The All Things Comedy deal with Comedy Central has produced hours for Paul Virzi and Ian Edwards, with another hour from Jessica Kirson forthcoming later in 2019.
“You wait until Jessica’s comes out,” Burr told me. “She should’ve been on SNL 10 years ago. It’s just the cruelty of chance”
Season four of F Is For Family, meanwhile, should come out sometime in 2020. Burr and his crew are editing episodes right now, “having more fun than ever.”
All Things Comedy also put out Always Amazing, Steve Byrne’s documentary about The Amazing Johnathan, whom Burr calls “one of my favorite comedians of all time.” Burr also considers Byrne a longtime friend. “You want to talk about a guy who’s earned every inch of what he’s gotten in this business, so it was so much fun to get behind him and put out his documentary and see it do so well.”
And then there’s the upcoming movie by and about Pete Davidson, from Judd Apatow, which Burr filmed this summer in New York City and on Staten Island. “I play a fireman named Raymond Bishop, and I grew a big dumb mustache, and I think that’s all I can say about that.”
You can read my full review of Bill Burr’s Netflix special, Paper Tiger, over on Decider.com.