C is for Comedy: A Chat with Bill Burr Ahead of His STL Show

By Michael Haffner
In Culture

“A good story is always you doing something wrong, you know? That’s why nice people are so damn boring. I mean, they’re nice, but their stories suck.” – Bill Burr

He’s partially right, you know? Sure, Bill Burr fills his comedic sets with absurd stories of growing up in Massachusetts combined with frank observations on society. However, he isn’t afraid to be a nice guy either. The on-stage yelling and critiquing isn’t the only side of him. Bill Burr has a nice side too.

Since the early ’90s, Burr has performed stand-up all over the world. He performed a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden on November 14, 2015, and on Dec. 18, his animated Netflix series,” F Is For Family,” premiered featuring Bill, Laura Dern and Justin Long.  He was recently seen in the Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell film, “Daddy’s Home,” and he co-starred opposite Kevin Costner in “Black or White.”

This nice side came out when I talked with Bill about his upcoming show at the Fox Theatre on April 22. That talk started with, “Sorry, I’m walking my dog.”

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I’ve always thought of your stand-up as that no-holds-barred uncle everyone loves or your dad after a couple of beers in the garage telling you how life really is. How do you approach your material and do you, in fact, take a page from your dad’s life as inspiration?
All I’m really doing is going up there and trying to be funny. If you do it long enough or people watch you long enough, they start to see your style. It’s really hard to gauge yourself as a comedian because you’re doing it. You guys all have the advantage of watching it. It’s why you learn more when you’re in a relationship and you have someone going, “You know you’re doing this and this,” and you don’t know why you’re doing it.

I don’t know what my style is. I’m just up there literally trying to be funny and to give people their money’s worth. You know?

Do you feel it has evolved or changed over the years or do you still approach it the same way?
Hopefully, I am getting better each year. With each year, I get a little more comfortable. I also think that once you start gathering a following, instead of going up there and having to get them, you go up there and they’re yours to lose. They listen more, which allows you to be more comfortable, and you can develop a lot more stuff.

Those days when I could hear the crowd was drunk and hostile, and you just think, “Oh man. How the hell am I going to get myself out of this situation?” I haven’t had to deal with that in a number of years, but I still remember how to do it. I had to do it for 20 years.

More and more with each passing year, it seems like your popularity has increased.  Especially with this new show now on Netflix, “F is for Family.” It has a lot of heart for being a foul-mouthed cartoon set in the ’70s. Do you find yourself in real life relating more to the gentle heart of the show or the working-class anxiety that the father figure feels?
Both. The thing about it is that everybody wants to write about someone and say “he’s the angry guy” or “he’s the awkward person” and “she’s the quirky one.” But the reality is every human being possesses all those emotions and variations of all of them. Just when you get into show business, they are trying to sell a show. So they try to whittle you down to the most obvious thing.

My thing is that when I’m on stage, I do a lot of screaming and yelling. I’m never angry when I’m on stage. But these people see you doing imitations or characters, and they start thinking it’s you, that you’re actually up there upset. When actually, I’m having a great time. When I’m really angry is when I’m not doing standup.  Like, I get tremendously frustrated with computers. Really dumb things upset me. But at the end of the day, I’m a loyal friend. I love my dog. I love my wife.

So when we were doing the show, it was like the upbringing that I had where all this crazy stuff would happen, but then mom would make breakfast the next morning. You would have these TV sitcom moments.

Nowadays with many up-and-coming comedians, it seems like it’s a matter of writing as much material as you can and getting on stage and performing at open mic nights every night to get the experience. Do you find this to be the path to success, or are there important steps that some up-and-coming comedians fail to consider?
That’s the way it’s always been. You try to do as much as you can. The big thing that I don’t think anyone told me that I had to figure out on my own is that once you get up and running and you have jokes that work and the clubs know you and give you spots, there is a comfort level you can settle into. You then stop growing. How good you can get is up to you personally. It’s not like the club is going to come up to you and say, “Hey. We noticed you are in a stagnant period right now with your writing.” They just give you less spots. You think it’s the club’s fault, but they’re just reacting to what you are doing. You just really have to push yourself as a comic. Once you push yourself, you can really explore the talent you have for doing this thing. I feel if you continue to push yourself, you’re going to be ahead of most comics.

You travel all over the world. What are you specifically looking for when you visit a city on tour and what intrigues you the most when visiting a city like St. Louis?
I’m into the past. I like cool old buildings and finding stories about them. Reading about Prohibition.

Old stadiums are another thing that has always interested me. I remember reading about where the Blues used to play.

The Arena.
Yeah. I’m just like, “Man, I wish that was still around so I could go to one game there.”

Well, The Fox Theatre has been around for quite a while. It’s quite a big house you will be performing in front of. The building inside is gorgeous. Have you been there?
There are a good half-dozen to a dozen theaters across the country named The Fox. So when you are driving around you kind of forget. I know I haven’t played the one in St. Louis yet. Before I play there, I will go on Wikipedia and read about all the guys that have played there. Probably going all the way back to the vaudeville days. I bet even Bob Hope has played there.

There’s a famous concert film called “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” that was filmed at the Fox Theater about Chuck Berry.
No way! I own that! I got that on DVD! I’ve played drums with Steve Jordan. Steve Jordan is one of my favorite drummers of all time (the drummer in the film). He’s had a massive effect on how I attempt my hobby, I should say.

Yeah, that was filmed at The Fox.
That is so f—ing cool! Have you ever watched that one?

Oh yeah. It’s so fun seeing all the music icons together. I’m a big Chuck Berry fan.
My favorite thing is that after Keith (Richards) and Chuck (Berry) butt heads for all that time, they go on and start doing the show. Like after the second or third song, you see Chuck lean over and talk to Keith, and Keith just shakes his head “No! No!”

They later ask him, “What did Chuck say to you?” He says, “After rehearsing it 9,000 times one way, he asks in the middle of the concert if I wanted to play it in F-sharp or something.” He just wanted to switch it up. He was saying how his whole reason for doing that was because Chuck would go city to city, and whatever house band was there, he would never tune up with them. He would just pull up with his guitar, count it off, and they would just play.

Keith’s whole thing was that they got this band together and they worked their asses off, and the second the show starts, everything was out the window. I just love that part!

Bill Burr will perform live at the Fox Theatre on April 22, 2016 at 8:30 pm

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