Bill Burr On Dave Chappelle And The Charged Climate Of Stand-Up Comedy

Comedian Bill Burr Performances At The Ice House Comedy Club
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In the weeks that preceded and followed the release of Dave Chappelle’s fifth Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, the conversation necessarily – and predictably – hinged on the comic’s jokes pertaining to transgender people and politically correct culture. To be fair to these (and other thorny) subjects, though, such critical back-and-forths among artists and critics are nothing new. And that’s what comedian Bill Burr was counting on in Paper Tiger.

“By the way, this is going to be my last show ever,” he says about midway through the new comedy special, which is now streaming on Netflix. “By the time this f*cking thing comes out.”

Seeing as how Paper Tiger is Burr’s sixth full special in 11 years, this wry prediction likely won’t be the case. But the 51-year-old performer is perfectly aware of the charged climate that stand-up comedy–and public entertainment and political culture at large–now finds itself in. He jokes about it plenty of times throughout the new hour, especially when he thinks it’s his last.

Andrew Husband: You and Mike Binder filmed Paper Tiger at London’s Royal Albert Hall back in March as part of your European tour. Was your opening about doing comedy outside of the U.S. the result of that tour? Or was that something you’d been thinking about already?

Bill Burr: It’s just when I go over to different countries. Some stuff plays, some stuff doesn’t. You just address it, make a joke out of it and then continue on. I still do the same act that I would be doing in the States–it’s just occasionally there’s something that doesn’t play. Anytime I was doing that was to either address that or the political correctness vibe that gets into crowds, where they just feel like they can’t laugh at something. So, you just make a joke, snap them out of it and then they act like regular people.

AH: That was going to be my next question, about your addressing America’s current fascination with “PC culture” in the context of comedy.

BB: That has gone global, my friend. There’s all this weird thing where everybody in public is the most caring person ever–and then they go back to the exact life they were living when they go home. And I understand it. Its heart is in the right place, but they . . . You can’t just change words and think that will change people’s attitudes.

AH: You really think that?

BB: Well, to change as a person is a ton of work. It requires a lot of work by the individual. It’s not simply other people going, “Don’t say this word now, say that word.” And then, magically, they're going to be like, “Oh!” It’s not the case that because they don’t use that other word, they’re not going to be thinking ignorant things about whatever group that word was used negatively against before. It’s a pipe dream.

AH: Fair point, though I don’t entirely agree.

BB: As I was traveling, I was learning. At some of the places I went, they agreed with some of the things that we were doing. As for some other things, they thought it was all a bunch of hilarious overreactions and just bizarre. There’s still a lot of people in other countries whose leaders do things like have extramarital affairs. And they’re like, “Yeah, I mean that’s what they do, but who cares what you did? That’s his personal life. That’s between him and his wife, or whoever. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s got their problems.”

AH: In those instances, it doesn’t become a national scandal, you’re saying.

BB: Well, it would be nice if that level of inquiry went into figuring out exactly why banks and pharmaceutical companies, or the people who make our food supply, are able to do what they do so openly. I feel like Dave Chappelle got more sh*t than pharmaceutical companies for a stand-up special. It’s like, “Forget about the crap that they did!” You know?

AH: I mean, I don’t think those two things are exactly the same.

BB: It’s all money-based. That’s why it’s funny to be a comic right now, because it’s just like . . . all of these stupid people who are acting outraged about jokes. It’s literally in the news feeds that carry these stories. First of all, acting as though everybody is just paralyzed by jokes. “Oh my God, I can’t believe this comedian told this joke!” Meanwhile, I’m at the grocery store, I can’t even pick out apples now. It's so ridiculous.

I've always maintained that if comedians collectively bought advertising time on these 24-hour cable news networks, there would never be another scandal because they don’t bite the hand that feeds. Nobody does. So, the whole thing is funny to me. Sometimes you have to pivot a little bit, but as a comedian, you can usually find the humor in it and move on.

AH: There’s a lot going on here we should address, but I must admit, the idea of comedians collectively buying advertising amuses me.

BB: It’ll never happen because comedians are really independent contractors. So to try to get them all on the same page . . . I would not want to be a part of that. I wouldn’t want to be running it, at least.

AH: On the one hand, judging by previous specials, you’ve never had a problem with addressing “hot button” topics. On the other hand, considering the Chappelle response and everything else you’ve already said today, I get the feeling this has all been on your mind even more.

BB: I’m making fun of people who think that's actually a thing. That you could tell a joke, and that that joke would end your career . . . There's always something that you could say or do that isn’t a joke. You could not be joking and just say something. I don’t know, some over-the-top racist something. That would get you. Racism would get you.

That’s the other thing that's hilarious about this whole thing: what gets attention and what doesn’t. I found it hilarious how I was joking about how white women hijacked the “woke” movement, and how racist media is, since whenever a white woman complains about something, it goes to the front page. But everything else? There are people getting pulled over because of their skin color, who have done nothing wrong, and they’re dying. They’re dying in their own country. But somehow, that isn’t as big a story as when a white woman bitches about something.

AH: I mean, those stories are getting told more often than not now . . .

BB: Sure, but they weren’t before. And the white women are still getting most of the attention. It’s sad and hilarious, watching them try to divorce themselves from white men and their white male privilege. It's like, “You’re white, too. So what’s going on? You’re banging a white guy. You married a white guy.” They get to do that mob wife thing. When the feds show up, they get to act like they didn’t know that their husband was a gangster, out there killing people. “Oh, I didn’t know. I thought he was a butcher. That's why he had blood on his clothes.” They get to play dumb.

It’s really one of the funniest times, socially, to be doing this. People are trying to fix really painful, unfunny things about, I guess, human interaction, but the ways that they’re going about it are just comedic. It’s funny because it’s not something most comics would’ve done back in the day. You wouldn’t divide your audience like that. But now, because there are just so many places to go while not even knowing that somebody has a tour, dividing your audience gets attention and drives ticket sales. It’s such a f*cking weird time right now.

AH: So, you’re doing this on purpose, then? You want to divide your audience in this way because there’s so much out there?

BB: Well, not really. That’s why the special’s called Paper Tiger. If you know the definition of that . . .

AH: Right, a person or thing that appears threatening but isn’t.

BB: It's just making fun of the weight that is being put on things that don’t really have weight, all while we completely ignore very serious things. My favorite thing I just read in the newspaper was about Mexican Fentanyl. Mexican Fentanyl is coming. It’s like, “Fentanyl? You mean the sh*t we came up with? That got everybody addicted to heroin?” Heroin is a pain in the ass and apparently it's not as good a substitute as Fentanyl, so the drug dealers were like, “F*ck it, let’s start making Fentanyl.” But the story starts with Mexican Fentanyl. It doesn’t go, “Wait, where does this come from?” That’s going to be my favorite thing in 2020.

AH: You talk a lot about your home life in this special, more than I’ve ever seen before. Even in the context of your “anger” . . .

BB: I’m talking about my personal life. I’m just f*cking around and blowing a gasket on stage. It’s just me joking around. I’m not literally angry. That would be exhausting.

AH: Sure, but you’re very serious about it now. Or, it seems that way.

BB: Yeah, absolutely. Because now I have a kid and I don't want to pass this on. I want it to stop with me.

AH: You’ve amassed a treasure trove of comedy specials and albums by now. Do you think your daughter, when she’s older, will ever decide to sit down and go through it?

BB: I would have to do a hell of a job as a parent for her to actually sit down and watch her dad. You know how kids are. Kids like the cool dad down the street. Your own dad isn’t cool, I think, until you get married and have a kid. Then you’re, like, “This is what he was going through. My dad was awesome!” When you get to a certain age, your parents are just embarrassing.

Bill Burr: Paper Tiger is now streaming on Netflix.

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In the weeks that preceded and followed the release of Dave Chappelle’s fifth Netflix special, Sticks & Stones, the conversation necessarily – and predictably – hinged on the comic’s jokes pertaining to transgender people and politically correct culture. To be fair to these (and other thorny) subjects, though, such critical back-and-forths among artists and critics are nothing new. And that’s what comedian Bill Burr was counting on in Paper Tiger.

“By the way, this is going to be my last show ever,” he says about midway through the new comedy special, which is now streaming on Netflix. “By the time this f*cking thing comes out.”

Seeing as how Paper Tiger is Burr’s sixth full special in 11 years, this wry prediction likely won’t be the case. But the 51-year-old performer is perfectly aware of the charged climate that stand-up comedy–and public entertainment and political culture at large–now finds itself in. He jokes about it plenty of times throughout the new hour, especially when he thinks it’s his last.

Andrew Husband: You and Mike Binder filmed Paper Tiger at London’s Royal Albert Hall back in March as part of your European tour. Was your opening about doing comedy outside of the U.S. the result of that tour? Or was that something you’d been thinking about already?

Bill Burr: It’s just when I go over to different countries. Some stuff plays, some stuff doesn’t. You just address it, make a joke out of it and then continue on. I still do the same act that I would be doing in the States–it’s just occasionally there’s something that doesn’t play. Anytime I was doing that was to either address that or the political correctness vibe that gets into crowds, where they just feel like they can’t laugh at something. So, you just make a joke, snap them out of it and then they act like regular people.

AH: That was going to be my next question, about your addressing America’s current fascination with “PC culture” in the context of comedy.

BB: That has gone global, my friend. There’s all this weird thing where everybody in public is the most caring person ever–and then they go back to the exact life they were living when they go home. And I understand it. Its heart is in the right place, but they . . . You can’t just change words and think that will change people’s attitudes.

AH: You really think that?

BB: Well, to change as a person is a ton of work. It requires a lot of work by the individual. It’s not simply other people going, “Don’t say this word now, say that word.” And then, magically, they're going to be like, “Oh!” It’s not the case that because they don’t use that other word, they’re not going to be thinking ignorant things about whatever group that word was used negatively against before. It’s a pipe dream.

AH: Fair point, though I don’t entirely agree.

BB: As I was traveling, I was learning. At some of the places I went, they agreed with some of the things that we were doing. As for some other things, they thought it was all a bunch of hilarious overreactions and just bizarre. There’s still a lot of people in other countries whose leaders do things like have extramarital affairs. And they’re like, “Yeah, I mean that’s what they do, but who cares what you did? That’s his personal life. That’s between him and his wife, or whoever. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s got their problems.”

AH: In those instances, it doesn’t become a national scandal, you’re saying.

BB: Well, it would be nice if that level of inquiry went into figuring out exactly why banks and pharmaceutical companies, or the people who make our food supply, are able to do what they do so openly. I feel like Dave Chappelle got more sh*t than pharmaceutical companies for a stand-up special. It’s like, “Forget about the crap that they did!” You know?

AH: I mean, I don’t think those two things are exactly the same.

BB: It’s all money-based. That’s why it’s funny to be a comic right now, because it’s just like . . . all of these stupid people who are acting outraged about jokes. It’s literally in the news feeds that carry these stories. First of all, acting as though everybody is just paralyzed by jokes. “Oh my God, I can’t believe this comedian told this joke!” Meanwhile, I’m at the grocery store, I can’t even pick out apples now. It's so ridiculous.

I've always maintained that if comedians collectively bought advertising time on these 24-hour cable news networks, there would never be another scandal because they don’t bite the hand that feeds. Nobody does. So, the whole thing is funny to me. Sometimes you have to pivot a little bit, but as a comedian, you can usually find the humor in it and move on.

AH: There’s a lot going on here we should address, but I must admit, the idea of comedians collectively buying advertising amuses me.

BB: It’ll never happen because comedians are really independent contractors. So to try to get them all on the same page . . . I would not want to be a part of that. I wouldn’t want to be running it, at least.

AH: On the one hand, judging by previous specials, you’ve never had a problem with addressing “hot button” topics. On the other hand, considering the Chappelle response and everything else you’ve already said today, I get the feeling this has all been on your mind even more.

BB: I’m making fun of people who think that's actually a thing. That you could tell a joke, and that that joke would end your career . . . There's always something that you could say or do that isn’t a joke. You could not be joking and just say something. I don’t know, some over-the-top racist something. That would get you. Racism would get you.

That’s the other thing that's hilarious about this whole thing: what gets attention and what doesn’t. I found it hilarious how I was joking about how white women hijacked the “woke” movement, and how racist media is, since whenever a white woman complains about something, it goes to the front page. But everything else? There are people getting pulled over because of their skin color, who have done nothing wrong, and they’re dying. They’re dying in their own country. But somehow, that isn’t as big a story as when a white woman bitches about something.

AH: I mean, those stories are getting told more often than not now . . .

BB: Sure, but they weren’t before. And the white women are still getting most of the attention. It’s sad and hilarious, watching them try to divorce themselves from white men and their white male privilege. It's like, “You’re white, too. So what’s going on? You’re banging a white guy. You married a white guy.” They get to do that mob wife thing. When the feds show up, they get to act like they didn’t know that their husband was a gangster, out there killing people. “Oh, I didn’t know. I thought he was a butcher. That's why he had blood on his clothes.” They get to play dumb.

It’s really one of the funniest times, socially, to be doing this. People are trying to fix really painful, unfunny things about, I guess, human interaction, but the ways that they’re going about it are just comedic. It’s funny because it’s not something most comics would’ve done back in the day. You wouldn’t divide your audience like that. But now, because there are just so many places to go while not even knowing that somebody has a tour, dividing your audience gets attention and drives ticket sales. It’s such a f*cking weird time right now.

AH: So, you’re doing this on purpose, then? You want to divide your audience in this way because there’s so much out there?

BB: Well, not really. That’s why the special’s called Paper Tiger. If you know the definition of that . . .

AH: Right, a person or thing that appears threatening but isn’t.

BB: It's just making fun of the weight that is being put on things that don’t really have weight, all while we completely ignore very serious things. My favorite thing I just read in the newspaper was about Mexican Fentanyl. Mexican Fentanyl is coming. It’s like, “Fentanyl? You mean the sh*t we came up with? That got everybody addicted to heroin?” Heroin is a pain in the ass and apparently it's not as good a substitute as Fentanyl, so the drug dealers were like, “F*ck it, let’s start making Fentanyl.” But the story starts with Mexican Fentanyl. It doesn’t go, “Wait, where does this come from?” That’s going to be my favorite thing in 2020.

AH: You talk a lot about your home life in this special, more than I’ve ever seen before. Even in the context of your “anger” . . .

BB: I’m talking about my personal life. I’m just f*cking around and blowing a gasket on stage. It’s just me joking around. I’m not literally angry. That would be exhausting.

AH: Sure, but you’re very serious about it now. Or, it seems that way.

BB: Yeah, absolutely. Because now I have a kid and I don't want to pass this on. I want it to stop with me.

AH: You’ve amassed a treasure trove of comedy specials and albums by now. Do you think your daughter, when she’s older, will ever decide to sit down and go through it?

BB: I would have to do a hell of a job as a parent for her to actually sit down and watch her dad. You know how kids are. Kids like the cool dad down the street. Your own dad isn’t cool, I think, until you get married and have a kid. Then you’re, like, “This is what he was going through. My dad was awesome!” When you get to a certain age, your parents are just embarrassing.

Bill Burr: Paper Tiger is now streaming on Netflix.

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Freelance entertainment journalist covering the ever-expanding world of stand-up comedy. Author of the TOO MUCH COMEDY newsletter.