Bill Burr Chats About Comedy And Vulnerability

Comedian and actor Bill Burr talks about his past and present work on the screen.
Bill Burr Chats About Comedy And Vulnerability
(from left) Bill Burr and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island”; Andrea Foster/NBC Universal

Bill Burr reveals his softer side in Judd Apatow’s The King Of Staten Island. Well-known for his brand of “always-double-down” comedy, Burr is at his most earnest in Apatow’s latest. It is a pleasant contrast to the F is for Family’s star’s comically unapologetic stage presence. For the first time in his acting career, Burr displays romantic comedy leading man abilities alongside another acting powerhouse, Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny).

It’s a big month for the personable comedian: he celebrated the birth of his second child, The King Of Staten Island is his most prominent film role yet, and season four of F is Family is another ridiculous yet poignant story for the Murphy family on Netflix. Even after his 25+ years in stand-up and acting, Burr continues to reveal new depths and ranges as a performer and storyteller. 

It’s nice seeing you play a character like Raymond Bishop, who’s kind of vulnerable and sweet. Was that a part of Ray that appealed to you?

The appeal was Judd Apatow said he wants to be in a movie with you [Laughs]. I had no idea I was going to get to do what I got to do, so the fact that it ended up being this great part was a bonus. I would have done anything in an Apatow film, so I feel really lucky. Then he let us improv and figure out everybody, figure out where the character was and everything. So it was probably the most fun I’ve ever had on a shoot.

Is preparing for a role similar at all to preparing to perform a new hour of material?

Well, there was this movie in that, with stand up, there’s so much improv and strolling around and walking down the stage. Your best shows, you don’t even know what you’re going to say. There was a lot of that with this part where you’d walk in and you had the scene and then you just start doing it and it would just turn into something else.

It must’ve helped working with another comedian like Pete too, right? 

Working with Pete was awesome. He was such a pro and he really looked out for the other actors as far as if he could shoot you out of the scene, which would require him to be there longer, he would do that. That doesn’t happen a lot and it really helps morale. Also, he was up for anything. He was a ton of fun. Total pro, that guy. I think because Judd is also a stand up there was a lot more overlap, because it is different than acting. On this thing, I almost felt like sometimes when you get on stage with another comic, you bring them up and you guys are friends and you take risks together. 

Judd has talked about some subjects you improvised about, like Boston pizza being better than New York pizza. Is that true? 

I think so much of it comes down to where you grew up and the child’s sense of memory. So if somebody grew up in New York and they got pizza with their mom and dad when they were six, seven years old, there’s never going to be better pizza than that. Even if there is better pizza, by the time you try a better pizza, you’re married, you have kids, you have bills. You’re never going to have that clear head the way you do as a kid.

Speaking of memories, the “One Headlight” scene brings back ‘90s memories. How was singing along to that classic? 

I know when we went into it, we were supposed to just all sing the song. No one knew the words, so we were mumbling them. Then I was like, “This is how we should do the scene, just mumble along singing, and then, hey!” Everybody loved it and the whole thing worked out. It just ended up being a fun scene. 

I always call that scene, that’s the Friends dancing in the fountain scene [Laughs]. It’s like, “All right, I’m going to feel like a complete tool doing this, but it’s a movie, I gotta do it.” We were able to find the fun in it, which is what I’ve learned. I think because that cast negotiated as a crew, that’s why they made them keep dancing in the fountain. It’s like, “All right, you got it. We’re going to pay you a million an episode, you’re going to dance like a jackass in a fountain.”

[Laughs] That’s a great theory.

Yeah. It’s just a theory I had.

What were you listening to or into in the ‘90s?

Well, the weird thing about that song was it’s a little past my time. I was pre-grunge, I was into metal and all of that shit. When that song came on, that was one of those songs that made me feel old. Like, “Oh man, this guy knocked all my bands that I liked off the charts.” I was listening to AC/DC, Mötley Crüe, and guys like that.

Do you feel comfortable now on a set and in front of a camera?

I feel comfortable if it’s a cool environment. Then if it isn’t, if it’s more like a tension-filled environment, then I find the humor in that. Like, “Hey, alright. This is not going the way they want it to go.” I just try to find the humor in it, to be honest with you.

Is that how you handle a lot of situations?

It’s the kid in me, how I handled stuff when I was growing up. I would just make a joke about it and think that I didn’t care, when I actually did. So it’s just that type of thing. Fortunately, I’ve worked on nothing but, for the most part, good sets. 

You have so much control when you’re crafting your stand up material, so what’s it like giving up that control when making a movie? 

This is probably the most free that I’ve been. A lot of stuff in this movie that I never did. I never had to have a romantic storyline. I’ve always just played assholes and stuff like that. There was definitely a lot of stuff getting out of your comfort zone. I’d also done Daddy’s Home where all of a sudden, I have to have a dance off with Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, which I didn’t know I was going to do. I believe things like stand-up take the most balls. I think being an actor going on a set, it’s just you have no idea what they’re going to ask you to do.

Do you also still try to go outside of your comfort when you’re doing stand up? 

Yeah. You have to keep growing as a comic and challenging yourself. Then you level out. Then I feel, at that point, then your crowd just ages with you. Next thing you know, you’re doing two in the afternoon shows at an old folks’ home [Laughs]. It’s a weird thing. We have to act our age and then also know what’s going on in the world. So I have to know a little bit of what young kids are listening to and doing. I have to make sure that when I dip into those topics, that I’m coming from my age group. Or else I’ll just look like the guy trying to be young, which is never a good thing.

What topics have interested you lately?

There are a few things that I’ve thought about. There’s been some fun hypocritical things. How the left was like, “You should listen to Colin Kaepernick.” And the right was like, “He should shut the fuck up and just play football.” Then when Drew Brees said what he said, the right was like, “We should listen to him.” Then the left is just like, “He should shut the fuck up and just play football.” That’s the stuff that I like. For the most part, I think people that comment and beat up are way too one-sided, so it tends to be wildly hypocritical. 

Probably one of the surrealist headlines lately was “Drew Brees Responds to Trump.” As a comedian, what goes through your mind when you see a headline like that? 

Well, I think the first time I saw Obama go on The Tonight Show, like an episode of Caroline in the City, I was just like, “What is going on with this job?” Then he went on Marc Maron‘s podcast and I was just like, “Wow, this guy, where he has to go now.” Nobody’s watching the news, I guess. I didn’t really think that there’d ever be a president actively tweeting. He got himself a tribe, he definitely puts out a lot of content [Laughs].

[Laughs] What’s it been like for you having this long of a break from stand up? Is it like riding a bike once you get back to it? 

We’ll have to find out. I’ve never taken this much time off. I haven’t done stand-up since March 10th, that’s never happened. It’s 90 days off. It’s like I’m not even a comedian anymore. I’m just going to book a couple of shows out here in LA at small theaters, literally 150, 75 seaters, and just meander through my hour of bullshit three nights in a row trying to get back up to speed. Then I’ll take it from there. I’ll definitely be rusty. It is like going to the gym, so I’ll be sucking wind five minutes in, I imagine.

I know you don’t smoke marijuana, but on the occasions you have, has it ever inspired material for you?

I think I thought of a lot of the stuff while I was high that looked funny to me, and then afterwards it was like, “What the fuck was I talking about?” No, I was more of a drinker.

Does drinking ever help produce jokes good enough to perform on stage?

No. I guess there’s dumb shit that you do, but yeah, no. 

With the new season of F is for Family, it’s great seeing Frank’s relationship with his dad. I think it makes Frank even more empathetic. 

I think that’s mostly [co-creator] Mike Price. Price is the guy. He really dictates a lot of that, where we go with the stories. He’s really the captain that drives the ship. So that never even entered my mind that people would look at it that way. That’s pretty cool to see it like that. 

It’s honest too. It’s spot on when Frank mentions something terrible his dad did, and all his dad says is, “I never did that.”

Oh, always. “Oh, I never did that. I didn’t do that.” [Laughs] I remember pitching that and everybody laughing and being like, “Oh my God. Yeah, my parents always said that too.”

Does it feel good laughing about those moments from childhood? 

It feels good when people laugh at it. Then you get to feel like, all right, so it wasn’t only me that experienced that. Or if they get something out of it that you weren’t even trying. Like, I didn’t know that with his dad it would make Frank more empathetic. So that’s actually, that’s a cool bonus.

The show has been very confident with its tone since the start, balancing the ridiculousness and the realness. How do you strike that balance just right?

There’s definitely some absurd stuff in the show, but we try to keep it as real as we can. Like, all right, Kevin can say fuck you to his dad, but his dad has to react. He can’t just say, “Fuck you.” I got mad enough that I said it to my dad, but I immediately felt the ramifications of it. Because we can use the F-word, we can’t just use that as a way to just get a joke here and get out.

Now that you’ve made four seasons of the show, what’s gotten easier?

I think after season three, we hit our stride where we knew what the show was, knew who the characters were and knew what it was about. Then we were able to cruise, as much as you can in animation. There’s really no cruising in animation, but as much as you possibly could. In the very beginning you’re like, “Well, okay. He needs to move more and he needs to do this.” It’s such a slow process. The whole process, we usually write it and do all the table reads and get the first records done within three and a half, four months. Then it’s just all writing, rewriting and re this, re that, all of that, for the next I don’t know what. It takes 10, 11 months to do a season.

The writers’ room schedule can be brutal. How’s it adjusting to that way of working? 

Well, it’s super fun when the script’s going well. On tough days, it takes forever. It’s more just days when the script isn’t working. When it’s working, it’s great. But when it isn’t, it just takes a lot of brain power. If it’s not working on stage, it’s over in 20 minutes. In the writer’s room, it takes 10 hours, 11 hours.

How long will you work to make a joke work? If one isn’t clicking, will you stick with it for a long time to get it right?

You just give up. I usually just give up. Sometimes I can go for two, three months with something, but the public has spoken. “It’s not funny, Bill, just let it go.”

Are there times where the public doesn’t think a joke is funny but you do, so you keep the joke?

There’s a few things. If a few people get it, you stick with that. There’s definitely a few of those. I try not to be too self-indulgent because then you start playing to the back of the room.

Does how people respond to your material usually tell you something about them? 

If they like it, we definitely get along better, I can tell you that. Sometimes if they don’t like it, it’s not as fun.

That doesn’t bother you anymore, right?

No. You can’t let it bother you.

You’re a very confident comedian, but do you still ever feel vulnerable on stage or are you having too good of a time to worry?  

No, I definitely think about it. It’s a fine line, being vulnerable and being funny. Don’t want to turn it into a therapy session. I have what I want to accomplish on stage and when you do it, it works or it doesn’t. When you’re younger, you’re like, “Oh my God. Do I suck at this? Am I the guy that isn’t going to get anywhere?”

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