Bill (Burr) of Rights

Bill Burr will grace the stage of the Tower Theare—one of Philly’s most iconic venues.

By Brian McManus
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 6, 2011

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Photo by Brian Friedman

By the time he went on that fateful day of Sept. 9, 2006, Bill Burr had been backstage at Opie and Anthony’s Traveling Virus tour for three painful hours. He’d heard comedian after comedian booed, and was getting angry. When they booed him, too, he didn’t take it lying down. Instead, he gave them 11 minutes of Philly-based insults. (YouTube it.) “Fuckin’ Rocky is your hero. The whole pride of your city is built around a guy who doesn’t exist. Meanwhile, Joe Frazier, a champion, is from here, but he’s black and you can’t deal with that so you erect a statue of some three-foot Italian! You racist fucking morons.” At about minute four, the crowd turns back around, and begins to applaud. Burr’s dropped a bomb on the audience and they’re cheering the burning embers.

His performance that day was simultaneiously amazing and a shame. Because Burr’s actual act—the one he’s written and crafted over time—is one of the best in comedy. Whether he’s dissecting the hyperbole of people’s everyday lives (“The world’s hardest job is being a mother”) or ranting about the state of the world, he does so with a maniacal and whip-smart glee that’s infectious and palpable. We recently talked with Burr about that infamous night, playing old, historic theaters like Tower and what it takes to climb to the top of the Comedy Hill. (Read the interview in its entirety at philadelphiaweekly.com)

So, Tower Theatre. That’s an iconic venue here in Philly. Black Sabbath, Bowie, Springsteen, they’ve all played there. Now Bill Burr.

Yeah, I’m pretty damn excited. I’m a big-time history geek, and these theaters always have these amazing stories. I don’t know how old Tower is, but a lot of these theaters, they all have the same thing where at first they were this crown jewel of the city, and then gradually it started breaking down over the years and became a porno house in the ’60s and ’70s. Then somebody took the money and fixed it up in the ’90s. That’s pretty much how it goes. And there’s usually some story about Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton performing there or FDR gave a speech there when he was running for president.

Do you change your approach at all when you go to theaters like this, or do
you...

Absolutely not. That’s a thing I never do, change my approach—I mean
obviously, if I’m on Letterman or something I’m going to clean it up, you
know, if I’m doing some sort of gig for a really specific kind of crowd,
I’ll try and make sure I don’t get myself into a situation, but yeah no,
when people pay to see me, they’re coming down to see my act. So I do my
act. I don’t try to get cute. That’s usually not a good thing to do in
comedy.

You’re now a theater-touring, headlining, A-list comedian. What do you think was the most important ingredient to hold onto from getting where you were when you started to where you are now? What’s most important? Being funny is one, but what else?

Not quitting. To be honest, as obvious as that sounds, is a lot of people quit. They let this business get to them, or they just let somebody talk them out of continuing to do it, and some people quit like for real, like they stop doing comedy, and other people, it’s weird, they’re like ghosts. It’s like they just keep going up onstage, they’re doing the same jokes over and over, they lose the drive. One of the things people don’t talk about is how mentally strong you have to be in this business, and you really have to learn—I really shouldn’t speak in such blanket terms, but as far as me, I had to learn how my brain worked as far as, you know, how to get myself out of writer’s block, and how to avoid getting into negative funks. It took me a long time. I’ve been able to pretty much conquer it at this point. When I feel the negative thoughts coming on, where you’re just like “What the hell am I doing this for? Flying again to God knows where,” and I just finally figured out that it’s a choice—OK, here are a bunch of negative thoughts, do I wanna just spoon with those and go down the rabbit hole and hate myself for three days or go over to the gym and to try to write a new joke later? What I’ve learned in this business is what people learn in all areas of life—when you get knocked down you have to just keep getting up again, and not only do you get back up again, you gotta go harder. Not quitting. Keep going. I started in Boston and then went to New York, and there’s so many great comedians there they, without realizing it, were pushing you to get better. Like when you saw Dave Attel ... you know, Dave?

Yeah, one of the best, for sure.

Oh my God, yeah. It was just like, you know, you sit there in awe of the guy going “How the hell do you come up with something like that?” And then you look at your own act and it looks like it’s written by a 5-year-old and that depresses you for half a second. But you just go on anyway. I gotta figure out what my voice is, what do I wanna do here? And you just, you know, over the years, keep going up.

Have you ever gotten into a funk that was so bad that you thought you might wanna quit?

There is a very difficult period in a comedian’s career, it’s that window of time where you’re good enough to draw tickets but nobody knows you yet. I call that part of your career “killing in obscurity,” and what happens is, you’re going on, but 75 people will show up maybe and they’re just showing up because they come down to the comedy club, not because you’re there. You give them a killer show, and people are going “Oh he’s the funniest we’ve ever seen!” and you’re getting compliments like that, but you’re not seeing it in the crowd. That was a really rough period for me. I just remember being in St. Louis at the Funny Bone, just sitting there going. “I don’t know if I can keep doing this.”

How long in your career did you kill in obscurity?

I would say that was about 2001 to 2005. Late 2005, it was like a five-year period. Four years, something like that. Yeah, because by 2001 I still hadn’t really done anything major as far as stand-up on TV, but I had a half-hour special come on Comedy Central and a number of guys had had their half-hours come on, and they blew up. Like Mitch Hedberg blew up, and guys like that, and you’re thinking “OK, here comes my half-hour” and then nothing happens. That’s when the doubts start seeping in. You have to learn how to beat those down and just know there’s a million different ways people hit, and just because somebody hit this way doesn’t mean you can’t hit another.

 Do feel you started to hit after Chapelle’s show started to air?

The Chapelle Show Tour that I did that Charlie Murphy headlined, coming off
that Rick James sketch, that exposed me to a lot of people, and it was sort
of a three pronged thing happened for me in 2005. In 2004, I did the
Chapelle Show Tour. April of 2005 I did a half-hour special for HBO, and in
2005 I also started sitting in on the Opie and Anthony show because I was
hooked up with those guys. Jim [Norton] was doing Lucky Louis, so I would
sit in for him on Opie and Anthony. I got this great bump with all those
things coming up. The Opie and Anthony show was huge, to sustain it they let
me keep coming on for years. You know, they used to play commercials of
where you were going to be, like, I can’t give Opie and Anthony enough
credit, those guys just really really - they helped all of us, man.

Yeah, they have a huge, dedicated audience I didn’t know there was a
Chappelle Show tour. I’ve interviewed Charlie Murphy. He’d just started
doing stand-up around that time, right?

 
What Charlie did was amazing. He had never done stand up in his life, and he
basically learned how to do it in front of packed theaters, who were gonna
come in and compare him to his brother Eddie. At first, we just had him host
because he didn’t have any material, and I watched him come up with an hour
of material in six weeks. I’m not lying, he was able to do 50 minutes and -

That’s pretty incredible.
Yeah, so what I ended up doing, and what helped me later when I started
doing specials and I’d be like, “Oh fuck, I just burned a half hour or
hour,” and I wondered how I’d ever e able to do it again? I would always
think, Charlie Murphy came up with 50 minutes in six weeks because he had
to, so...you know, that was the thing about that guy. You gotta understand,
at this point he’s only been doing comedy for eh, it’s coming up on seven
years.

You seem—this might be the wrong impression I have of you—but you do seem to have a blue collar, just-get-it-done kind of approach to comedy. Is that right?

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