Wednesday 16 October 2019

'I was a psycho, always blaming other people' - comedian Bill Burr

Ahead of his show at the 3Arena next month, Bill Burr spoke to Donal Lynch about dating, fatherhood, why his wife doesn't like his humour, and the overreach of #MeToo

Bill Burr’s soaring popularity has seen him named among the greatest ever stand-ups by 'Rolling Stone' magazine
Bill Burr’s soaring popularity has seen him named among the greatest ever stand-ups by 'Rolling Stone' magazine
Chris Rock
John Cleese
Amy Schumer

Bill Burr is coming up in the world. Or at least in our world.

The last time the comedian and actor played Dublin, in 2014, his show was at Vicar Street. When he arrives here next month it will be to play the 3Arena, recognition perhaps of his growing legend and of the Irish material he interweaves into his act. Rolling Stone magazine recently named him 17th among the 50 best stand-up comedians of all time - one spot behind Billy Connolly and ahead of the likes of Woody Allen, Roseanne Barr, Eddie Murphy and Eddie Izzard.

"It's not so much my career is going well as I just thought it best to go out on top before it all comes crashing down," he tells me, modestly. "What could bring me down? That's hard to say. I think if I don't have an addiction, my tell-all book is going to be very boring. A sex scandal is always good too. Or if someone just says I did something, that seems to be all they need. An accusation is now due process."

It is difficult to imagine a scandal bringing Burr down, simply because his career has been less the result of the benediction of powerful agents and studio approval, and more a function of the popularity of his podcast, which long ago achieved cult status in the US.

On the show, he dishes agony uncle advice, "My wife cheated on me the day before our wedding. What should I do?"; poses offensive questions, "Which would you rather, a daughter who is a ho, or a gay son, who is also a ho?"; and gives his unique takes on sports, politics and pop culture matters.

The popularity of the comedy led to a recurring role in Breaking Bad for Burr and to a number of stand-up specials. He has been described as "the king of rage-filled humour".

In 2015, he created and starred in F Is For Family on Netflix, an animated show which drew heavily on his upbringing and his scorn for political correctness.

Burr grew up in Canton, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston, where he was "a timid little redhead, giving off a weak vibe", as he puts it.

"Once I started fighting back, I was able to hold my own," he says now. "I also realised I was able to make people laugh, like, 'Look at that weak kid next to me'. That was how it worked back then."

Girls were a problem, however. "I would have been able to get them if I had any confidence", he explains. "But I had no confidence, so there were missed opportunities. But, looking back, there were lots of things I could have done. I think I could have done well in school too, for instance.

"If I had just believed in myself, I wouldn't have had the need to go onstage and do all this extra crap to prove myself. I could have probably just walked up to the pretty girl and made her laugh, and got myself a girlfriend. Instead, I had to go and live between my ears in this fantasy world. But I'm glad that I did - because if I hadn't, I'd probably be sitting in a cubicle, doing some regular job, probably watching someone else tell jokes."

In his first year in high school, he says he had dreams of going to Notre Dame and becoming a lawyer. By the time the end of his school days were approaching, he was considering getting into construction.

He eventually ended up working in a warehouse - he would quip that if the manager got angry with him, he could simply drive his forklift truck away - but dreamed of making a name for himself in comedy. He relocated to New York City in 1995, and the following year won a role as a regular on the short-lived sitcom Townies, which co-starred Breakfast Club alumnus Molly Ringwald.

Sporadic guest roles followed on shows ranging from Law & Order: Criminal Intent to David Chappelle's comedy series. In the meantime, he began to earn small parts in feature films, including 2001's Perfect Fit.

In 2003, Burr's first stand-up album, Emotionally Unavailable, was released to rave reviews Stateside. In that same year, he played his first stand-up show in Ireland - at the Cat Laughs festival in Kilkenny - and, perhaps to some groans here, says that the reception and wit he encountered in Ireland seemed like a "distilled" version of the salty humour of Boston, or "the knuckleheads I grew up with".

But aren't Irish-Americans more conservative and racist than the real thing? "I think people who emigrated many years ago might be, but that's all old people," says Burr.

"If you stopped listening to music in the 1950s, you get sort of trapped in a time warp. But what's considered racist is always changing. There will come a time when you and I will be considered racist."

It's this kind of talk that makes you understand where Nia Hill, Burr's wife of five years - and an actress in her own right, appearing in Santa Clarita Diet on Netflix - is coming from when she accused Burr, on his own podcast, of coddling bigots, and "pandering" to them in the name of pot-stirring entertainment.

"People have to be allowed to be homophobic," he told her on one memorable edition of his podcast, "because that's how you get it out of you. The problem is that you're already enlightened - and when someone else isn't, the way to get them there is not to sh** all over them."

"Oh, I get it", she responds, dryly. "I have to be tolerant of ignorant a**holes because they're the ones that are misunderstood."

I wonder what her attitude to his comedy is now?

"I don't think that she likes it, not in a bad way, but in a sense she's just like any audience member," he says. "So if you're going to go onstage and do what you think is funny, not everybody is going to like it.

"Even if someone likes you, they're not going to like every joke. I feel like we live in this ridiculously over-sensitive time where people get offended over nothing. Considering what's really going on out there - lunatics running countries, and climate change - there are more important things than which joke you take offence at."

In playing to his listenership, Burr has said that Trump is "too dumb to be dangerous".

I wonder does he still really believe that? "I mean, people were talking about Hillary Clinton like she wasn't dangerous", he responds. "And look at Obama. The president of the United States earns 500 grand a year and all of a sudden he's now worth $80m. How does that work?" In fact check, Obama is reckoned by most experts to be worth $40m.

"Trump was the wild card. That was what happened in that election," he continues. "If Bernie Sanders had gone up against Trump, I think Bernie would have won."

The #MeToo movement and the hysteria that has surrounded some of the allegations against prominent men have been Burr's cue to go "even harder" onstage, he says.

"There's now a situation where even suggesting something is enough to make it true," he explains. "Somebody says you did something 20 years ago - no evidence produced - and all of a sudden, everyone says, 'That guy's a piece of sh**?'

"A balance needs to be restored, good people need to listen to victims, but now people with bad intentions can take down a good person.

"The way we are going, a lot of people are open to being blackmailed. I really think it's a type of self-preservation, like Hollywood all of a sudden going out and hiring all new ethnicities.

"It's only happening because they think it's the right thing to do. Louis CK got over-punished. Aziz [Ansari, the Parks and Recreation star] went out on a consensual date [he was accused of sexual misconduct] and as far as I could tell, the woman was upset she wasn't made his girlfriend. And he's made out to be a monster."

Burr says the new rules of dating, consent and harassment are to the detriment of "ordinary people, working 9-5 jobs".

He adds: "Work is where people meet their husbands and wives. People want the freedom to be able to interact and flirt or whatever."

Burr's own dating years were "a lot of fun, a lot of drinking and a great time" and says that his erstwhile description of women as "psycho robots who don't run out of batteries" came from the fact that "I was a psycho, and I was blaming other people. I dated the wrong people, and when I dated the right people, I got scared - it was all just me projecting my own bullsh**."

Of his time in the dating pool, he says: "I stayed a bit too long, like a lot of guys do, but there's now someone who's going to care when I die. That's all I know."

Burr met his wife at a social drinks event with a group of friends, during and after which he had to manoeuvre a man he describes as "a c*ck blocker" out of possibly making a move on Nia. Eventually, Burr just played his hand and told Nia he wanted to kiss her, after which they left the group and shared a cab.

"I think about that moment on good and bad days in my marriage," he says. "On bad days, I wonder what was I doing that night, and then my daughter comes running in, and I'm like, 'Oh yeah, there's why.' And believe me, my wife does exactly the same thing."

Burr and Nia celebrated the birth of their daughter, Lola, in January of last year. Of fatherhood, he says: "I wish I had done it earlier. I think I had confidence issues around what kind of father I would become, and I was also, to an extent, leading a bit of a Peter Pan existence.

"It was all fear-based. I don't think guys feel all of the fatherhood stuff immediately. There is different levels of bonding with a mother. They are breastfeeding and all that, and they are almost like one with the child.

"I think it took like about four months before my baby daughter looked at me like I was a recurring character in her life. It was five months before she saw us both as these awesome people she loves. She has changed my life so much for the better."

Bill Burr plays the 3Arena, Dublin, on June 5. Tickets from €49 from

Close to the wind: three comedians who defy Political correctness

Amy Schumer

Amy Schumer

Before she was making cuddly, feel-good movies abut female empowerment and positive body image, Amy Schumer was making jokes like "Looks like someone's getting evicted" about abortion and telling Mike Tyson - to his face - "Guys don't know whether to run from your face tattoo - or finish on it."

The pressures of megastardom have made her tone down her act, but she still occasionally runs roughshod over cosy consensus.

Chris Rock

Chris Rock

Be it men and women, race relations or family, Rock never shies away from making an offensive point. In an interview with Vulture magazine, he said he stopped doing shows at colleges because they were "too conservative".

"Not in their political views," he clarified, "but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. You can't even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive."

John Cleese

John Cleese

The former Monty Python star has dismissed political correctness as "condescending," and explained how he stopped making race-related jokes after audiences were angered by jokes about Mexicans in his routine.

As he put it: "We make jokes about Swedes and Germans and French and English and Canadians and Americans. Why can't we make jokes about Mexicans? Is it because they are so feeble that they can't look after themselves? It's very, very condescending there."

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