Interview: Bill Burr, “Why Do I Do This?”

Filed Under Interview, Stand-Up Comedy

Bill Burr talks about his love for the New York Comedy Club scene, how a stand-up special should be shot and the answer to his special’s title.

I thought the title of the special, “Why Do I Do This?”, was pretty interesting in that it implied a level of frustration or self loathing. But that’s not really reflected in your performance necessarily.

It was sort of an inside joke. That question has popped in my head throughout my career. On my way up, I’d be waiting to go up on stage in some sort of impossible situation that was going to be an hour of humiliation.

A lot of it was college gigs. I’d be standing there waiting to go on in a cafeteria at 12:30 in the afternoon. There’s people eating grilled cheese sandwiches and there like, “OK, we got a comedy show with a comedian Bill Burr. He’s really funny and here he is.” They give you the worst intro ever and nobody has an idea that there’s a show. And you go up there and you look like an absolute tool.

And I’d remember that I always think that, “Why do I do this?” Why didn’t I study harder in school? And just become a lawyer or something like that.

So it’s kind of undercutting. This is a very big highlight in a stand-up comic’s career – an hour special and a DVD. And the title undercuts that.

Yeah, and the subtle thing is that the special is why I did it. I went through all that crap. I guess the answer is “the special.”

I just didn’t want to call the special “Dangerous” – everybody has the one word description now. “Never backing down” – so fuckin’ edgy. I’m not trying to belittle the art but you’re just telling jokes.

I imagine a bunch of people are going to trash me. It’s very easy when you ask a question. People who aren’t going to like my show are going to go “’Why do I do this?’ Because you suck! Why should you do it.” There’s always a danger of that but I don’t really care.

That’s like worrying about what you’re going to name your kid because of what he might be called on the playground. Hopefully he’ll just be big enough to punch the other kid in the face.

But if you name your kid like “Honor.” Somebody named their kid “Honor.” “Apple” is a classic one. Your middle name is just “douchebag.” (laughs)

I’d like to have a kid one day and I’d like to give a cool name. I’d like to give a kid a name that’s going to get him some pussy. And if it’s a girl, I’d like to give her a name that’ll make guys sort of marry her and respect her. Avoiding like a whore name like “Debbie” or “Moesha.” You want to give her a classic name.

The other thing that’s funny about the name is that the bonus features to the DVD are probably some of the best valentines I’ve ever seen to stand-up comedy. With you going around to the clubs…

I wasn’t sure how that was going to come across. But moving to New York was one of the big thrills to my career. I don’t know what it was. I think because I watched a lot of stand-up and a lot of stand-up came out of New York. I just always wanted to be down there and I always wanted to be in those clubs. It’s rough for every guy who comes to town to get noticed and get on at those clubs.

And once you get the ball rolling, there’s no feeling like that for a comedian. When you’re in New York and its Friday, Saturday night and you’re working two or three different clubs. Just going around hustling, trying to make your money. You’re jumping in a cab. “Take me to 82nd and 2nd” You’re going to the (Comic) Strip. “Take Me Down to West 3rd and McDougal” and you’re doing the (Comedy) Cellar. The thrill of doing that, it’s right up there with an HBO special or doing Opie and Anthony, all the stuff that I’ve gotten to do.

Still this day the fact that I can go to New York and the fact that the people who own those clubs or who book those clubs know who I am, the thrill of that has never really gone away. That I can go down to Gotham – and that Chris Mazzilli is happy to see me.

Because when you first get there, it’s just so hard. You feel like a tool. “Hey I’m another douchebag who thinks he’s funny.” (laughs) And it’s hard for the bookers and owners, because they don’t want to be a dick but if they give you any attention, it’s like giving a stray cat milk.

I’m not saying this to try and discourage anybody. If you’re funny, you’re gonna get on. Just know that.

I just remember Lucien (Hold, of the Comedy Strip) and his classic line. I walked in there and I was like, “Hey Lucien. My name’s Bill Burr. I’m a comedian. I just moved down from Boston.” And he just started smiling. He goes, “I’ve got plenty of white guy comedians down here.” (laughs) “I have plenty of those. So nice to meet you.”

What else do you do?

Yeah, but I knew what he was saying. Lot of guys took that really personally, like “He couldn’t say that to a black comic.” He wasn’t just saying, “I have plenty of white guys.” What he was basically saying was “Don’t come down here and just be another guy on stage.”

And the truth of the matter was he did have 9 million white guys playing there. So he wasn’t lying. He definitely had enough white guys. (laughs)

That’s why I went around to all those clubs and I told those stories. All those guys who I saw on TV – you know, those Rodney Dangerfield specials – where I saw Seinfeld, Dice Clay, and Sam Kinison. That club “Dangerfields” is legendary. They broke three of the biggest comics of the 80s.

I absolutely love that place. Every club has a thing about it where it can just hand you your own ass on a platter. But every club has a unique way of doing it. (laughs) Dangerfields… I don’t know man. I’ve died a number of deaths in New York Comedy Clubs but there’s nothing like dying at Dangerfields.

There’s something about it – where they haven’t changed anything. You feel like you’re bombing in 1968. You feel like you’re not only in the wrong time zone but you’re in the wrong era.

I tell you what was great. You go in there and you’d kill. And you’d talk to Tony (Bevacqua) and he would start telling you these stories about Johnny Carson coming in there back when he did the Tonight Show in New York City. He’d go, “That was his table right over there.” And you know it’s the same fucking lamp. (laughs)

One of the other clubs you talked in front of was the Comedy Club, which was the Boston Comedy Club when you first started. And it’s now gone. What was your take on the place?

That place when I came down in 1994, trying to get my feet wet, was the most intimidating place that I’d ever been. That place was more intimidating than the Apollo for me.

Really?

By the time I did the Apollo I had a number of shows under my belt. I was still nervous to do the Apollo, but I was a little more seasoned.

But when I first hit town and I was doing the Boston Comedy Club, I was literally two years into my career. And I had never performed in front of a mixed crowd. I had just down angry white guys from Boston, which was what I was. It wasn’t hard for me to perform in front of those people because those guys were me.

The level of talent that was going on at Boston Comedy Club was incredible. This was guys when they were just on their way up – Dave Chappelle, Jay Mohr, Red Johnny and the Round Guy, Jim Breuer, Louis CK, Dave Attell, Greer Barnes. The level of talent was top notch.

Jason Steinberg and Matt Frost used to run in. And when you said you wanted to go on, they would put you on in the toughest spot. It was really hardcore. It was no bullshit.

It was like a gang initiation. You’re going through the gauntlet.

Yeah, you literally got beaten in. Everyone of my era has those stories of having to go on after, like, fucking Red Johnny and the Round Guy. They absolutely used to destroy. It was unbelievably intimidating.

Giuliani had just gotten in too, so he had not cleaned up down there yet. You were taking your life in your hands if you walked through Washington Square Park down there. People would sell drugs right up to where the club door.

I was just a wide-eyed kid trying to take it all in and also trying not to look anybody in the eye. “Damn, Yo what the fuck you lookin’ at.” I remember hearing that stuff.

That place had a psychological hold over me for like two or three years. Even after I killed, I’d still be nervous going up. “Fuck. Is this the time I’m gonna bomb? And everyone’s going to realize I’m a fraud?” (laughs) It was unreal.

I wish I could have been relaxed enough to videotape some of those sets. If you survive those that’s the kind of thing that makes you able to handle taping a special or doing stand-up at 12:30 in a cafeteria at a college.

On the DVD, you also talk a little bit about how directors and producers edit and shoot comedy specials… sort of glossing them up to much.

I don’t think there’s any reason for a jib camera… that swooping thing. If you’re on stage, “Why did the chicken cross the road” and it comes swooping in. (laughs)

I think stand-up is such a solitary art. You’re up there by yourself. So to be cutting to the crowd and all the zanies that’s going on, it’s taking away from the amazing thing about stand-up. That you go out there and have to create a show.

There has to be a trust for a director or producer to not just let the comic own the room but also own the camera.

I think they’re trying to sell it to networks. There’s this big risk that if you shoot if yourself that you won’t sell it. And then you’re sitting on that big nut of the money you put up. So people don’t want to take the risk. “This is kind of the look that people like right now.” They want to play it safe.

But I worked with Art & Industry and Michelle Caputo. She was awesome. Right off the bat, she was like, “Fuck that. We’re going to do that the way you want to do it.”

I think that comics now that they’re shooting their own specials are having a say in how they want to do it. I don’t think what I wanted Art & Industry to do was anything groundbreaking. I think that comics in general that’s how we’ve always wanted our specials to look. But in the past we haven’t been in control of it.

That’s kind of a benefit of taking that risk yourself. That its not in networks hands entirely, so you have more of a chance having the product being yours at the end of the day.

No, it’s awesome to own the thing. TV is all going to end up on the Internet one day, so if you actually own some content, some broadcast level content. I don’t plan on doing another one where I don’t own the thing. As a comedian, I think you should try to own your material.

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