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Interview: Comedian Bill Burr still frets about the future

UPDATE: Rescheduled due to weather.



Editor's note: Due to the pending weather conditions expected to hit the east coast this weekend, the Bill Burr show, scheduled for this Saturday, September 15th, 2018, will be rescheduled. The new date for the show will be Saturday, September 22nd, 2018 at 8pm at The Altria Theater. All tickets originally purchased for this Saturday’s date will be honored for the new date. Refunds are available, must be requested within 72 hours prior to the show.

He's been called the king of rage comics. But speaking with Bill Burr by phone, he just sounds kind of tired. Maybe because he's been so busy lately.

Not only does he tour the country as a stand-up comic, usually on weekends, but his long-running Monday Morning Podcast was so popular that he added a second weekly episode. He's also an actor and has a role in the upcoming comedy, "The Front Runner," a Jason Reitman film based on the Gary Hart political scandal, and he just finished the third season of his animated Netflix show, "F is for Family." Speaking of family, not long ago he welcomed his first child, a daughter, at the age of 50.

Being a parent hasn't melted any of his cynicism, Burr explains.

"It actually made it more intense for me. You get real cynical but then you have to go positive. You have to be thinking we're going to fix this," he says. "For all this screaming and yelling about other issues, it's the environment and population problems, those are the ones that are going to affect all of us. Whether they build a wall or not — it's not going to matter if we continue doing what we're doing."

"But what do I know? I'm just a comedian," he adds in a familiar refrain throughout our conversation. Burr has apologized and cleaned up his comedy over the years, which once had misogynist tendencies. One way he's done this is to downplay his own authority. He is strongly opinionated but also self-deprecating.

Burr grew up in the suburbs just outside of Boston and credits his big break largely to timing. His half-hour HBO special came out right when comedic actor Jim Norton got him onto "The Opie and Anthony show." "That was the big one," he says. "Opie and Anthony used to basically run free commercials and advertise your gigs."

In terms of a political outlook, Burr comes across as neither particularly liberal nor conservative — almost apolitical — an Everyman bro-comic who'd rather be talking baseball or hockey. He makes observational jabs about society but is quick to implicate his own lack of knowledge about serious matters. Nonetheless he has developed an eye for calling out hypocrisies in American culture.

At the root of his personality is a distrust of groupthink. His brash stand-up occasionally can feel antagonistic toward audiences, but likely no more than your average drunk guy at a bar pressing people's buttons for shits and giggles.

"In a healthy way, I don't trust people," he says. "The thing is, nobody gets offended at my show. People are adults. But it doesn't matter that 1,500 people enjoyed the show if one person didn't. Then the story is the one person who didn't, which is hilarious. It's like you're treating this person as if they're some sort of god."

Burr believes there's an underlying reason why people on social media go after comedians more frequently these days.

"It's because if you actually took time to look at the real shit, and how unsolvable so much of it is, and the ramifications of that — it's so overwhelmingly depressing that you wouldn't be able to get out of bed," he says. "[So] you go after comedians and their little knock-knock jokes and inflate those. How about the fact that this country has been bankrupt for 10 years and every August they have to shut down the government? You as a citizen who's going to have to pay back that debt, and your kids, and your kids' kids, you are not ever allowed to even [have a voice]."

He still thinks some people take comedians too seriously.

"They act like what you say on stage is indoctrinating some sort of legislation," he says. "Someone always takes your joke out of context. It's like watching a catcher try to make a ball look like a strike, yanking it into this zone. They try to make it seem like an issue of national security when meanwhile, we're just trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars in debt. Do the math on that one."

Don't label him a millennial hater, though — he feels sorry for them.

"I think they get a bad rap. It was their parents that screwed them up. But they were victims of shows like 'To Catch a Predator.' Back in the day, you used to be able to let your kid bike down the street alone. Nowadays I wouldn't let my kid go in another room without knowing where she was. The way it's covered over and over [in the media] it gives you a view that there's a pervert behind every tree."

If comedians truly had the influence some people suggest, he says, stand-up comedy would become illegal overnight — "you'd have to get a license to do it and everything would need to be pre-approved."

His own animated Netflix show grew out of personal family stories he used to tell on stage that would get laughs, he says. "At some point they went from laughs to people feeling sympathy for me — which was worse," he says. "I watched 'South Park' and those shows for so long, it finally dawned on me: I could animate this shit and nobody is going to care. They don't care about animated kids, you know?"

Talk to Burr long enough and one gets a whiff of paranoia. For instance, he admits that he learned to pilot helicopters just so he would be able to leave Los Angeles in a hurry, without a runway, if something apocalyptic went down.

Occasionally he flies himself to nearby shows. "The road is not for reading. I battled with boozing on the road. You're bored." That's why he doesn't book extended tours, also so that he can spend more time with his daughter.

In his spare time he's a drummer and before we're done, he gives a shout-out to a Richmond metal institution: "Oh my god, Gwar is amazing, man."

Does the comedian see a common denominator in his audience?

"Yes, the lowest. The lowest common denominator — that's who I appeal to," he says, laughing. "Nah, I just hope they keep coming back so I can keep living the dream." S

Bill Burr performs at Altria Theater on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 8 p.m. Tickets cost from $37 to $42.

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