It’s been nearly three decades since Bill Burr started in standup. For about half that time, he’s been a superstar to comedy fans. But each year, he keeps getting bigger among the general population. And despite all his extracurricular activities—movies, TV, talk shows, podcasts, the Netflix animated series F Is for Family—it’s still standup that’s attracting those new fans.
“It’s been a slow, almost 30-year overnight-success run for me,” he says with a laugh over the phone from Los Angeles.
His 2019 Netflix special, Paper Tiger, was his fourth on the streaming giant, which proves his following was already big. But Burr’s on-stage brashness gives way to off-stage modesty in explaining its success.
“I got lucky with a few things,” he says. In comedy, timing is everything, and he claims Dave Chappelle’s special, which was released the month prior to his, helped draw new followers.
“I think that was a good thing for me,” he says. “Just all the swirling around from his special had people who weren’t even, I think, interested in specials maybe watching specials. So more people watched my last one than the previous time. I don’t know, I just do what I do and hope that people show up.”
That they do. The JFL NorthWest festival kept adding new shows to keep up with the demand. In all, he’ll be playing four shows at two major theatres over two nights.
If his button-pushing style lands him in trouble with the social-media outrage police, he pays it no mind. The brouhaha is short-lived “because it’s built in sand. It’s just fucking outrage over nothing. You can’t keep it in the air. You can’t keep spinning that plate.”
Needless to say, Burr doesn’t back away from controversy; he embraces it. He has said that when he’s in L.A., he loves to poke at Hillary Clinton, and when he’s in, say, Oklahoma, he’ll take on gun culture.
“It makes it fun,” he says. “If you just go up there and say what they want, that kind of applause is nauseating.”
He won’t usually, though, go after the orange man who puts the peach in impeached.
“There’s plenty of people trashing Trump; I don’t need to be another jerk,” he says. “I don’t go on-stage and try to tell people how they should vote. However, if I see some bullshit or something I should say that’s bullshit to me, I definitely will bring it up.”
Not that this is in his act, but he brings it up in this conversation: “With different racial groups or children and stuff like that, it’s kinda hard to find a joke about that because it’s just really depressing that someone who’s a leader of a country would be that openly hostile,” he says. “Like, where there are Nazis involved and you start saying, ‘Hey, there are two sides to every story,’ it’s just, like, Jesus Christ! I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being conservative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being liberal. But I do think there’s something wrong with being racist. Taking kids from their parents, there’s something wrong with that.”
Tackling Hillary or gun culture would get polite laughs north of the border, but it doesn’t punch us in the gut like it does in portions of the U.S. Asked if there are topics that would make us sit up, he lets loose.
“There’s this stain of ‘America is Donald Trump’ and then you guys act like you’re these saints and you’re one of the most racist countries I’ve ever fuckin’ been to. Any guy of colour that tried to make it in the NHL, his stories of when he was in the minors, it sounds like America in the 1950s.” He laughs as he says this, but it still stings.
“And your whole m.o. is ‘Okay, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ ” he says with the imitated Canadian pronunciation Americans find so funny. “Anytime your fuckin’ team loses the Stanley Cup finals, you guys have a fuckin’ riot up there. So there’s obviously something going on up there.”
While he’ll continue with other projects, like F Is for Family or acting in Judd Apatow’s upcoming film The King of Staten Island, and growing his brand, Burr knows where his bread is buttered: on standup stages around the world.
“That’s a good thing because that’s the easiest thing that I do,” he says. “That’s what I really am at heart, a comedian. Everything else that I do, people kinda let me do it, other than my podcast. I act when they let me do it. That’s basically it. I am not in control of that. But standup, I am.”
Bill Burr plays two shows at the Orpheum next Thursday (February 20), and two more at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (February 21).