A JFL NorthWest presentation. At the Orpheum on Sunday, January 17
In a Starbucks prior to the Bill Burr show at the Orpheum, some fans were talking about looking forward to hearing the comedian rant for an hour and a half. You hear that word a lot in association with Burr—rant—but it’s not even close to accurate.
The 47-year-old Boston comic is opinionated, sure, but his opinions have nuance. He hedges and waffles on the way to his point, exhibiting a degree of vulnerability. Not exactly classic traits of a ranter who has all the answers. Burr is fearless in his subject matter, boldly going where few other comics have gone before, but in a measured way, rather than full steam ahead.
At the first of his two sold-out shows at the Orpheum on Sunday night to semi-officially kick off the JFL NorthWest comedy festival that gets into full swing February 18, Burr tackled the subject of gender inequality, suggesting reasons why women should perhaps earn less than men for equal work. “If you’re truly smarter, how did you let that happen?” he asked. At the end of the bit, he admitted the jokes were “supposed to be empowering but it never comes off that way”.
He suggested that “every once in a while, racism works,” starting with Kanye West’s ego and deftly turning it around to make a bigger point about how crazy white guys can affect history. That led to a drawn-out comparison of Hitler and Stalin in sports terms, with him wondering why Stalin’s kill stats don’t seem to count as much as those of Hitler, the “Jordan of evil”.
Burr is such a master, he’s able to broach that kind of subject matter without eliciting the usual smattering of groans or nervous titters. And that’s partly because of his equivocating delivery. He knows when he’s talking out of turn and always manages to land on the right side of a contentious issue even while flirting with the wrong side.
He’s even master enough to make jokes in support of Bill Cosby. Of course, he had to manipulate the setup perfectly in order to make it palatable. He started by taking shots at Ricky Gervais’s supposed edginess. If Gervais really wants to be edgy, Burr suggests, instead of making jokes about the Cos, how about defending him? He then went into what that would sound like—talking about Cosby’s laughs-to-rapes ratio—thereby distancing himself from such material, yet benefiting from it at the same time.
In his 2014 Netflix special, I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, Burr told the crowd he’d been bitching about the population problem for three specials in a row. That trend continued on this tour, with his plan to help the environment by offing 2,500 to 3,000 people at a time by taking out random cruise ships. Positively Swiftian.
Burr’s 68-minute set was preceded by great opening support from local standup Kevin Banner, who says he bought tickets to the show before being asked to work it just a couple days later. After killer openings for the likes of Doug Stanhope and Norm Macdonald, maybe Banner should hold off on big-ticket purchases from now on until closer to show time.