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Comedian Bill Burr, tamer of unruly audiences

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Bill Burr didn't exactly “burst” onto the comedy scene. Instead, the Massachusetts native has built a slow but sure-footed reputation over the years with appearances on Chappelle’s Show, HBO’s One Night Stand, late-night talk shows from Conan to Letterman, and up to 300 other performances annually. His renown as a crack-shot stand-up gained greater notoriety among comedy circles in 2006 due to an impromptu tirade in defense of fellow comedian Dom Irrera and against the city of Philadelphia, which unexpectedly earned a standing ovation from the locals in attendance. Before gearing up for his latest road trip—which includes a three-night stint at DC Improv—Burr sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss life on the move, the infamous Philly incident, and the effect the Internet has had on comedy.

The A.V. Club: You were in New York for more than a decade—why the move back to L.A.?

Bill Burr: I just felt like I was in a rut. I had done everything that I felt like I could do: I was in all the clubs, I had met a bunch of casting directors, and nothing was happening for me. I didn’t feel challenged in New York, but I moved to LA and it was a whole new mountain to climb. I keep doing specials because I think there are a lot of people who make movies and TV who are fans of comedy—if they start to like you, they’ll get a project going and call you in.

AVC: Especially with your comedy clips all over YouTube.

BB: The Internet is awesome and annoying at the same time. I was just in Stockholm, and there were a handful of people who knew who I was—that was awesome. The other side is “free art.” Everyone wants everything for free. It’s my new material! What I do like is it puts you in control of your career. Anybody that wants to shoot an hour of stand-up and put it up in clips on Youtube can have an hour special, too. You just gotta write it. [Laughs.]

AVC: What happened during the Dom Irrera incident in Camden?

BB: That was during Opie and Anthony’s Traveling Virus Comedy Tour. It was a rowdy Philly crowd of about 10,000 people. They booed the first guy off stage, and they were rowdy the rest of the night. It was one of those situations where the crowd is in control, and that annoys me. I went out there more offensive, I went out with the wrong joke, and I did another joke they had been promoting on the radio unbeknownst to me, and they didn’t laugh.

AVC: Is that tough when that happens?

BB: I’ve been booed before. It’s not a new song. I was so fucking pissed—that’s what I remember. I was thinking backstage, “I didn’t need to come here. These guys are watching some of the best comics in country and acting like a bunch of idiots.” It felt like that was a show where I wasn’t any happier with them than they were with me. It’s a weird thing. In the end it was a great thing because I got a ton of respect. Another thing is people think I don’t like Philly, which isn’t the case. I was trying to say stuff that would make them mad, so I made fun of their sports teams and their moms and staying disease-free. It’s a simple formula; find out what they do love and attack it.

AVC: Have you ever had anything like that happen before?

BB: Oh yeah. Big time. Take the first 12 years of my career—pick a weekend, and something happened. From 1995 to 2004, on any given show on any given night, people would throw stuff at you and yell at you. I had way more good sets than bad, but the possibility of a bad one is always there. The Camden thing happened 14 years into my career, and it is the reason why 99 percent of people will never go on stage.

AVC: Do people think they can fuck with you because you’re a comedian?

BB: I don’t know. It’s hard to describe. You say something funny [outside of a comedy set], and people are all, “You gonna use that?” or “You gonna put me in your act?” No, I’m not. I actually have the ability to say funny things without it being an act. It’s rough now on my personal life going out, but it is a great life. When I’m done here I’m going to go see a movie in the middle of the day. Most people at work hate their jobs.

AVC: Has the audience seemed different since the economic collapse?

BB: Maybe they are more selective, maybe they won’t go out to comedy club all the time, but they want to laugh. I was in NYC during 9/11; it happened on a Tuesday, I was on stage Thursday. It was a small crowd, but it took about 10 days and comedy clubs were packed.

AVC: It’s good for people to have something to look forward to.

BB: I do my podcast on Mondays for that specific reason. A lot of people go to work and don’t like their jobs. If you give people something to laugh about, it’s good. Monday was the worst when I had jobs. Monday Night Football is awesome.

AVC: Those MNF commercials are geared toward that idea of escaping.

BB: I wish they would teach it in schools: Give people the belief that they are going to do well. A lot of people are really talented and scared to follow their talent because you don’t know where it’s going. Being a comedian is an incredible thing, but it can be scary sometimes. I did a gig in Brooklyn years ago and this guy was featuring. He had headlined in the ‘80s, and was driving a bus during the day. I forgot his name, but I never forgot how he made me feel when I was talking to him. I didn’t know much about myself then, so I just absorbed it. I was like, “Oh my God.” [Laughs.]

AVC: Did you ever think about giving up?

BB: I’ve always been positive. Everybody has that moment of, “Am I gonna be that guy driving the bus when I’m 50? Am I going to be dropped down to a feature trying to mindfuck the host because he’s young?” I knew I wasn’t going to do that. You have to understand how bad I wanted to be a comedian, how much I loved doing it. I still can’t believe I get to do this for a living and have people come up and want to see me. I still remember the first gig where I got people going, it was Rascals in New Jersey, and the place was packed. I was scared. People were expecting me to be funny. I gotta be honest, every time I walk into a club, it’s that same fear.