Comedian Bill Burr on Vibing with the Crowd and ‘F is for Family’ Season 3

Bill Burr tells us about surfing the crowd, the power of double negatives, the KGB, and the new season of F is for Family. 
F Is For Family
By  · Published on December 4th, 2018

2018 marks another great year for one of top comedians in the world, Bill Burr. Burr, who just performed at Madison Square Garden and the Forum on his latest tour, recently delivered strong supporting work in Jason Reitman‘s The Front Runner and saw the third season of his very funny animated series, F is for Family, premiere on Netflix. From acting, writing, producing, podcasting, to running his co-founded comedy network, All Things Comedy, Burr is always hustling on and off stage.

The F is for Family co-creator has a natural knack for storytelling in his live performances – look at his helicopter story from “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way” as one example – but his experience writing the Murphy Family has only further sharpened his skills as a storyteller. So much so that he’s now even co-writing a script for a movie. In his standup or his writing on F is for Family, Burr’s work never lacks confidence, but as he recently told us during an interview, it’s fear often fueling his material.

The comic also spoke had more to say about playing to stadium-sized crowds, being on the road with his latest act, Sex and the City, and how he’s improved as a writer thanks to F is for Family.

Congratulations on playing Madison Square Garden recently. How was that experience?

Oh, it was awesome. It was awesome. It could not have gone any better.

When you play a stadium like the Garden, how different does it feel compared to just being at the Comedy Store or another comedy club? How do you reach those people in the back?

Well obviously, there’s way more people, but I would say it’s the same in that you’re just listening to the crowd, which is something that just becomes like second nature. So, you know whether to speed up or slow down. What happens is the more you do standup, the more you don’t even have to deal with the crowd in a way. It becomes second nature. So, you’re just subconsciously judging the level of laughs that you’re getting. You’re trying to get the wave going and rolling along with it. It’s like you’re surfing almost, so you’re just listening and by the way they’re going you know whether to paddle faster, or slow down, or bail out and get on another wave, or whatever.

So, in a way there is no difference. It’s just you’re trying to not be in your head. You’re just trying to be up there just flowing, and everything is coming out, and there’s little tricks that I’ve done that I can kind of trick my brain when I feel locked up on stage. Like, I’m just doing my act and I can trick myself just by what I try and I start tagging jokes that are already done, just to be saying something new, and that might lead me into saying something else that just sort of opens me up or whatever. It’s something I learned watching Dave Attell a long time ago.

You’re always very in tune with the crowd and know how they’re following or reacting to a joke. Was there ever a moment where you felt you finally knew how to be totally in sync with an audience? 

Yes. I’ve told this story a bunch of times, but I was working this comedy club in Portland, Oregon in the late ’90’s and I was doing the classic Tuesday through Sunday, or Tuesday through Saturday, right? So, it was like Thursday. The first night, you know, you get there before the show even starts. Everybody knows that he’s in town. And then the next night it’s like I don’t have to be there at 8 o’clock when I’m not on until 8:45, so I’ll just walk in at 8:40 and then close out the first show, right?

So, I got there probably about 8:30 and walked into the club, into the showroom, and the feature act was on stage, and I watched him for three seconds, and then I looked at the waitress and I said, “What happened?” She goes, “Oh, about five minutes ago he kind of did this racial joke that didn’t kind of come off right.” I remember in that moment thinking like, without even thinking that I knew something was wrong, I just asked the waitress, and I felt like I was starting to get the beginning of the Jedi powers that every comic gets after a while where I had already seen that guy, I know what his set sounds like, as far as the crowds’ reaction, and this wasn’t hot crowd versus bad crowd. It wasn’t bad crowd energy. There was an unsettlement you could just feel in the room.

You know, I don’t really even talk about this to a lot of comics. A lot of comics you sit around and you talk about material, you talk about good places to play, but nobody really talks about listening to the crowd a lot because it’s something… I’d say it’s one of those, it’s like somebody’s feel, if they’re playing drums or something. Like somebody could sit down and play the exact same group, but just the way that person must not have taken drum lessons; if you’re tensing up tight, that effects the way you’re playing will sound. If you’re relaxed and you smile, it sounds like something else. It’s all that sort of mysterious shit that I would put under “vibe” [Laughs].

There was a guy Patrice O’Neil, the best guy live. He would talk about these guys — it was so funny — he’d be like, “Bill, this guy is so bad he literally walks on stage bombing.” It could be a hot a crowd, everybody’s killing, then they’ll be like ladies and gentlemen, please welcome so and so; and the second they look at him the whole crowd’s just like “aaaah…” He would walk on stage and all the energy was just gone. He wasn’t likable, and he wasn’t funny. The way he walked on the stage he was carrying the weight of all of that bombing of all the other shows; it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was other people that you know, they’d go on stage confident. Confidence is, you know the deal, it gets you somewhere.

Absolutely. Something that’s impressive is how when an audience pulls back from a joke, just how easily you win them back with some sort of acknowledgment. 

Oh, I learned that in Mass. Two negatives equals a positive. If you go negative and then they pull back, and you pull back then you’re fucked. Now you gotta dig out of a hole but if you got a negative reaction, then whatever thought they reacted to if you tag it in even harder, then they’re like all right this guy doesn’t give a fuck, and then they just laugh. They clearly said, “Hey Bill, we don’t like that,” and you’re like all right, well here’s another big helping. Another thing, it’s provided you’re not being malicious, like if you’re up there and you’re really just being malicious and you tag it again, people might start walking out. I’m just saying, you tell a joke and everyone’s like, oh too soon, too soon bro, you go even further and you throw something in the tag that happened even sooner than the thing that they were saying is too soon.

I imagine you experience that more at comedy clubs than when you’re touring, right? 

I think once people have gone to see you they know what you’re bringing so it’s not surprising for them. I pop in and do a spot at The Store or The Factory or one of the clubs in New York or something it’s like, people will pull back. It’s not unlike the too soon thing. It just depends on the crowd, every crowd is different. New York has changed drastically since I left in ’07 and it already had changed drastically once [Rudy] Gulianni went in there. Then Bloomberg got in and all of a sudden there was people sitting in the streets, in sun chairs, whatever the fuck that is. Now it just seems like a giant Bed, Bath and Beyond for me, some really weird sort of Truman Show vibe. I feel bad for younger kids because they spend all their time on the computer and stuff and there’s just so much shit out there that just really gets you in your head.

You know, “this is verbal abuse,” “this is bullying,” everything got labeled. The joke that I always used to use on stage was I thought, Jesus Christ, I feel like I’m performing for a bunch of old people on a cruise ship. Guys, I’m 50 years old, you guys should be shocking me. I should be looking at you like, “Oh my god with their music today, their haircuts and the things that they’re doing.” There is a few of them, that ‘lean’ that those kids are drinking, the face tattoos. God help the next generation that tries to outdo lean, face tattoos and meth [Laughs]. Before and after pictures, all we had to beat was heroin and fucking LSD.

[Laughs] Like you say, they have more distractions too. I saw you perform once, and you asked someone in the crowd, who was on their phone, “Can’t you just be here?” That’s oddly tough for a lot of people. 

Literally at a show… I’m addicted to my phone, everybody is; like if you go in an airport everybody is just staring at their phone. I remember I saw this old couple and they were reading books, I felt like I was watching something from the past. I wonder how much better their brains are because they’re doing stuff like that, but … I don’t know. I don’t want to be this old guy going “oh these kids today.” When I’m on the road I just go back to the hotel room or go to a bar that’s age appropriate. I’m not gonna be that old guy going down to the club that’s everybody’s going to and ruining everybody’s good time. I wonder what this old bald guy is doing here? Is that guy a cop? Get him outta here.

[Laughs] Jerry Seinfeld gave you that advice to just go back to the hotel after a set, right? 

Yeah, which I had not been taking well, but now I’m back into it. I go back and forth, I also have to be me a little bit, you know. After a show you’re so wound up. Also, now that I got a beautiful wife, beautiful daughter it’s just like this empty hotel, it’s pretty lonely, so a lot of time you try to stay out until you’re really sleepy so you just go to sleep. That was my favorite part in the Adam Sandler movie where he played that stand up comedian where he’s just laying bed talking to that person on the phone going, “No, don’t hang up, just talk to me until I go to sleep.” He’s sitting in that giant house all by himself.

I actually wanted to ask you about how comedians and stand-up are usually depicted in shows or movies because I think there’s something about that experience at a comedy club you don’t quite get in a movie or show. How do you feel about how comics and standup comedy are usually portrayed? 

Well, I think generally speaking everybody, if they’re gonna portray cops, they usually have them fat, abusive, eating doughnuts, while smart people are always nerdy. To me, we’re on our stage, we got like a lampshade on our head, like the biggest hack ever trying out material, like we’re not even present and we’re just super annoying. It used to bother me, but I was just like, well, maybe that’s just how people perceive us. Comedians, they always wanna throw in a joke. You get a bunch of comedians sitting around all talking and it’s just like, when you start a story you gotta get through it quick and hold their attention because we have massive, massive ADD.

How different is the experience of writing for standup versus F is for Family

Yeah, it’s a different thing. The only thing I would say is the same as a comedian is you know kinda where the laughs are, you kind of anticipate. You write in a bubble all week and then you do a table read and you finally hear what people are kinda gonna do with it and what they’re saying. Whereas stand up is like a never ending table read, it’s like you think it’s something and then you go up in front of a crowd and it either works or it doesn’t. If it works then you decide well all right I’m gonna go the whole length on this one and go see what I need to do to get this thing up and running.

A great scene in season three is when Frank visits Vic (Vince Vaughn) in the hospital and hears about the day the light went off. As a comedian, what’s it like writing a more dramatic scene like that and knowing if it works without laughs? 

That goes back to the stuff that I was just talking to somebody about: people look at me as the guy they see on stage, they go oh that guy, he’s an angry guy. They just think it’s just that, like this guy’s an angry guy. He walks around he’s angry, like, oh look at that phone, fuck you phone. One-dimensional shit, but that’s not 100% … I mean damn, I can’t go around angry all the time. My problem is, my default emotion is I flip out about shit, right? When you go to write characters, it’s not just people doing things, but why? The psychological breakdown of why.

Why is this guy so mean? When he gives that speech, you know, he talks about how his dad drowned that puppy in the sink. You then see the way he was treating Frank where it was “buddy, buddy, buddy, buddy,” something weird, dark and sadistic, ’cause that’s what he got from his dad. You know your dad is like a superhero to you, and then all of a sudden he does something like that and it crushes you, and it breaks your heart. Then the curse is, if it was just some guy you’d be like, fuck this guy he’s outta my life, but it’s your dad, so he’s never outta your life. We didn’t want to make Vic this guy, like, he’s a veteran, he saw too much stuff and then he just went crazy and now he just says crazy stuff, you know?

Like Sex and the City, when they had that one over-sexed woman like every line she had was just sexually charged. I just always pictured her sticking her head in the writers’ room being like, “Guys, give me something. Can she grow tomatoes? Can she do something?” That poor woman, she told the same joke for fucking like eight years. Whenever my wife watches that show, I’m in the other room whenever that woman delivers her line and I’m just singing in the other room, “because she’s a whore.” [Laughs] It’s just like you’ve established this character, you’ve established this trait in this character, what is this, is she just opened sexually? Did something happen to her? Does she have a hobby? [Laughs] How long am I supposed to sit here and still be surprised that she’s gonna say what she always says, you know? For six or seven seasons, or whatever it was.

[Laughs] Do you have an idea of how long you’d like to see the go for and where these characters could end up?

Well, every year when we’re writing it and stuff, I wanna quit [Laughs] And then this time of year I’m ready to go for another season. But you know editing and stuff like that, this year was the easiest because everyone kinda knows the characters and everything like that. I had no idea what I was getting myself into but I can tell you, I’m so happy I did because I always felt I knew I how to write.

I always felt I could write dialogue, but I’m still trying to get better at staying on story and making sure stuff’s tracked, like that’s probably the weakest part of my writing, and it’s a really important aspect of it, but that’s where [co-creator] Mike Price comes in and he’s the showrunner we got from The Simpsons; he’s just great. He’ll pull out my three pages of “hilarious” dialogue that didn’t expand into the story more than five feet. I like the jokes, but then it’s like, just make sure it’s on story for us, then the jokes will come. There’s no point in having all these jokes if they’re not advancing the story because you’re basically demonstrating how people talk, which is not interesting to people after awhile. It’s like come on, can I get a little story here, what am I rooting for, you know?

With the Monday Morning Podcast, listeners are very open with you about their problems when they’re looking for advice, and I’ve always wondered what’s that like. How did creating the podcast maybe connect with your fans more? 

I think it just lets them in a little bit more into my personal life they get to know my wife and kinda saw how our relationship is. I don’t know, it was a way to promote my gigs, that’s why I did it. I’d be like, yeah daddy’s chuckle hut this Friday. It just kept building and building and then there was just segments and stuff that … I don’t know I’ve never really asked people about that … they like it because if they have a long flight, if they’re going to they gym, if they have a bad ride home. If you’re having a bad ride home I just really like the fact that I am making somebody laugh as they sit in traffic and maybe that makes them not do some road rage thing, not react to somebody being a jerk behind them, because I believe that decency is gonna come back.

Really? Why’s that? 

Yeah. Well, my buddy just sent thing whole thing to the New York Times saying that fake news was actually a real thing. It was done by the KGB and they did it in Pakistan, they did it in India and they just do it to disrupt and get everybody yelling at each other. I’m like well, I would love to just blame Russia, but some of it has to be us. [Laughs] You know? I don’t think everybody on social media has just been affected by the KGB. I think that some of it has to do with just the freedom of being anonymous, you know?

People coming to your shows obviously know your material pretty well by now but you gotta surprise them, so how did you want to surprise them on this latest tour? What were some of the new things you wanted to try in your act and on stage? 

I think my biggest thing is I’ve become a dad since the last time and it’s just more of a personal thing. I just decided that I wasn’t going to talk about my daughter on stage unless I was telling something that would just make me look bad. If I was like, you know daughter’s awesome she’s the best thing that ever happened to me and one time I did this, this and this and she said this to me and I just felt like an idiot.

If I ever were to do that, I would always keep her in a good light, because I just feel like making a decision to step out onto a stage, it’s a very personal decision, and it’s usually made by person that’s getting out there. You know, I just wouldn’t want to tell an unflattering story or something about her and then she has to go to school. The kids are already mean, and then I’m literally helping the assholes at schools, so what am I doing? What I found about being a parent is it’s one of the few things that just totally lives up 100% to the hype.

People are like, well now that you’re this happy, doesn’t that affect your act? Where do your jokes come from? It comes from the fear that it’s all gonna go away. What if my wife leaves me? What if something happens to my kid? What if I screw something up? What if, what if what if … what if you run outta fresh water? Oh my god look at those fires, it’s gonna burn down the house. The second you become a parent, every horrible thought comes to your head. “Yeah I’m leaving, I’m taking my daughter, we’re gonna go down the street,” and then every horrible thing that could happen crosses your mind. “Okay be careful.” [Laughs]

I would never do that to her, she’s my buddy, man. She’s the best. I would never wanna do something like that. I guess that that would be [the surprise]. Everybody kept asking me, how do you do stand up with the current climate? All it did was just make me go harder. I was like, oh is there a climate out there? All right. You know, the dumbest thing you can do is tell a comic, “People get annoyed if you do this.” It’s like, oh really? Thank you.

F is for Family season three is now available to stream on Netflix.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.