I’ve been a huge fan of Bill Burr since the mid-’90s.
In fact, back then, when the internet was still new and people were skeptical about email, I wrote a message on the contact page of Burr’s website, asking that he perform at my high school. In hindsight, this is a ridiculous request, not only because of the comic’s material, but also because my high school didn’t even host comedians. Still, I received a message back from Bill’s manager politely declining while also thanking me for being a fan.
It’s amazing to think about that now, as Burr has become one of the biggest comedians around with a career that has gone beyond the stage to podcasts (The Monday Morning Podcast), acting in an all-time classic show (Breaking Bad), and even creating his own vehicle (F is for Family). The New York Times agrees that he “has been one of the funniest, most distinctive voices in the country for years.” And he’s grown with the technology – his first performance, Emotionally Unavailable was released only on CD; his last few specials were released exclusively on Netflix.
In short, it feels like he’s been here forever.
Related reading: Ranking Louis C.K.’s Comedy Specials
For my birthday one year, my (now) wife took me to dinner in New York City and then to see Bill Burr perform at Caroline’s on Broadway. We’ve seen him live three times – and he destroyed each time – but that night at Caroline’s was special. There were literally people sliding off their chairs because they were laughing so hard.
Although he’s evolved and matured (and even mellowed a bit) over the years – he now has a wife and kid after swearing he’d never have either – Burr’s career has often revolved around the same handful of themes: the population problem, relationships (especially marriage), guns, religion, conspiracies, and the differences in the genders and races. These aren’t all unique, but the way he has uncovered deeper layers to them over his career has been a big part in separating him from his peers.
In the words of Esquire, “Thank God for Bill Burr.”
A quick note before we get started: 2012’s Live at Andrew’s House was not included because the material was nearly the same as You People Are All the Same.
8. Walk Your Way Out (2017)
No one stays great forever. Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning, and Tiger Woods all fell from their superstar heights. Even Michael Jordan looked almost mortal near the end. So after two decades of performing, Bill Burr was due for a loss. But this one is brutal. The first half is directionless and meandering, full of the comedian’s signature complaints, but without any jokes. It improves slightly on the back end, but overall it’s a very weak performance (and the choice of Nashville for a special is puzzling considering the crowd’s reaction to some of his more progressive topics). The title makes me wonder if this was Burr “walking the room” – using material to purposely make people leave. That was the premise of Andrew “Dice” Clay’s The Day the Laughter Died, a double album that has “the most successful comedian in the world walk into a nightclub, stand on stage, and not tell a single joke all night. For two excruciating discs, ‘Dice’ sighs, smokes, vents, yells, and basically does everything he can to alienate his audience.” I don’t think that was Burr’s intent because he’s clearly trying and a few bits, especially the one on sign language, are very funny. I just think he had weak material.
7. You People Are All the Same (2012)
You People Are All the Same is not bad. In fact, it’s good. But with some rehashed bits and overlong diatribes, it’s a step below Burr’s best performances. Still, it’s significantly better than Walk Your Way Out. The final few minutes on the downfall of great men, specifically Arnold Schwarzenegger, are spectacular.
6. Emotionally Unavailable (2003)
Considering the theaters and specials he performs now, it’s fun to hear Burr back in a small, tight club. Recorded (audio only) at the Laff House, a club known mostly for black comics, on South Street in Philly – the same city where his incredible, angry, freestyle rant against the city and its fans became the stuff of viral legend – Emotionally Unavailable is a wonderful time capsule. The material is more set-up – punchline rather than the long, involved stories that would mark his later specials and some spots are weak, but when the jokes land, they destroy. When the crowd begins acting up, Burr’s impromptu responses are some of the funniest moments on the entire album.
5. I’m Sorry You Feel That Way (2014)
As Burr’s acting career has progressed, his stand-up has become more animated with narrative set-ups and physical bits rather than just jokes. Here, sometimes the stories run a bit long and weigh themselves down, but much of it is still strong, most notably the helicopter story, which Burr relays perfectly from two different perspectives like it’s the heist scene in Jackie Brown. The fact that it’s in black-and-white makes it visually interesting, as well.
4. Paper Tiger (2019)
Paper Tiger begins with a bang as Burr attacks outrage culture head-on from the jump. “By the way, this is gonna be my last show ever,” he jokes early on. He knows the tightrope he’s walking. However, rather than just a screed against an evolving world he doesn’t agree with (or even understand), it is more of an exploration of the current culture and, when analyzed, what it truly means, particularly because the punchline is often himself. Like comics of earlier generations, he’s doesn’t discriminate. He takes some digs at Michelle Obama but he also mocks those that were outraged at the Colin Kaepernick protest (“My brother is a firefighter who watched 9/11 on TV!”). The last third isn’t as strong as the beginning – the blow-up doll/sex robot bit was pretty weak – but overall it’s his best special in years because he does what great comedians do: observe the current world as it is and hold up a mirror to it to show how ridiculous it can be.
3. One Night Stand (2005)
It’s unrefined, but the intelligence and anger are both in full display, as is the ridiculous voice he uses to imitate a female in his stories. He bounces from topic to topic – the Olsen twins being so sick that they have to lean against one another; acting as his father’s sympathetic bartender when he was a child; visiting his girlfriend’s apartment in Harlem (“at the corner of Malcolm X and Danny Glover”) – and it’s all great. He would become more polished over the next decade, but sometimes raw is better.
2. Why Do I Do This? (2008)
This is the one that includes the immortal line, “That’s the funny thing about Hitler.” Why Do I Do This? found Burr as he was transitioning into becoming one of the biggest comics around and you can see his material growing with his fame. The topics range far and wide, but the jokes are abundant, stacked one on top of another, barely giving the audience a chance to catch its breath.
1. Let It Go (2010)
A virtually flawless special from beginning to end, Let It Go is the perfect Bill Burr performance. He is full of energy and stage presence, but he doesn’t get distracted in acting out too many of the bits. He lays waste to a wide variety of subjects – Oprah, self-checkout lines, male insecurity, government conspiracies, and self-important people that claim they “rescue” dogs – with equal wit and edge. There are no soft spots to be found here.
Christopher Pierznik’s nine books are available in paperback and Kindle. Check out more of his writing at Medium. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, Fatherly, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. Subscribe to his monthly newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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