Celebrating The ‘Softening’ Of Bill Burr
There was a great moment in Bill Burr’s most recent special, Bill Burr: Live at Red Rocks. There were a lot of great moments, actually, but there’s one in particular that stood out – about half an hour into the set, Bill slowed down his pace and got introspective. He quietly told the Denver audience, “I am a changed person.”
“Bulls---!” yelled out some guy in the crowd, breaking the stillness of the moment.
Bill calmly addressed the heckler, asking him, “Are you saying bulls---, sir, because you don’t believe me, or ‘cause you don’t want me to leave? Is that what it is? The little angry circle you’re in?”
This unplanned outburst followed by Bill’s response perfectly encapsulated an ongoing paradigm shift that we’ve been seeing from Burr for some time now. As the last of the great rant comedians, Bill’s reputation for being as furious as he is funny has attracted a massive following over a prolific three-decade career at the forefront of Angry Guy Comedy.
His humor attracts stand-up fans from all walks of life, but if you read the comments on YouTube clips of his older work, or browse his subreddit, or visit his Facebook page, you’ll see a trend among his most fervent followers – the most impassioned fans are typically guys, usually above the age of thirty-five, and, more often than not, they see Bill as the mouthpiece for their personal frustrations with a changing society. Too many of those comments start with an asinine preamble like “Back in my day…” and continue with complaints about the usual laundry list of Angry Guy gripes – women are annoying, Cancel Culture is out of control, kids nowadays are too soft, lather, rinse, repeat.
Among the Angry Guy contingent of Bill’s fans, there exists this sentiment that Bill is the last in a line of street-preaching, misanthropic, iconoclastic comics that stretches all the way back to W.C Fields. Titans like Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, and George Carlin all paved the way for rabid, ranting, and irate comics like Bill to speak truth to power, to tell it like it is, to suffer no fools, and to force their unflinching worldview onto a complacent public. To many of his supporters, Bill is the last of a dying breed of truth-tellers who will be doomed to extinction once Ol’ Billy Redface hangs them up.
The problem with this dynamic is that, when fans make any one of these great rant comedians a stand-in for their own tempers, it becomes easy for those followers to project too much of themselves onto the artist. Everyone who has ever done an open mic knows that there’s an entire classification of frustrated young white men who think that liking George Carlin or Bill Hicks is a personality trait. Anger becomes an identity for these confused people when they connect with a comedian’s ability to channel their own irritation into something constructive.
For Bill Burr, that fire has always been a blessing and a curse. While we all love nothing more than to watch Bill go on Conan and unleash his rage on whatever annoying person dared to swerve into Bill’s lane, he's made it clear last few specials that this deeply instilled Irish-Catholic fury isn’t only the jet fuel that propelled him into stand-up superstardom – it’s also a plague that he’s trying very hard not to spread.
Bill has gone into detail about his father and his upbringing at every stage of his career. He even wrought five seasons of F is for Family out of the trauma of growing up in the 70’s and 80’s. We’ve seen Bill struggle for years with the generational rage that makes a simple story about him buying a sandwich such a joy to behold, but Bill’s made it clear in his recent work that his legendary outbursts stop being funny when he’s making his daughter cry, or when his dog turns into a maniac that bites his mother.
For those of us who grew up on the comedy of the Burr’s and the Hicks’ of the world, we probably still have a nostalgic connection to a time in our lives when we were young, angry, and confused. These irate evangelists gave us the emotional release that we needed in order to feel less alone in that frustrated, cliché, Catcher in the Rye-esque misanthropy. So when we see one of these firebrands live long enough to get cooled off by the wisdom of experience, it can feel like a betrayal to those of us who are still stuck in that anger.
The comedy world has outgrown the “furious white guy shouts his polarizing opinions” trope, and that’s not a bad thing. Angry comedy is great catharsis, but, like a bacon cheeseburger, it’s a momentary pleasure that will make your heart explode if you’re still regularly indulging in it when you reach your 50’s. While there will always be a place for focused rage in all forms of artistic expression, it’s better for Bill, his family, and his fans for him to slow down and address the source of that fury.
After Bill serenely berated that heckler in his latest special, he spent the next fifteen minutes talking about his transformative experience with psychedelics. During his trip, Bill was able to trace back all of his problems with women, with drinking, and with himself to the fearful, vulnerable feelings from his youth that stemmed from his father’s rage. He talked about how his love for his daughter has helped him simmer his temper, and how he’s grateful that the new generation of kids are able to have the kind of emotional relationships with their dads that he never could have with his own.
It’s hard to imagine a younger, fiery, still-having-hair Bill Burr allowing himself to be that vulnerable in 2007. Even now, Bill would probably curse us out if he ever found out that we described him as “soft”. Nevertheless, we think that it’s admirable of Bill to do the hard work of digging into his demons, and we applaud his willingness to share that progress with a fanbase who could probably use some psychedelic therapy of their own.
Top Image: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore
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