Boston native Bill Burr may sound bothered and on the constant edge of a nervous breakdown on stage but he has a weird, almost Zen-like attitude toward his aspirations, or as close to Zen as most clinically depressed comics can achieve.
While comics may dream of getting their own self-titled sitcom about how they take over a boarding school and teach the kiddies what's truly important with platitudes wrapped around their stage material, Burr doesn't spend his time on the road worrying about that. As long as he's got someone to listen to him pontificate about pedophile reality shows, basketball players getting crotch dunked on Sportscenter or whatever train of thought passes through his head, he says he'll be happy.
At least he'll definitely be happier than the sitcom star who has to go all J.D. Salinger because everyone has a camera and an unfettered link to TMZ's tip line.
"It's not what it was. Back in the day, the world was your oyster when you got to a certain level of fame. I've seen them. Those poor bastards, they can't leave the house," Burr says with a laugh. "They could be like rescuing kittens out of trees and someone will edit it and make them look like the biggest asshole ever. I like the level where I'm at. I can say what I want to say and nobody fucking bugs me."
Burr, who will perform at the Arlington Improv for two shows at 7:30 and 9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday and 8 and 10:30 p.m. Friday, has been on TV plenty of times and not just as a stand-up. He was one of the regular sketch players on Dave Chappelle's legendary Chappelle's Show. He scored roles in movies like Date Night, The Heat and (I kid you not) Zombeavers. He even scored a regular role on Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman's personal handler Patrick Kuby, a role he doesn't get recognized for as much since he no longer has to look the part.
"I shaved off my beard and buzzed my head," Burr says. "I have a nice level of notoriety, if I could just stay at this level for the rest of my career, I'd be happy. All I need is a couple hundred people to know me in each city and I could fill up the club where I'm at and let other people deal with the next level, which does not look like fun to me."
That's not to say that he doesn't get noticed. He has plenty of fans who still pack whatever place he's performing and Burr said he loves that his fans are able to give him a level of control in show business that he couldn't have in any other field.
"I act when they let me. It's a way to maintain control of your career," Burr says. "Stand-up is on me and I like that. If I suck, it's on me. If I do really well, it's on me and if I need a gig, it's on me. I'm as independent as I can be, which is a very powerful position to be in but when you get sucked into doing TV and movies and you stop doing stand-up. You work for somebody else. You don't realize it, but you do. They'll give you a show with your name on it but they'll take it back when you're done with it. I'm not saying I don't want a TV show or that it's a bad thing but I would never stop doing stand-up.
"Technically, you can take your money and go live in a trailer but everyone would be like 'Hey, Ray Romano lives in that trailer, let's go tip it,'" he adds.
He's even taken a stab at releasing his own specials like his last show You People Are All The Same, which he only released through his website as a digital download and a physical DVD.
"It worked better for me because I put up the money for the special, so I own the special and I get the licensing fees and that's what pays for the special," he says. "The $5 download doesn't even come close. You've got to be as big as Louis C.K. to have that work. You're just trying to get it out to people. I like the idea of people just downloading it because there's no waste as far as the environment. I always picture my DVDs floating around the frigging ocean when people are done with them."
His next special will be released on Netflix. He considers it "the best hour I've written." However, "write" isn't really an accurate term.
"I see things that bother me or inspire me and I just talk about them. That's my writing process," Burr says. "If something funny happened to you and you're meeting your friends in a bar, you just go in and tell the story. You wouldn't write it down and memorize. The reason you're able to do that is that you're comfortable around your friends so what I work towards is being at that level of comfortable...People make a big deal out of it but it isn't that big of a deal when you put it in those terms."
That ease with an audience and stream of consciousness comedy means the phrase "comic's comic" often accompanies discussions about Burr's work.
"That means I don't have a TV show," he says with a laugh. "Right below that is if somebody on the wait staff says you're hilarious. Waiters or waitresses see more comedy than anybody. Comedians, if we don't like somebody who's on stage, we can leave the room but waiters and waitress have to go in there and block it out and it causes them to get jaded after awhile. That was always a big thing for me. If I actually saw a waitress walking around with a smile on her face laughing and she's doing her job and laughing, so this must be funny."
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