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Interview: Comedian Bill Burr On Working, Acting And 'Breaking Bad'

By Chuck Sudo in Arts & Entertainment on Sep 27, 2013 7:20PM

Photo credit: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty images

Bill Burr has earned a reputation as a comedian’s comedian thanks to constant touring, a successful series of specials on Comedy Central, Netflix and HBO, and an approach to stand-up comedy that is equal parts no bullshit and reassuringly sympathetic to the subjects of his ire. Burr is also forging a steady acting career in both comedy (he had a bit part in The Heat starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) and can currently be seen as Kuby, one of the henchmen of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad.

Burr’s current tour includes two shows Sept. 28 at The Chicago Theatre at 7:30 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Chicagoist spoke with Burr about his work ethic, constantly working on new material, the free-form approach to his podcasts, the differences between dramatic and comedic acting and why it’s easier to break into acting as a comedian.

My first exposure to your comedy was through your specials and you seem to release them at a steady pace. What’s your approach to filming them?

Bill Burr: The specials are the result of two years of working on my material on the road. I’m always looking at new ways to tell a joke so that it doesn’t get stale while working on new jokes every night or I would go absolutely crazy and would want to kill myself. I just want to go in there and talk about what's bugging me. Once you do a joke and it works it's only good for so long, like shooting fish in a barrel. With the specials, at that point I'm sick of the old material and want to document it and get ready for a new hour of material.

"If you try to deliver a funny line in a funny way, it comes out as wacky and you ruin the scene."
C: Are there moments where you just want to go onstage and riff without preparation for an extended period of time?

BB: I do that more on the podcast. Going onstage and doing that would be unreal. If you could go on a run for 12-15 minutes riffing that's like an astounding thing to pull off. There are nights where you go up there where you feel you’ve barely done your act and you're 20-30 minutes in. The next show you go up there and remember what happened previously and you get into your head. Not a good thing.

C: How did the podcast get started?

BB: A friend, Robert Kelly, suggested it. I was over at his apartment and he said I should do one. This was like 2007, we would do it on the phone driving around L.A. making fun of people. People make a big deal about podcasts but it's basically an online radio show with the sound effects and sidekicks, but because you can curse it's more like satellite radio. Most of the podcasters were morning guys who were fired when Clear Channel decimated the radio landscape. Adam Carolla's firing was one of the dumbest firings I ever saw. I’ll never understand that corporate mentality where you try to trim so much fat you carve one of your own arteries. Then they blame the shareholders. Yeah, go ahead and pass the buck on nameless investors.

C: Your acting resume is starting to grow a bit. Let’s talk about Breaking Bad first. How did you wind up getting on the show?

BB: I watched Breaking Bad from the first episode. My agent at the time, Phillip Grenz at William Morris, said we'll look into getting me on the show. The producers wanted to see if I could act and said,. “we'll keep him in mind.” Years later I switch agencies and my current agent, Scott Simpson with ATA, re-visited them. Vince GIlligan puts all kind of comics on there. Lot of folks don't think stand-up comics can act.

C: do you find any differences between dramatic acting and comedic acting?

BB: Acting in a sitcom or a comedy movie is like a comedy routine with the setups. I look at comedic acting like how Jeffrey Tambor did The Larry Sanders Show. He wasn't trying to be funny. He was just doing the scene the same way like he wanted to win it. The situation is already funny. The dialogue is funny. If you try to deliver a funny line in a funny way, it comes out as wacky and you ruin the scene. I saw two people fighting in New York City where no one wanted to fight, but it kept escalating to the point where they felt they had no choice but to fight. To view it as a bystander, it was absolutely hilarious.

How easy is it to break into acting as a comedian?

BB: It’s so much easier to break into acting as a comedian as opposed to waiting tables, which is how most actors I know do. The exposure onstage is a major advantage.

"I’ll never understand that corporate mentality where you try to trim so much fat you carve one of your own arteries."
C: You’re always on the road, or at least it seems that way. How do you balance the life of a touring comedian with your growing acting commitments, your podcast and other projects?

BB: My agent books me on road like I'm not getting work and, if an acting gig comes up, we reschedule the touring schedule. I never cancel, just reschedule. If you buy tickets to one of my shows the worst case is it gets pushed back a month.

C: Dave Chappelle’s New Haven concert was a story recently for the way the audience just turned on him. There’s video online where you famously tear into an audience in Philadelphia for over 10 minutes. Do you approach hecklers the same from city to city?

BB: I handle hecklers in the same manner. As far as that Chappelle show thing, it was a non-story; you have nights like that. We're in this J. Edgar Hoover day and age where everyone has video equipment and minor things get blown out of proportion. You would have thought this was major. He told folks to fuck off and that was it. It's why some people don't try stand-up—they're afraid to go up there and find themselves posted all over the Internet.

C: You’ve been called a comedian that other comedians want pay attention to when you’re on stage. What comedians do you like to watch perform when you have a free moment?

BB: Oh, shit, there are almost too many to list, from people that are way better than me to new comics like Chelsea Peretti and Sean Patton. The guys that I like at this point are all Chappelle, Louis CK, Brian Holtzman are always astounding to watch. LaVelle Crawford (Huell on Breaking Bad) is fun to watch.

C: what should people attending your shows at the Chicago Theatre Saturday expect?

BB: They’re gonna get 90 minutes of new material and I’m pumped for this. This is some of the most fun stuff I wrote so when comics are in a good mood an audience expects a good show.