WARNING: Strong language & adult situations
It was a day that would live in infamy. September 9th, 2006, was an unseasonably hot day in Philly and the crowd at the Susquehanna Center had been drinking for hours in the sun. The natives were restless. This was not good. The crowd vibed a little bar fight-y to begin with, lots of buzz-cut hammerheads in Eagles jerseys and jorts and calf tats and the ladies who like that kind of thing. There was a low hum of menace in the air, like things could go 700 Level at any minute. Somebody was gonna hurt someone before the night is through. Somebody was going to lose a tooth. Or maybe an eye. Or worse. The crowd didn't want to laugh that day, they wanted to draw blood. They didn't want comedy, they wanted a crucifixion.
The first two comedians got their dicks handed to them and shown the door in a hail of boos. Walking onto that stage was like walking into a den of lions wearing Lady Gaga's raw meat dress. Most men would go in with a whip, or a chair, or maybe a small caliber pistol tucked into waist band of his jodphurs. But Bill Burr is not most men.
He was standing in the wings when Bob Kelly got booed off the stage, and he was standing in the wings when Dom Irrera got booed off stage. Burr, a Boston scrapper battle-hardened in the Beantown comedy trenches of heckler warfare, didn't like that. Not one bit. His Irish was officially up. He turned to Opie and Anthony -- this was all their idea after all, Opie & Anthony's Traveling Virus, a moveable feast of stand-up comedy for The Limp Bizkit Nation -- and shouted over the din: "Not me! They ain't fuckin' doin' that to me!" And that's when he reached for the flamethrower and walked onstage.
He opened with:
"Oh Fuck all you people! Ya know what you fucking losers? I hope you all fucking die, and I hope those fucking Eagles never win the Superbowl. Go fuck yourselves."
And then he took the gloves off.
For the next 12 minutes he unleashed a torrent of scorching scatological invective and obscene, anatomically-impossible imprecations like somebody opening a valve on the Hoover Dam of Hate. It was to insult comedy what Slayer is to Simon & Garfunkel. He was contractually obligated to deliver 12 minutes and they were gonna get every fucking second of his 12 minutes -- 12 minutes of Bill Burr shitting on an entire city and then sliding bare-assed down the Art Museum steps, like a dog with a dirty butt, and then lifting his leg on the Rocky statue. This was D-Day in his personal war on stupid. And this time the good guys are gonna win. Enough is fucking enough you fucking fucks!
"Fuck all you motherfuckers and fuck the Flyers. Fuck all of you. Bunch of goddamn fucking losers. Booing Dom Irerra. Suck a dick. All of you. Suck a fuckin dick. You can all lick my fucking red nuts. All of yas...can line up with your Harold Carmichael fuckin jerseys, and one at a time you can all suck my dick.
Eleven more minutes of this!
I hope you all get in your Ford Focuses and fucking drive off the side of that faggot ass Ben Franklin bridge. You fucking one bridge having piece of shit city that no one gives a fuck about. The terrorists will never bomb you people 'cause you're fucking worthless and no one cares about you. You are this high above New Orleans. No one gives a shit. FEMA would never show up for you fuckin' assholes. I hope your mother has herpes in the center of her asshole and you go home tonight and lick it and get it on your tongue and some other horrific shit happens that involves cancer - all of you.
Eleven minutes left!"
And on it went, Burr and his flamethrower, strafing the crowd with a blistering plume of abuse, pausing only to count off each minute, like counting off the lashes of a psychic horsewhipping. By the end it turned into an endurance test, somewhere between ordeal and entertainment. When it was all over half the crowd gave him a standing ovation and the other half wanted to rip his throat out. Some people weren't even sure what just happened. It would be months if not years before everyone who was there that day realized they had witnessed a watershed moment in the history of comedy. It was the comedy equivalent of watching Hendrix light his guitar on fire--and then beat the audience to death with it.
Burr was back in Philadelphia this weekend, so we took the opportunity to ask him about The Rant, along with a few other things, like being on some show you probably never even heard of called Breaking Bad ( "I was as big a fan of that show as anybody. So me being on that show was like being sucked into my T.V., or if you were a giant Star Wars fan and all of a sudden you got to play a stormtrooper and all of a sudden you're standing next to Darth Vader.") and his appearances on Chappelle's Show (check out his pitch-perfect performance as the smart-ass ginger sportscaster in the World Series of Dice sketch) and how he got into this racket, and how he earned his stripes and worked his way up from the bottom of the comedy food chain in New York, living on nothing but pancakes, spaghetti and dreams.
But mostly we talked about The Rant, because to do otherwise would be journalistically negligent, like interviewing Dylan and not asking him about going electric at Newport. And he was happy to do it, because although it was nothing personal, Philadelphia, he stands by every word. Every fucking word, you cheese-steak-eating-MOVE-house-bombing-Frank-Rizzo-electing-Rocky-statue-having-Santa-Claus-booing motherfuckers!
PHAWKER: Let's just get to the elephant in the middle of the room: The Rant. So, I listened to the whole thing all the way through, took some notes, and I have to say, man, this is probably the most severe verbal beat-down that Philadelphia has received since, well, I think 1921 when W. C. Fields told Vanity Fair Magazine that he wanted the epitaph on his tombstone to be "I'd rather be in Philadelphia."
BILL BURR: Oh. I actually love Philly. The weird thing is, people always ask me, going, "Do you ever go back to Philly? Are you afraid to go back to Philly?" And I just say, you don't understand that those people do that [boo people off the stage] to somebody every other week. They didn't even remember it, like three weeks later. Everybody remembers that incident except for the people in Philly. I've watched personally, just being a sports fan, I watched them boo Ja Rule, Ashanti, Destiny's Child, and Ashlee Simpson. That's just off the top of my head. Just through watching sports, and there's this other comic from Philly, Keith Robinson. Whenever we're watching a sporting event, and for some reason, they try to have a musical act, he'll always call me up and be like, "You watching this? Put it on, put it on." And we'd just start laughing until they get to the end of the song, because you know it's coming. The Destiny's Child one was the best one, because they were out there thinking that they were killing it, and then when the song ended... They sang "Bootylicious." At a fucking Philadelphia 76ers vs Los Angeles Lakers NBA finals game! I still remember this. They came out there. They had on these basketball outfits, but they were sexy. One had on glitter 76ers uniform. The other one had on glitter Los Angeles Lakers uniform. And the other one had on a glitter NBA one. So, they were just basically saying we don't have a dog in this fight. We're just here to promote the NBA. Or maybe it was because one of them had on Lakers jersey. Which, I don't know why. How many managers should have gotten fired that day? So anyway, they sing the whole song, and when they ended it, the whole crowd booed. And they quickly cut to commercial, but it wasn't before Beyoncé's jaw was on the ground. It was hilarious.
PHAWKER: We are known for our booing. It's our thing. We're the city that booed Santa Claus.
BILL BURR: I love it. I think it's hilarious. And I think those music acts have no business performing at halftime during the NFC Championship game, or during the NBA finals. It has nothing to do with the game. They're trying to make more money by drawing in a bunch of viewers who aren't sports fans. I watched the Red Sox in the World Series and then fucking, every other batter, they're going into the crowd, and they're talking to people in the crowd. And it's just like, the fucking World Series is going on right now, and you're showing me the father of the guy who plays shortstop. I don't give a shit what he was like as a kid. I wanna watch the game, and that's the type of shit that they're trying to draw attention to. So, I love when Philly boos people like that, because they're just expressing what I'm feeling anyway.
PHAWKER: I have to say, though, you were kind of asking for it with that Opie and Anthony crowd. That's like coming to Philly with a lion tamer and then being shocked that there's a lot of lions in the room.
BILL BURR: I one hundred percent agree. When a lion attacks you, don't just roll over and be like, "ahh."
PHAWKER: I'm not attacking you for it, I think it was a brilliant moment. I think it was one of the great watershed moments in comedy.
BILL BURR: Look at it this way, everybody on the tour knew or had a feeling that a show like that was coming. We didn't do the math and be like, "Oh of course, it's gonna be Philly." Now of course, it makes total sense, but we did Worcester and I was kinda like "Ehh how is this gonna go?" And then we did some place in Jersey, and it was great. And right as I let my guard down, I go, "Wait a minute, this is gonna be... they're actually gonna come out and listen" and then it was the Camden show, and then the Cleveland show after that and it was just... It started off good, though, but it ended.
PHAWKER: Yeah, and that's also a less-than-optimal venue for stand-up comedy.
BILL BURR: I saw Eddie murphy on the Raw tour. He played a place that big. It's one of those things where if there's a rowdy crowd you're in trouble, because past the fifteenth row you can't see anybody. So, it gives people in the crowd a lot of confidence. Whereas if you're in a comedy club you can see 'em and you can go at 'em and personally attack any physical flaw that they have. You can just really go at 'em. When you're sitting on lawn seats, there's nothing I can fucking do. [laughs]
PHAWKER: For some of the people who haven't bothered to watch the YouTube video, I just want to go through some of the things that were said just to get it on the record: "I hope you all fuckin' die, all of you suck a fucking dick. You're all gonna get cancer, which is great. Fuck all of you. Fuck the Liberty Bell and shove it up Ben Franklin's ass." You referred to the Ben Franklin Bridge as "that faggot-ass-Ben Franklin Bridge, I hope it falls down," and then you ended with, "You guys were here, all of you go fuck yourselves in your own fuckin' assholes." "In your own fuckin' asshole" was really the cherry on the thing.
BILL BURR: I was just trying to feel tough.
PHAWKER: But I loved that in the middle of it, you said "And yes I am gonna be fucking selling my CD out in the lobby afterward and the only way you're gonna get one is if I throw it at your fuckin' head." Did you go out?
BILL BURR: Yes I did.
PHAWKER: The other thing I wanted to ask you about is you have this great line about there being no feminists in burning buildings and sinking ships. Presumably you were riffing on the "There are no atheists in foxholes" line. Is it correct?
BILL BURR: I never heard that. That's a good line.
PHAWKER: Are you being sarcastic?
BILL BURR: No, I'm serious. I never heard that.
PHAWKER: Oh, well that's a pretty famous saying. But I think you should put that -- THERE ARE NO FEMINISTS IN BURNING BUILDINGS AND SINKING SHIPS -- on t-shirts, coffee mugs, and tote bags. You should own it. You should become like the Bobby Riggs of comedy.
BILL BURR: You know, I'm trying to get away from trashing women, to be honest. I think I've done enough of that in my career. They should probably examine what the fuck is wrong with me at this point. I will tell you that Billie Jean King Bobby Riggs match annoys the shit out of me. That it's considered a victory. I would be insulted, as a woman. That she goes out and beats that old man. The guy was like fifty fucking years old, and she was at the top of her game, and everybody's like, "Oh, wow," you know? It would have meant something if she had beat the top male tennis player of her day.
PHAWKER: Right. It wasn't a really an athletic event. It was show business. But it had symbolic importance. Getting back to what you were saying about getting a rep for trashing women. No one thinks you're really serious, right? You don't have women coming up to you and slapping you do you?
BILL BURR: For the most part, people get it that I'm an idiot, but there's always a few who think it's real. take little a comedy show really seriously. And then your jokes stop being jokes and become statements. Fortunately, I don't have a TV show, so it's not a good business move to get offended by me, at this point in my career. I don't know if you've noticed that, but the comedians that seem to offend everybody have movie careers and TV careers, advertisers and shit that they can, you know, put pressure on. But a shithead like me doing stand-up and doing a podcast? What are they gonna do to me? Tell me I can't do stand-up at a strip mall? [laughs] I did a joke like that on tour. My career is usually the punishment. Usually the fall-out.
PHAWKER: On a related note, what is the worst show you've ever performed? Was it the Philly date? Or has there been worse?
BILL BURR: Nah, the Philly date wasn't the worst one. I've had worse gigs where that type of thing was happening and I didn't know how to handle it. I didn't even go down swinging, I lost. So I would say all the loss that taught me how to do what I did in Philadelphia.
PHAWKER: I don't understand the point of heckling. I don't understand why people pay good money to go and ruin a performance.
BILL BURR: I don't understand heckling past a certain point. Like, where you're just gonna keep yelling. If you're just gonna keep yelling, then you're just interrupting the show. But I enjoy heckling. I think it's a really cool aspect of stand-up, that somebody can yell out in the middle of your show and they don't get kicked out. Obviously, past a certain point they do. And for me I guess it's up to the comedian, but for me it's always been like, if you wanna challenge the person on stage, that's part of this art for whatever reason. And then you gotta win. And if you don't win, then there's gonna be more challengers and then you lose. So I always found that that made it even more fun. The challenge of that, and believe me I've lost a bunch of times. And it sucks, and it crushes your fucking ego cause you're standing up there "Look at me, I've got a shiny shirt and a microphone" and you're thinking you're awesome, but someone just destroys you. I think that's good for you. If it's past a certain point where you're just not gonna shut up, and you're just gonna keep yelling and blah blah blah, then it becomes a thing where that doesn't respect the performer, because you're still getting paid. What it really affects is the other people in the crowd that wanted to see the show. And as much as they like watching you tell someone to go fuck themselves, you know, for 20 seconds, they don't want to watch an hour of that. I feel there's a fine line between heckling.... Heckling up to a point is totally acceptable and one of the cool aspects of stand up. But it's past another point if it's just like, alright you're just being an asshole and everybody's wasted their money because now we have to listen to you.
PHAWKER: You said the first few times it happened that you weren't prepared for it, and then presumably you figured it out. What is the secret to dealing with the hecklers? Is it bringing a gun to a knife fight? Just overwhelming force and establishing dominance?
BILL BURR: You just have to win, however you do it. You have to figure out how to win. You have to get the better of them. You have a tremendous advantage. I mean, you have the microphone, and then you also have the advantage of -- you know, that guy can't go on and heckle seven nights a week. But you can do stand-up seven nights a week and deal with other hecklers. You get way more practice, and then eventually you get good at it. But another thing that I love about stand-up is it's one of those things where it's like learning how to ride a motorcycle. The only way to learn how to do it is you have to go out and do it. And that's why I like the way stand-up is. You can practice in your bedroom as much as you want. You have to go out. It's not like guitar where you can just practice guitar and get some licks together and get some songs together and rehearse and do all of that. You just kind of have to go out and do it. The same thing with dealing with heckling is the only way to get good at it is you have to lose. You have to go on stage, and somebody has to get the better of you. And then you gotta go back to your day job and put three fucking days between that last show where you lost, and your next show you'll be walking around, just thinking about that guy that beat you. You just gotta take charge. It's an unbelievable privilege to do the job that I do. So, if people yell once in a while, what are you gonna do? I mean, it comes with the gig.
PHAWKER: What was your last day job?
BILL BURR: Oh... shit, what did I do? I worked at a dental office.
PHAWKER: Doing what?
BILL BURR: Handing shit to the dentist when they would yank out teeth. I did that. I did some sales stuff. I worked in warehousing. I was just trying stuff. You know what I was doing? I was flailing. I was just trying everything because I wasn't good at anything. The only thing I was good at was fucking around, making people laugh. I did a good job, I was always a hard worker. I never got fired or anything. I got laid off one time, but it was their way of firing me. That's just 'cause there was this boss who used to come out to the warehouse. He had this fucking attitude, and everybody would just start acting like they were working even harder. I have always hated people like that, so I was like, "Fuck this guy. I'm not gonna sit here and do this little dance, or act like I'm working harder than I really am. Fuck him, I'm actually gonna work even less. Fuck that guy!" And then the next day they laid me off. [laughs]
PHAWKER: How many years were doing stand up comedy for a living and didn't have to work a day job?
BILL BURR: I think about three and a half, but I've always been really conservative. I was still living at home with my parents. I paid off all of my debt. I didn't buy a new car, I drove this piece of shit truck that died and I just put a new engine in it rather than buying a new one. I had no debt, paid off my student loans, and then I just started banking money for when I went down in New York. So I had this little satchel of money I could live off of while I tried to get more gigs. I did the artist thing, I fucking ate spaghetti five nights out of the week. You'd make the big fucking thing of spaghetti with the Prego, and I would shove, like, ten pieces of bread down my throat and hope that filled me up for the rest of the day. I was big on that and pancakes. Pancakes were another thing that just filled you up for the day. It was like pouring concrete into your stomach. I fucking hate pancakes to this day. If you were on the road you went to the Denny's or the IHOP, and you didn't get the short stack. You got the five pancakes. Everytime I would get three down and when I got to the fourth one, I wanted to puke. I would just shovel it down in there, just to fill up my stomach. I could go all the way from the morning to the gig that night without eating. Hopefully at the gig that night they'd have some sort of bullshit chicken fingers or mozzarella sticks you could just shove down your throat.
PHAWKER: How long were you in New York until you were able to get steady gigs going that you could actually make a go of it?
BILL BURR: I had the advantage of starting off in Boston, Massachusetts. There's a stand-up scene there. And I got to work with these unbelievable Boston comics. That whole Boston style, that rapid-fire just beat-the-shit-out-of-the-crowd style. I really feel like I got a priceless education when I was there. I was also able to get my timing down. When I went down to New York I got 40 minutes of material. I'm not gonna say it was good, but I had 40 minutes of material. I was competing with a lot of New York comics, and when you're a made guy in the city, you only get to tour on weekends. You maybe get to do a 20 minute set. So, I had more than enough material to choose from. I would always headline, so it took me about eight months. It was scary, watching your money going down in your bank account. Every month, you're spending more than you're earning.
PHAWKER: Were you living in Manhattan?
BILL BURR: Yeah, I lived up on East Side in the nineties.
PHAWKER: Can I ask how much money you went to New York with?
BILL BURR: I had about five grand. That's a lot of money, but not in New York City. I was afraid to take a cab. Let's put it this way: my rent was five hundred bucks a month. I had a walk-through bedroom. So I basically went without eating, or doing anything, I went down there with ten month's rent. It took me eight months to get in down there. And just know that I did go on an eight month hunger strike. The fires were dwindling, put it that way.
PHAWKER: When you were a kid, were you drawn to comedy immediately? Or was this something that came on a little bit later when you got older? Who are some of your comedy heroes?
BILL BURR: I always loved comedy. When I was little I used to watch The Three Stooges. I watched The Monkees, who were very underrated as a comedy troupe. They were funny. I was a little kid in the seventies, so I heard Sister Mary Elephant, you know, Cheech and Chong stuff on the radio. As I got older, when I got to junior high, I discovered comedy albums. I remember for Father's Day I would buy my father comedy albums, and he would be all "Oh, yeah...great" and listen to them once. But then I would put them on and listen to them. When I got into the early eighties and into middle school I discovered [Richard Pryor and [George Carlin], Cosby already knew about because of the Fat Albert show, and it just kind of went on from there. I was kind of born at the perfect time. Even though I missed the '80s [stand-up comedy] boom, I got to watch it. I got to watch all of that stand-up comedy without even realizing that I was learning by watching. I watched all of it.
PHAWKER: So when was the 'aha moment' where you were like, "This is what I'm gonna do with my life?"
BILL BURR: I guess when I was watching stand up with a friend of mine who was into stand-up like I was, and he just said one night, "Dude, we're funnier than these guys, you know? One of these days I'm gonna get a shot of Jack Daniels and I'm just gonna go up on stage." Until that moment, show business was a zillion miles away when I started. There wasn't, like, YouTube where you could just put a video up and the whole fucking world could see you. It just seemed like it was a million miles away. It didn't seem possible. I never even entertained the idea, but there was just something about when he said that. It just clicked. All of a sudden something on TV was just right next to me. I was like, "Wait a minute, you mean you can just do that?" I've actually had nightmares thinking about that moment. What if that moment didn't happen? What would I be doing right now? But once he said that, I thought: If he can try it, I can try it. That was it.
PHAWKER: Last question, the standard cliché about stand-up comedians says that they're all sad clowns, they're all compensating for some sort of inner damage, or the only way that they could fit in socially was to be funny, because they were short or ugly, or they weren't a jock. What do you think of that? You don't strike me as that kind of a guy. You're like, a guy's guy.
BILL BURR: I would say that there's truth to that, but there's also a lot of sad clowns that are accountants. I worked in warehousing, there were a lot of sad clowns out there. There's a lot of people that, if you had a rough go of it as a kid, it doesn't always translate into you going into show business or the arts. I think that there's people on Wall Street that are compensating for whatever mountain is in your head when it's usually something you can step right over. That's something that I continue to learn as an adult. A lot of my fears and anxieties are the fears and anxieties of a six-year-old boy. When I finally confront them, they're really small.
WARNING: Very, very, very NSFW