Bill Burr: "If you're going to fail, fail doing what you want."
15 life, business, and creativity lessons from legendary comedian Bill Burr.
Bill Burr is one of best comedians out there so I love devouring interviews with him. Below, some comedy (and life) wisdom from Burr taken from various podcasts and interviews.
1. Get good at bombing.
I knew I was going to bomb. It’s inevitable. It’s like if you fight. If you fight long enough, somebody’s going to come along a little faster and you’re going to get caught. It’s going to happen. And then it’s just something you have to get good at. You have to get good at bombing. And I had enough experience of doing it, that eventually you get good at it and then it doesn’t hurt you anymore…There’s something hilarious about it. I remember one time just being on stage and I was bombing and I just pictured all my friends watching me laughing at me in the back. And then that got me to laugh at myself. And then I just started thinking, how much can I get these people to hate me? And I just left my act and I just started trying to annoy them. And I didn’t get them back. They still hated me. But I had such a good time that I was like, “Wow, what was that?” That was this new area of standup that I didn’t know existed.
2. If you’re going to fail, go down doing what you want.
[I was] failing trying to do what that I thought [the industry] wanted, whatever they were responding to. And then that just morphed into, well, if I’m going to fail, I’ll fail doing what I want to do in this business. And then that led to me starting to succeed. And once I started succeed doing what I wanted to do, my view of the business changed. Where I then looked at it rather than like, it’s this thing I’m running towards. It was like, no, I’m in it. So I just look at the business like it’s a giant mall and I have a little store. A little kiosk. And I’d have what I do. This is what I do. You come in, right? This is what I do. Okay? If you want to buy something, great. If you don’t, you keep going, but this is what I do. And rather than I used to view it like, oh, they’re selling shirts? I should sell shirts and I’ve got to sell candles and I’ve got to do nails and have this one-stop Walmart thing. And it’s just like, that just didn’t work for me.
3. Working clean can keep you from being real.
You can definitely use curse words to sort of steroid up your stuff. But I’ve also found when people say they want somebody to work clean, it doesn’t just mean don’t say any bad words. It also means don’t have any opinions that will make people uncomfortable because I could easily work totally clean and there’s groups of people that you could completely piss off and wouldn’t want to pay you just by your opinions on things. So I just felt like it was a limited thing and I’ve always liked the rawness with everything, with music, with film, with comedy of just going off more the realness of that, rather than this totally polished thing.
4. The you onstage should be the you in the green room.
The amount of times I’ve heard comedians say something so funny in the green room and be like, “Dude, you got to do it on stage, you got to do it on stage.” You’re like, “No man, that’s not me. That’s not me.” It’s like, “It is you. You just fucking said it. Whatever you’re doing up there, that’s not you. That’s you on stage.” And that’s what happens with comedy is like, there’s this big mystery thing about you got to “find your voice” and is this who I am? Is that who I am? And I have this theory that you walk in with it as an open mic. And then you go on stage and the weirdness of looking at people and talking, “This is me on stage. Oh, I’m holding a microphone,” and just becomes weird.
It becomes weird. And then you spend, I don’t know, eight, 10, 12, 15 years trying to get back to who you were when you walked in, who was this guy who was making people laugh in the bars, because you just walked into a bar and something happened and then you just riffing on it. But you were comfortable.
Then you go on stage and it’s just like, “Oh, shit everybody’s looking at me and I have to handle all of this. What am I doing with my hand? How do I get this out of the stand?” And it just becomes this whole just looking at yourself and then who you are goes right out the fucking window.
5. If you don’t get too far into “the business,” you gain freedom.
I’m self-employed. You can’t get too into this business. If you get too into this business, then you’re fucked. And then you become that guy…I’ll never stop doing standup and I have my podcast. And I don’t live a lifestyle beyond those. So no matter whatever happens, whatever fucking slap on the wrist I’m ever going to get from social media, I’m still going to be fine. It’s when you just go into this business and if you’re just an actor on a show or you just host something or whatever it is that all of a sudden, if you just did this, you didn’t have your podcast or any other way to make money, if all of a sudden there’s some bullshit rumblings, if the people above you go, “You have to go out there and apologize.”
6. Write onstage like you’re talking to friends at a bar.
I used to write it all out and then I don’t write it now. I just treat it like how I used to if something funny had happened at work, if I was going to go tell my friends, I wouldn’t write it all out, memorize it, rehearse it in front of a mirror. I would just go up and I would just tell them the story. And I would act out all the characters and all that the way I did. But what happens is when you go on stage is you can bomb, you can have a bad show. There’s all that self-conscious stuff. So I guess the process was trying to become as comfortable as I was in a bar, shooting the shit with my friends, being that comfortable on stage. And that took a while.
7. Combat writer’s block by reading something you’d never read.
If something happens, usually I’ll just make a mental note, but sometimes I’ll just write down a word. I’ll just write down like “iPad” or whatever. “Boots” or something. But if I’m in a writer’s block, which is a big thing for a comic, how to get out of it, I’ll be at an airport and I’ll grab a magazine that I would never read. I’ll grab like Cosmo, I’m just going to get a different point of view because your brain can get bored. And when it gets bored, it goes into autopilot and then you just stop seeing shit.
8. When creating new material, don’t worry about being hack.
Also, when I’m building a new hour, I [forget] all rules of hack, like this is hacky material. I’ll do an O.J. joke. I don’t give a shit. I’m just going on stage, just anything just to be saying something new, something different. And that’ll eventually lead into something that’s worthy of keeping.
9. You shouldn’t have to write it down.
What “write onstage” really means is you just go up and just wing it…If you saw a car accident, you’d come home and just tell the person you’re with. You wouldn’t have to write it all down...Most [comedians] do it that way, but some people want to do a little bit of that and a little bit of writing. But I would say is you got to find what works for you. Just be open to all of it. And then as you through trial and error, just sort of streamline it into your so-called process.
10. When someone in the crowd hates your act, have fun with it.
When you’re killing everybody and there was just that one person that’s just sitting there and they’re not laughing and they’re not laughing. That bugs a comic. You couldn’t fucking get that one person? It would ruin their night. I started realizing how stupid that was. I was like was a president and this was my approval rating, I would be fucking killing it. So I finally decided I’m going to have fun with this person.
So what I would start to overcommit to my jokes, act even sillier. And I would send all of them right out over their head. And the best thing would be if they were close in the front row, I would be standing right up on them. And my favorite thing to do would be make some sweeping gesture over their head. I would literally be like, “And my dad says to me,” and I’m just totally just living my dream right in their face, right over them. And it would just drive them up the fucking wall. And then I would keep throwing in lines like, “Oh, you guys are great. I am having such a great time up here.”
11. Entertain a small crowd with big crowd energy.
I realized I have the power to decide. I can let this guy ruin my night or let this woman ruin my night or I can have fun with this. It’s the same thing. Like if you ever do the late show and only eight people showed up, I made the mistake of coming out with eight people energy and it sucked. And then one night I was just like, you know what? Fuck this. I’m going to go out and just try to kill these eight people enough that they bring eight more. And then I went out with this positive thing and then that so got ingrained into my work ethic.
Like the other day I had a buddy of mine who is on his way up going, “Oh, dude,” he goes, “The old club owner just told me that we only got 34 people on the late show tonight.” And I literally felt like this jolt going through me, just be like, “Fucking destroy them, fucking destroy them and make them bring 34 more.” Because if you’re not the guy, which I wasn’t, I was never the whatever the fuck they were looking for, that’s the only way to do it. You’ve just got to hack your way through.
All the above excerpts are from Tim Ferriss’ excellent podcast interview with Burr.
12. Don’t provoke just for the sake of provoking, say what you think. (source)
My thing is I go out and I say what I think. And then I realize other people don’t think that and then I’m in a situation. And then I figure my way out of it. But I don’t walk out there and think, “I’m gonna say this and they’re not gonna like it.” I’m going out there to kill, to entertain them, to do my fucking job so they’ll keep giving me spots. I’m really big on not trying to analyze yourself as far as being a comedian. I don’t want to think anything, I just want to go out there and talk about what I feel like talking about the exact way that I want to talk about it.
13. Handle hecklers by describing your reality. (source)
I would just say when you’re getting heckled, just really go with what you’re thinking, because even if it isn’t funny, it’s going to be something hateful. If you just really tapped into how sad that person was making you, you could turn it into something. There’s no formula for it. I would just go with what the hell you’re thinking.
14. Don’t get trapped in your act. (source)
I don't write. I just do it onstage. I riff…Like you're just gonna go meet your friends in the bar and you're gonna shoot the sh*t with 'em. You don't want to be trapped in your act…When I don't feel funny and trapped in my act, whatever joke I was doing, I would just improv in it. Maybe I would act something out even bigger and dumber. Even if it bombed, it was a bucket of water. All of a sudden, I would be in Tempe. I wouldn’t be standing onstage going, “Where the hell am I right now?”
15. The biggest risk is playing it safe. (source)
Your big fear should be what everybody’s big fear is. Like “What if I fucking go after this dream, and I’m 30, and I’m sleeping on a fucking futon, and it hasn’t happened yet?” Well I’ve got to tell you something, Sir — I’ve been there. I was there at fucking 34, I was still sleeping on a futon in a fucking studio apartment that they called a “one-bedroom” ‘cos they slammed a fucking wall in there and put a door on it.
…All you’ve got to do, you’ve just got to commit to this shit, and then realize that, you know, sleeping on a futon when you’re 30 is not the worst thing. It isn’t. You know what’s worse than sleeping on a futon at 30? Sleeping in a king bed next to a fucking woman you’re not really in love with but for some reason married. And you’ve got a couple of kids and you’ve got a job that you fucking hate. Ok? You’ll be laying there fantasizing about fucking sleeping on a futon.
There’s no risk when you go after a dream. It’s all fucking reward. It’s all going to lead to something good. It always does. There’s a tremendous amount of risk to playing it safe, and that leads to unbelievable levels of regret — which is something else I’ve also experienced, because I’m an old motherfucker.
More from Burr coming soon to Funny How.
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😈 My new special "Substance," where I perform high/drunk/on shrooms/sober, is getting raves:
“A fantastic experiment in chemistry and comedy.” • “Thought-provoking, inspiring, and so damn good.” • “Fucking fantastic special.” • “A beautiful experience.” • “Absolutely delightful.” • “A chemistry experiment gone right.” • “Profound, courageous, insane, and, most of all, funny.” • “10/10 would recommend.” • “Great idea/execution.” • “A truly unique, funny stand-up special.” • “What a cool experiment.” • “Amazing!”
Watch it here:
😈 Lately at Funny How: Letters to a Young Comedian: 1) How to avoid writer’s block and 2) the best way to come up with joke ideas.
😈 Got some great comics on the lineup for the 1/26 Substance release show in NYC...
(NYC) THU JAN 26 - 10:15pm
NY Comedy Club (4th St.)
Half-off tickets with code “ludlow”
My other upcoming shows:
1/24 - Comedy Cellar (Hot Soup) 10:30pm
1/25 - NY Comedy Club 4th St (Good Eggs) 8pm
1/29 - NY Comedy Club 24th St 9:30pm
1/31 - Comedy Cellar (Hot Soup) 10:30pm
2/1 - NY Comedy Club 4th St (Good Eggs) 8pm
2/2 - Wootenany (Worcester, MA) 8pm
Nice writeup for that Wootenany show in Worcester here.
The partnership between series and venue is set to continue this February and March, with a series of up-and-coming New York comics taking the stage at Ralph's. WOOtenanny’s slate of events for the winter includes Matt Ruby on Feb. 2…"What we're trying to do is bring comics in that normally, people might not know about yet, they're just starting to become big," O'Donnell said. "They're well-known in New York, but they aren't necessarily national names, and people in Worcester might sort of recognize them, but in five years, comedy fans will be saying, 'I was at that show. I saw them right before they blew up.'"
😈 I frequently post clips of my standup at Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. Get some.
🎯 Manifesting is capitalism's version of praying.
🎯 Can’t wait for some tech bro to use ChatGPT to write his wedding vows.
🎯 "Are you scared of GPTchat?" Nah, it just means more boring robot crap will fill everyone's inboxes/feeds and things that are clearly written by an actual human will become that much more desirable.
🎯 Even the M&M spokescandies? Man, EVERYBODY getting laid off.
🎯 Oddly, life was way more satisfying when I never had to “rate my experience.”
🎯 Prediction: Chris Rock's live Netflix special will feature an appearance from Will Smith.
🎯 Antidepressants are lube for your happy thoughts. And the phone is just Prozac for social situations. It makes it so nothing is that fun, but nothing is that bad; you merely exist in a constant state of compression.
🎯 Going on safari is just being an animal peeping tom.
🎯 Social media is destroying empathy. Proof: We now refer to empathy as bothsidesism and slam anyone who practices it.
🎯 My whole mission in life now is to gain validation from the algorithm. It's my new parents.
🎯 Alt weeklies like The Village Voice and Chicago Reader had an outsize impact on how I thought about art, music, and culture when I was young. Now, they're gone and we've left the minds of our youth in the hands of the algorithm.
🎯 "Truth Social" is an odd name because the truth is inherently anti-social. Try going around being a truth teller; you'll quickly realize it is NOT the path to popularity.
🎯 There should be a corporate mission statement that admits, "Honestly, what we do isn't all that important. We're just tryna make a buck. Y'know, capitalism, etc."
Ep2 of my new podcast KIND OF A LOT WITH MATT RUBY is out: RIP "Always leave ‘em wanting more."
You get an essay, a convo about it, and some quick jokes. Each episode is kind of *not* a lot. You'll be in/out in under 15mins. How refreshing.
🗯 Richard Feynman, physicist and Nobel prize winner, on how he solves problems:
My approach to problem-solving is to carry around a dozen interesting problems, and a dozen interesting solutions to unrelated problems, and eventually, I’ll be able to make connections. […]. Every time you hear a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, ‘How did he do it? He must be a genius!’
🗯 Nick Cave on choosing to be an optimist:
🗯 Is IQ really that important?
I’m skeptical of claims that IQ is so important in the modern economy. Those claims tend to be written by people who conflate education with income; people who are highly educated and make their living on laptops. IQ isn’t a particularly strong predictor of income, but it is a strong predictor of socioeconomic status, which is different from income. Journalists and academics are high SES, despite earning less than beverage distributors. Most adults didn’t go to college and most millionaires didn’t attend an elite university.
🗯 How to write an About page: Remember that an About page isn’t *really* about you.
One thing that people often get wrong when it comes to writing About pages is that they get all wrapped up in talking about themselves...and they forget to think about the reader and why he or she is on the About page in the first place.
A reader comes to an About page not just because they want to learn more about a person or brand, but also because they’re looking for things to connect with. That might be shared interests, values, geographic location…you name it. It’s all part of what Seth Godin calls ‘People like us do things like this.’
🗯 Why time is your muse and masterpiece thinking is dangerous. [via JS]
The sheer volume of this collage is less impressive than the practice Beeple maintained to create it. Each of these works was created in a single day. In many cases it was done in a 2-hour session. Behind this collage was a religious habit that started almost 14 years ago.
Beeple hasn't missed a day.
Publishing a daily work of art become the non-negotiable habit that he oriented his life around. It kills the idea of the "muse." The force behind creation is often painted as a mythical beast that only shows up when they please, kind of like that last person you met on Tinder. Instead, we can frame our muse around the persistent cycles of time:
Time is your muse.
Thanks for reading.