A little shy of two weeks before an unprecedented 19-show run at the Wilbur Theatre, Bill Burr is feeling nostalgic. He has been playing the big rooms for a while now — when he performs in Boston, he’s a regular at the 1,200-seat theater. But the Canton native remembers much smaller rooms, and much leaner times, a short walk away.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about how I started my whole career right across the street at Nick’s Comedy Stop,” he says, speaking by phone on his way to a gig in Jackson, Miss. “It’s making me think about driving my beat-up truck in for no money for all those years, driving in there and meeting Patrice [O’Neal] and Dane [Cook] and Robert Kelly all those years ago.”
Burr, 46, talks like a comic who’s still struggling to reach the top. He’s glad he’s still doing stand-up after all these years, he says, and that people still care to come out and see him. Do they ever. Seventeen of those 19 shows, which begin Saturday, were sold out at press time. (The next-longest run of shows at the Wilbur belonged to Aziz Ansari, who did 10.) What does that mean to Burr? “That I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he says, laughing. “I’m still trying to get better at it. Just hoping I give people their money’s worth, you know?”
With sold-out theaters, critically acclaimed stand-up specials, a supporting role on “Breaking Bad,” a popular podcast, and a new TV series slated to debut on Netflix in December all on his resumé, Burr is in a place most comics would envy. Suggest that he has reached the highest rung for a comedian, and he is genuinely perplexed. “As far as what?” he says.
The accolades and career milestones are nice, but Burr is still building on an already formidable arsenal of comedic skills. “I focus on the artistic side of it,” he says. “And with each hour that I do, there’s a new skill that I’m working on that I’m trying to add to what it is that I did previously. Once I learned how to write a joke, then it was, like, acting them out, and then there was a little bit learning how to do one-way conversations. There’s always been little things you can add that just makes you a little bit better.”
It’s been that way since he started. Boston comedy veteran Tony V remembers seeing a passion in Burr early on, when the youngster would pick his brain after shows. “He always had questions,” he says. “Every gig. It was never just a casual or easy meeting, it was always questions. In a nice way, but he was trying to figure it out for himself. Where are the open mikes? Where should I go? What should I be trying to do?”
Burr traces his work ethic to Canton, where he grew up in a big German-Irish family. He learned by example from his parents and community. “People just worked,” he says. “They got up and they worked. They worked hard. And that’s kind of just what I was around, so I’m trying to think of anybody that I really saw when I was growing up who just was sitting around doing nothing. [Laughs.] There wasn’t a lot of that.”
There’s a hint of who Burr is onstage in the titles of his specials, like “You People Are All the Same” and “I’m Sorry You Feel That Way.” He comes from a long tradition of brazen, spleen-venting Boston comedians. In the “I’m Sorry” special, he jokes about harboring murderous thoughts. “I think I could do it,” he says. “Like when someone gets on a plane and they kick off their loafers.”
Dick Doherty, who runs the Comedy Den at Howl at the Moon, remembers seeing Burr at his first open mike in the early ’90s, and many times later at the now-defunct Dick’s Beantown Comedy Vault. Burr often made it a point to visit the Vault and Giggles in Saugus when he was in town performing in bigger rooms. Doherty describes Burr’s stage persona as cocky. “Because that’s not arrogant,” he says. “Cocky is just a little aware, I have a right to do this and I’ll do it. He believes in himself.”
Tony V does Doherty one better and calls Burr “one of the most fearless performers” he’s ever seen. “You put your own stamp on it,” he says, “but it’s that rapid-fire, stream of consciousness, this is what I think, you either like it or not. Which I find to be very identifiable as Boston.”
It’s not unusual for Burr to take on hot-button issues like race, gender, or climate change. He’d solve global warming by getting rid of the “useless, mediocre” people who make up most of the population. He’d start with a written test — if you didn’t bring a pencil, you’re already out. He’s amazed at the shock over racist comments by former LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty,” and celebrity chef Paula Deen. “They’re [expletive] old,” he says, exasperated. “What did you think they thought?”
There is more to Burr than bluster and bravado. On his “Monday Morning Podcast,” you might hear him criticize the Seattle Seahawks, bankers, even his own sponsors. Almost as often, you’ll hear him smack down a dumb idea of his own with equal ferocity.
“It’s because I know I’m an idiot,” he says, with a laugh from the gut. “Part of getting older is, you have to realize you don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t know what I’m talking about. Nobody really knows what they’re talking about.”
His attitude changed after he hit a low point in his 30s, coming off a failed relationship and asking himself why he was so angry. He began to work on himself, and by extension, his act. Now married and living in Los Angeles, Burr is in a better place. “I started to realize, in life, that I was creating most of my own problems,” he says. “I just started to understand that other people were kind of doing the same thing.”
‘Once I learned how to write a joke, then it was, like, acting them out, and then there was a little bit learning how to do one-way conversations. There’s always been little things you can add that just makes you a little bit better.’Bill Burr, on how he builds on his comedic skills
It’s that sense of empathy that has allowed his humor to translate all over the country and the world. In the past year, he has toured the South, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Mumbai, entertaining audiences and listening to people’s stories. In India, “I saw a lot of things over there, good and bad, that will always stay with me, in a good way,” he says. “Lets me know how similar we are, lets me know how lucky I am. I had a great time when I was in India and I’m definitely going to go back.”
The guy audiences see onstage is very much a part of the real Bill Burr, but it’s not who he is in his everyday life. “If I was like that 24/7, I would have no friends. I would be exhausting.”
Fans might be surprised if they could see him backstage. “I just get real quiet before my shows,” he says. “I just like sitting in the back in the dressing room just drinking some tea, because I like to get real loud sometimes up there.” It’s the same after a show. He’ll hang out and talk with old buddies, but he’d rather go to a mostly empty bar and decompress.
As much as Burr is hitting right now, he has had a miss or two. “Pariah,” a pilot for FX in which Burr was to play a disgraced TV personality, seemed like a perfect fit. It didn’t get picked up by the network, proof to Burr that he has to keep working.
“See that?” he says. “And everybody was going, ‘Oh my God, that [expletive] pilot is hilarious,’ yadda yadda yadda yadda. And then boom, takes your legs out. It was good that I had two [TV projects] going. I got one of them over the wall.”
The one that did get picked up is the animated “F Is for Family,” which Burr created with “Simpsons” writer and producer Michael Price. The six-episode series centers on a family in 1974. It’s set to debut on Netflix in December, and stars Burr, Laura Dern, Mo Collins, Sam Rockwell, Justin Long, Gary Cole, David Koechner, Kevin Farley, and Hayley Reinhart. Burr had tried to write similar stories before and was told they were too dark. Netflix was a different experience. “They were telling us ‘Push it, push it further,’ ” says Burr.
He’s happy for the TV and film work he’s gotten, but his focus is squarely on stand-up. That’s where his career is, and that’s where his money comes from. It’s also where he has the most control. “I can’t get fired as a comedian,” he says. “I guess a venue could be like, ‘We don’t want to have you back,’ but I’m still a comic.”
When he comes to Boston, the job continues. He’ll be working on material for a new special somewhere down the road, and trying to pick up a new skill or two. “The great thing about art is it’s endless,” Burr says. “There’s always something you could be working on to get better, to hone more. I think that that’s what I’m going to be working on that entire time.”
At the Wilbur Theatre,
Tickets: $40866-448-7849, www.thewilbur.comNick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.