"I realize I only have access to 2 per cent of the information that I need to actually have an informed opinion,” says Bill Burr, red-hot comic, one-time Breaking Bad actor and grumpy conspiracy theorist. “But that doesn’t stop me from going off on a topic.” On stage and on his rambling, ranting podcasts, the 45-year-old Boston native makes a living going off on subjects that are often sports-related and sometimes in the “women are crazy” vein. His outspokenness is his calling card, one that makes him a favourite on the late-night talk-show circuit, particularly with Conan O’Brien. In advance of a coast-to-coast Canadian tour, the curmudgeonly Burr spoke by phone about the art of being the perfect guest.
You’re one of those comedians who seem to do well on the late-night talk shows, specifically with Conan O’Brien. What do those guest spots mean to you?
They mean the world to me. When I was growing up, part of being a comedian was knowing how to panel, or be a guest. I watched everyone from George Gobel to Robin Williams, and even actors like Burt Reynolds, who had an unbelievable rapport with Johnny Carson. I still have a foot in that old school, where you come on a talk show and do a tight five [minutes] and kill. Or if they bring you over to the couch and you can continue making people laugh. It’s a skill set.
I imagine being a good guest is not a skill you learn at your local Chuckle Hut.
I’m still learning. The first time you do it, it’s a real surreal experience, especially if it’s with someone like Conan O’Brien who’s been on television now for like 20 years. I consider it a tremendous honour to be able to do it. And I’m working on different aspects of my panel game.
Are there hosts that are easier to work with than others?
I’ve only done panel on Conan and Jimmy Fallon. Both of them are really good listeners and they both have great instincts to know when to let you go and when to help you out. They know how to lead. And when you’re killing, they genuinely enjoy that you’re doing well. They give it up – they laugh.
It’s odd that when it comes to hosting a talk show, the art of conversation is often not what people focus on. Instead, it’s the monologues or the level of guests they’re booking.
For a while, there was the anti-interview interviewer, where the person just asks dumb questions and they actually try to make the guests look stupid. Jimmy Fallon and Conan O’Brien are throwbacks. To be honest with you, the reason I do so well on Conan is because of Conan.
I said being a guest isn’t a skill you learn, but I think I had that wrong. There’s improv involved, and it’s also about working with a partner for a night, right?
It’s a vibe thing. It’s a push-pull feeling. You’re in front of a live crowd and the two of you are holding that bomb in your hands, trying to make sure it doesn’t go off. It’s fascinating, and I take it very seriously.
What about guys who take it to another level, like Bill Murray or Steve Martin or Martin Short? I heard a story about Steve Martin bouncing ideas off another comedian about a talk-show guest spot he was working on in advance, and his appearance was months away.
Everybody does something different. I’m more of the guy who sits down to talk. But those comedians you mention, just through their natural ability to be funny, could coast through it. The fact that they take it so seriously, that’s how a professional behaves. You should respect that spot. They put you on that show and they kind of hand it over to you. Your job is to take the ball and go over the goal line and score. You don’t want to let them down.
Bill Burr tours Canada to March 19. For full schedule: billburr.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited.