Bill Burr strode out to host Saturday Night Live on the weekend and immediately began polarizing the small audience in the studio and the large audience watching at home. That’s his thing. You want to be mad at somebody for being insensitive? Pick on him, he can take it.
In his debut on SNL he took on the wearing-a-mask controversy.
“I like people who wear masks. It’s good,” he said. “And then if you don’t wear a mask, it doesn’t bug me either. Take out your grandparents, you know? Take out your weak cousin with the asthma, I don’t care! There’s too many people, it’s a dream come true.”
All good and funny as far as much of the audience was concerned. But then the alarm bells were ringing when he began mocking what he called “complaining” white women who “somehow hijacked the woke movement.” Adopting a woman’s voice, he sneered, “'My life is so hard. My SUV and my heated seats. You have no idea what it’s like to be me.”
Here’s the thing about Burr: He opts for that old-fashioned stance of reason over passion. Some comics are enraged by what they call “cancel culture” and deliberately provoke in order to push boundaries and buttons. Burr simply takes the view that, as he sees it, sensitivity issues have gone too far. He’s a 52-year-old white guy, married to a Black woman, he tells jokes and acts for a living, and he’s skeptical about a lot of things.
That SNL appearance brought Burr’s style to a whole new audience. He’s been around for years, though, and he has numerous stand-up specials on Netflix.
Bill Burr: Paper Tiger, taped at the Royal Albert Hall in London, is the most recent and a fascinating example of Burr’s tactics, and it’s especially trenchant because he’s not talking to an American audience in the venue. He gets busy mocking feminism, the #MeToo movement and Michelle Obama.
His approach to #MeToo is, well, arresting. Essentially, he says that not all the #MeToo stories are plausible and he says he feels sorry for women who “like it rough.” He proceeds to ponder this and wonders how rough sex is negotiated. A woman in the audience says, “Ask for her consent.” Burr finds this amusing and has sport with the tangled language necessary to ask specific questions about sex.
The special underlines both the problems with Burr’s take and the innocence he claims to embody. The title “Paper Tiger” refers to him – he’s not scary or offensive, he’s just this confused guy who enjoys expressing skepticism.
Thing is, it’s easy to take Burr’s jokes out of context, string them together and paint a picture of him as a misogynist jerk. This has been done many times, as a search on YouTube indicates. In interviews, Burr has heaped scorn on this practice and on anybody dumb enough to write, or even read, comments on YouTube.
In a recent interview, he said, “Comedy is a pastime. The pastime is making fun of something you’re not supposed to make fun of because that gives you a mental break from all the taxing crap you have to do. Not everything has to be important.”
There are four Burr specials on Netflix and it’s interesting to see his comedy evolve from acrid and indignant to the “not everything needs to be important” stance. In You People Are All the Same from 2012, he comes across as cantankerous and he overexplains. For I’m Sorry You Feel That Way, made in 2014, he’s shouty and made angry by the outrage sparked by such figures as the Duck Dynasty guys. “What did you think these people thought?” he roars. In Walk Your Way Out from 2017, he riffs on the McDonald’s menu, as if that mattered.
There is also the animated series F is for Family on Netflix, which Burr co-created and voices. It’s a bracing, belligerent series that simultaneously mocks and celebrates a permanently angry dad in the mid-1970s. Subtle, it isn’t.
Paper Tiger is where he is now. He’s like someone who shed the straitjacket of insecurity about his role and his humour. He’s not aiming to demolish the current culture of outrage and sensitivity. He sees it for what it is, a movement that sometimes puts passion over reason and his lived experience tells him to be skeptical. He’s nobody’s enemy and he’s no destroyer. He’s just saying that everything is flawed, including him.
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