Interview: Bill Burr is not even thinking about playing TD Garden this Friday

Photo Credit: Joseph Llane

It’s been a minute since Bill Burr was signing up for open mics and playing to rooms of less than 20 people in restaurant cellars and other small clubs around the Boston area. But now, the Canton native has banked 26 years of experience, six hour-long specials, and a hit TV show as he ventures back home to tackle the biggest room in Boston.

This Friday night (October 5), Burr will bring his newest hour of material to TD Garden in front of a near sell-out crowd (get those remaining tickets now). And while the feat certainly doesn’t escape him, he’s really trying hard not to think about it. Vanyaland caught up with him ahead of the show to discuss the pressure of a huge hometown show, how the Garden is sacred comedy ground, the upcoming season of F is for Family, and how David Letterman inadvertently helped him get ready for his big night on Causeway Street.

Jason Greenough: So, TD Garden on October 5. It’s a huge show for you! What are your thoughts on being able to do a show in the biggest venue in your home city?

Bill Burr: To be honest, I haven’t even thought about it. That’s how I deal with it. Because if I actually thought about it, and thought about the magnitude of it, maybe it would mess with me. Ya know, my job is all about being relaxed. So, if I get something like this show, and actually think about it, and start thinking about how I started 26 years ago at Nick’s Comedy Stop, the Comedy Vault, Giggles and all the other places along the way, I’m sure it will hit me.

I’m doing something fun, though, like I do whenever I get the chance to play an arena. I play the drums, so I get together with some friends and we play some cover tunes to the empty arena before the show, and it always turns it into a clubhouse sort of vibe to make it less intimidating and more crazy.

So, you haven’t really thought about it since it came to be, but was there a different feeling when you initially heard that you’d be doing this show?

Like, I know it’s there, but I’m not gonna sit here and dwell on it and curl up in the fetal position wondering how I got there and if I deserve it and all that shit. That’s just gonna make for a bad show. My initial feeling was fear, and the thought was ‘what if no one shows up and we have to cancel and go to a smaller venue?’

Well, the good news is that it’s almost sold out, if not already sold out.

I don’t think I’d be talking to you if it was completely sold out, so we probably have a few more to go here.

Hopefully we can help you sell those last few tickets, then.

I’m counting on you, man. And if doesn’t sell out, you’re gonna hear from me [laughs].

So, maybe this is a dumb question, then, but does the fact that it’s a hometown show carry any extra weight or pressure for you?

Dude, this whole job of being a comedian is learning about how to handle stuff like this. I can tell you right now, there was nothing scarier to me than doing the David Letterman show. All you wanted to do was make that guy laugh, and you could hear whether he was laughing or not. You’re that close to his desk. And I got through that; this show at the Garden is going to be nothing but fun, and I will be really sad when it’s over, and I will enjoy every single second of it. When I used to do Letterman, it was all about getting that first laugh and then I would be on the other side of it and be psyched that I did it, and that I had a good time, and that he enjoyed it. But everything leading up to that was tweaking things and questioning stuff, and anxiety, and re-questioning everything I was doing at the time. But with the Garden, I don’t have that. When I get to the Garden, I’m gonna fucking go off and just have a good time.

Going back to when you mentioned playing Nick’s Comedy Stop, do you remember the smallest gig you played when you were coming up in the Boston clubs?

Oh yeah, I remember playing Spaghetti Freddy’s on Route 1, when I headlined in front of, like 18 people, and one whole table was my friends. I actually had a good set, but it was weird to look out and just see people I knew sitting, like, five feet away from me. I had shit thrown at me, and I have all the same stories every other comedian has. Nobody goes through this without those stories. All the shit that happened to me is the reason why most people would never be dumb enough to do this job. I wouldn’t be here without a lot of help and luck, so I wanna make sure I thank Mike Clarke, Dick Doherty, and even Bill Downs, who probably still owes me money [laughs].

What would “About-to-play-the-Garden Bill” say to “Spaghetti-Freddy’s-on-Route-1” Bill?

I’d go back even farther than that to “Open Mic” Bill. I don’t want to sound arrogant here, but I headlined at Spaghetti Freddy’s, and I drew about 30 people in the basement of that place. What would I say to “open mic” Bill? I don’t think it would have anything to do with comedy. It would have to do with my personal life. I guess I’d say “Don’t be afraid to settle down and have a kid, because it’s awesome. It won’t affect your career except in a positive way.”

Are there any sort of plans to turn this big Garden show into a recorded special?

Nah. That’s Dane [Cook’s] room. Dane did that there when he did Vicious Circle, and I just feel like that’s his place. I wouldn’t do that to him.

Shifting gears a little bit to F is for Family. How’s production on Season 3 coming along?

We’re done. Now we just wait for it to come out. It should be out late November, early December. And if people enjoy it enough, we get to do it again. Only if enough people binge watch and devour something that took us over a year to create in roughly three hours, then they let us do it again [laughs].

Did you expect this show to become so popular?

I have no idea how popular it is, because we don’t get any ratings from streaming services. When it shows the top shows, it seems to be in there, but I don’t know how it’s doing. It’s not like the old days, where the ratings came out, but it doesn’t work that way anymore there, sonny boy, so I have no idea what’s what. I just sit here and wait, and if Netflix calls and goes “You can do it again,” then I go “Alright, I guess that means we did good!”

I guess that’s the best you can hope for then, huh?

Nah, ratings would still be nice!

In an age where comedians are really starting to take off in their own TV shows and films and such, what do you think separates F is for Family from the rest? What do you think attracts people to the show?

I haven’t watched any of those other shows, so I won’t shit on those, but what I think makes us good is that there’s a through line of reality on the show that I do. Even where there’s a lot of over-the-top stuff, things go down the way things went down, as far as I can remember. There’s definitely big, over-the-top moments, but as far as the interaction, specifically within the Murphy family, with the stresses of raising kids and losing jobs, and all that type of stuff, I try to make sure we keep writing towards something reality-based.

You also have the Monday Morning Podcast, which is another medium you seem to have mastered to a degree. If you had to choose —

I’d choose stand-up, definitely.

Beside the obvious reasons, what would be the reason for that choice?

It would be for all the obvious reasons. It was what I always wanted to do, and everything I’ve done since starting to do it has been gravy. Like, there was no such thing as podcasting when I started stand-up.

Podcasting is basically an unprofessional radio show that’s on the internet. You know how like on YouTube, anybody can just have a channel and start making videos and become a star? Back in the day, you had to get a talent agent and all that to get you on TV and movies, but now you can just throw a video up online and hope that someone responds and your dream comes true. Podcasting is the radio version of that. Watch something like Howard Stern’s Private Parts, and you see all the crap he went through, or look at Opie and Anthony who were Long Island guys who had to move to places like Buffalo and Rochester in order to climb the ladder to do the show they wanted to do. With podcasting, it’s a weird thing, because you can still work your way up that ladder, but you don’t have to move [laughs].

You don’t have to talk about things you don’t want to talk about, you don’t have to play music you don’t like. You don’t have to pay your dues. That’s sort of what the internet is. It’s giving people a chance to chase a dream without having to pay any dues. I guess paying your dues in podcasting would be the disappointment when you see the numbers, and nobody is listening, but it’s just weird.

Riffing off of what you said about the internet and what it’s done, in terms of podcasting and such — do you think that the internet has been helpful in the stand-up realm for comics?

Absolutely, yes. I mean, there’s no way I would be where I’m at right now if it wasn’t for the internet, and of course, Netflix. I wouldn’t be selling the amount of tickets I’m selling in the amount of countries I’m selling them in if it weren’t for Netflix, and HBO, and the Opie and Anthony show, all those things. They’re all pieces to the puzzle, but the amount of power that a comedian has now is crazy. You can be posting something every day like I see guys on Instagram doing. If they’re good at it, all of a sudden, they’re headlining clubs. There’s just a power to it that did not exist when I was coming up, when you would think you were ready to go and do a set on a talk show, or a half-hour or hour-long special.

You could think that all you wanted, but unless the people who were booking picked you, it wasn’t going to happen. Where now, you’re the booker and you decide. Now that can screw you, because you put your shit out there before it’s ready, but generally speaking, it’s really helpful for people who want to do comedy. I think for older guys like myself, we like to criticize it, but when I see someone like Bo Burnham, he came out of the gate selling out clubs, but he had to deal with an unbelievable amount of pressure. He got through it, and now he’s this hot new director. How long would that have taken him if the internet hadn’t been there, or he didn’t understand how to utilize it? Overall, I think it’s a great thing because there were people back in the day who got specials that sucked, but there’s always flaws in every system, but I like this one better.

BILL BURR :: Friday, October 5 at TD Garden, 100 Legends Way in Boston, MA :: 8 p.m., $39 and $69 :: Advance tickets :: Featured image by Joseph Llanes