Bill Burr on F is for Family, comedian Bob Marley, and how Star Wars is just “self help in space”

Bill Burr Color 1 - Photo Credit Koury Angelo 2424x1365

I like Bill Burr a lot, and I don’t do a particularly good job concealing it in this interview. Burr will be performing at the Cross Insurance Arena on June 4th [tickets].

We talked about a number of things, including his Netflix animated series F is for Family and the role Maine based comedian Bob Marley played in helping to launch Burr’s career. Also of interest: growing up in the 70s and Burr’s potentially controversial take on Star Wars (“It’s like self help in space with Muppets.”)

He was an absolute pleasure to talk with. Enjoy.

The last time you were here, I saw you at the State Theater and people were pretty drunk and rowdy, so thanks for coming back.

You know, I don’t even mind when they’re drunk. They’re just having a good time. I liked having a couple two, three myself so I don’t mind that.

In Maine last call is at 1 so people tend to get really drunk by 10.

Oh yeah, that’s right. Any time you put that time constraint on it, that’s what happens.

It’s like at a wedding when they have that two hour open bar window and people will get annihilated.

That’s it. You’re basically saying you want to have a drunken brawl at your wedding. That’s basically what you’re saying when you do that.

I just heard an F is for Family reference on Marc Maron’s WTF the other day. Sturgill Simpson said something like the Vic character from your show looks a lot like the guy who introduced him to Guns n’ Roses when he was a kid.

That’s awesome! [laughs]

The focus of the show is growing up in the 70s, and you grew up in Lynnfield, Massachusetts. What was that area like then?

The time period we’re doing in the show is the early 70s and parents back then would just send you outside and… [clanging around] Sorry, dude. I’m actually making scrambled eggs right now. I’m doing 20 of these calls in a row.

Oof. I’m sorry to hear that!

No, no. It’s not your fault. But parents would just let their kids go outside. Same with the family dog, which just lived outside. You were sort of on your own. Big kids would bully younger kids and no one was really there to stop it. Nowadays there’s always a parent hovering around to make sure they’re there to minimize the amount of pain their child goes through. Back then there was none of that. You went outside and you were on your own. Big kids messed with you and you got in trouble. You’d go down to where they were building new houses and hung around. You hung out with the neighborhood dog.

I understand nowadays why kids hang around indoors. There are all the video games and channels. If they had that when I was a kid, I never would have gone outside either. I’d be one of these obese kids.

My father was a generation older than other parents—he was born in ’31—and so he raised me like that and, unsupervised, I ended up lighting a building on fire.

Yeah! I lit the woods on fire. Thank god this guy came down with a trash barrel—he was trying to save his house—but one of my childhood friends lit his own house on fire and he got so scared and went to the fire department the next day and blamed my brother. [laughs]

Did your brother get out of it?

I think they knew he was lying. He couldn’t have been more than 5 or 6 and adults can see through a 6-year-old’s lie.

You said you have 20 of these types of calls today. How do you get through that sort of thing? It seems exhausting.

It comes with the job. What’s more exhausting is when they don’t want to talk with you. I’ve lived through that when there was nothing going on my career so trust me when I say this is way better.

Do you have any connection to Portland outside of performing here?

Unfortunately not because it’s beautiful up there. But I have a lot of great memories of learning to do standup up there. [The comedian] Bob Marley had a bunch of gigs going on up there in the early to mid 90s. He is a major reason I got my first half hour together. He had so many rooms going and he had so much work for comedians. He helped so many comics and it was amazing. He’s one of the greatest comedians / businessmen that I’ve met.

Was there anything in particular about his approach that had not yet been evident to you?

Right out of the gate he was great. He had this confidence and stage presence. That guy’s written 20 different albums. He always had new stuff and was never afraid to try anything out. He was a great guy. It’s hard to quantify the way a guy like that influences you.

So F is for Family got picked up for another season. Congratulations. What are you looking forward to being able to do this season that you weren’t able to do on the 1st?

The great thing about animation is they let you be funny. If it’s live action, everybody gets concerned about the effect it will have on children and all of this sky-is-falling stuff. For some reason if you do the exact same jokes with animated people it’s not as bad. But of course I know the guys at South Park have had a rough time, which I think is stupid because they’ve been doing the best social commentary for 20 years. They’re amazing.

I know this has been talked about a lot, but I am so impressed with the cast of your show. Is that something you had a hand in picking?

There were a few people that were my suggestions. Kevin Farley was a friend of mine and I said they had to get him in, but with the bigger names I didn’t know them. That came from the casting director and Vince Vaughn’s company Wild West, and Mike Price from The Simpsons, who is the co-creator of this show. The only voice we didn’t get was Paul Rudd. I wanted him but he was doing a movie or something like that.

Everyone else, like Sam Rockwell and Laura Dern, Justin Long, Phil Hendrie and Gary Cole were all connections from the people I mentioned. What happens is once you get one big name on it, people will read the script. They don’t want to read a script from some nobody like me. But all of a sudden you have someone attached to it, and people start falling like dominos, thank God. Haley Reinhart does the voice of little me and that was huge. She was a finalist on one of those Simon Cowell shows, but she’s an old soul. She’s the best.

I love the cast. I love Dern and Rockwell in particular because they’re A-Listers, but they’re also weirdos. For every big movie they’re known for, they’re steeped in doing crazy, experimental stuff going all the way back to David Lynch in the 80s.

Laura’s done all kind of stuff, and Sam was in Moon, which is one of my favorite movies.

Ooooh. It’s the best. It’s so good and devastating.

I am not a big sci-fi guy, but if it was always like that… For me, Sci-fi always feels like self help in outer space. When I look at Star Wars, that’s what it looks like to me. It’s like a self help book in outer space with Muppets.

Have you seen Green Room yet?

No, what is it? It sounds like a serial killer movie.

No, it’s a thriller with Patrick Stewart in it, and it’s to thrillers what Moon is to sci-fi. It’s so masterfully made that it makes you forget whatever hangups you have with the genre. You should definitely see it if you get a chance to do so. It’s very clever.

I’d like that. With sci-fi, I like Blade Runner and Alien and Moon. 2001. I like those types, but Star Trek and Star Wars… to me, it’s like pop music versus a real band that’s advancing music. [laughs] And pop music has it’s place but you know what I mean.

I’m sure you won’t get any flack from the Internet for your stances on Star Trek and Star Wars. [laughs]

I just feel like it’s the Miley Cyrus of sci-fi.

In doing these types of interviews, what do you wish people would ask you that they don’t?

I never thought about that. I’m just thrilled people still want to talk to me after 24 years of doing this. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right. There are two questions that always come up — “Were you always funny?” And “So what should people expect?” Like, I can’t really talk about that because it will ruin the surprise, right? But I get it. It’s all good. I’ve never wanted to have a real job and I’ve succeeded at that for a long time.

Well I’ve been among your crowd and the people who show up for you have an idea of what to expect. And between your own shows and work, and the fact that you show up in stuff like Breaking Bad and the Kroll Show, you’re always in proximity to great material. It’s a testament to what you do. Thanks so much for talking. 

Thank you. I wish everyone who interviewed me was as nice as you. Now watch, you’ll probably tear me apart in this article.

Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.