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Bill Burr ’93 clowns with student crowd

Comedian Bill Burr ’93 packed the house during a free evening of comedy and discussion at Emerson College Los Angeles (ELA) on March 3. Students, alumni, and the public were treated to an evening of Burr riffing on topics like making it in stand-up, dealing with success, and the drama in comedy.

Before he even entered the room, Burr was already telling jokes, teasing ELA Founding Director Kevin Bright ’76 about his salesmanship of the building’s resources.

“Are you done with all the business [expletive]?” Burr asked Bright, who interviewed the comedian for most of the evening.

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Emerson LA Founding Director Kevin Bright '76 hosts a discussion event with comedian and actor Bill Burr '93 on March 3. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

Burr told the audience that his love of comedy developed while growing up—watching sitcoms like Sanford and Son and reciting entire routines by comedians like Eddie Murphy while riding his bike during paper routes. His first gig was at Nick’s Comedy Stop in Boston, which was holding a contest to find the funniest college comedian. A total scam to get drunk people in the door, he called it. He had to work up the courage to get on stage.

“I was really introverted. I was such a loser,” said Burr, who described himself as shut down when he started attending Emerson College.

To overcome his shyness, Burr made a resolution in 1992 to sign up for classes in which he had to stand up and speak in front of people. By his senior year at Emerson, he was doing open mics. He bombed badly during his third show, but quitting was never an option.

“When I had that humiliation, I never thought the dream was gone,” said Burr, who found solace in listening to other comedians share stories about how they, too, bombed on stage. 

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The audience was at capacity for Bill Burr's appearance on March 3 at Emerson Los Angeles. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

More than 20 years later, Burr has starred in four hour-long stand-up specials and does more than 200 shows a year. He has acted in the films Date Night and The Heat as well as the AMC show Breaking Bad. Burr said that he is especially proud of his time on Breaking Bad because many people think comedians can’t act or do drama.

“I just love this idea that we’re walking around laughing all day,” said Burr. “If you listen to a comedian’s act, so much of it is drama.”

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Bill Burr '93 visited Emerson Los Angeles on March 3. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

Plans to create a TV show based on Burr’s comedy stalled in the 2000s. Executives told Burr his comedy is too mean, too misogynistic, too this, too that, he recalled. Burr said that he has learned to focus on what’s fun and would rather make less money to say what he really wants to say. 

“I just keep it simple,” said Burr. “If it looks cool and it looks like it’s going to be fun, I’m just going to do that.”

That means writing a screenplay is out—too hard, he said—but creating an animated sitcom is right up his alley. F Is for Family, loosely based on Burr’s childhood, is slated to debut on Netflix this year. More comedy shows and TV specials are also on the horizon.

For his next special, Burr wants to focus on the way it is filmed and presented on TV. He said that old comedy specials look real, but nowadays audience shots, fancy camerawork, and HDTV make everything feel fake.

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Bill Burr '93 visited Emerson Los Angeles on March 3. (Photo by Michelle Kwong '15)

“Stand-up is a very beautiful art and it should look that way,” said Burr, who doesn’t plan on using technology to enhance his specials. “I don’t need to see someone’s cartilage [on TV].”

During the question portion of the evening, Louie Contino ’15, a Marketing Communication major, asked Burr if he might consider speaking at an Emerson College commencement ceremony.

“There’s going to be people’s parents there. I don’t want to ruin your night,” said Burr. “Maybe one day.”

Taylor Kissin ’15, a Visual and Media Arts major, was one of many students in the audience laughing. Kissin worked at the 32nd annual EVVY Awards, during which the comedian received the Alumni Award of Distinction and delivered an emotional speech that he jokes was an “Oprah moment.” Just like he did on that night, Burr left a lasting impression on Kissin.

“Bill had great answers, was incredibly funny, and made my night,” said Kissin. “I appreciated his insight in all aspects of his career and hope he actually considers speaking at a graduation.”