A visit from comedian Bill Burr ’93 to Emerson College Los Angeles (ELA) last week turned into an evening of stories and laughs that packed rooms in both Boston and Los Angeles.
In January, Burr popped into ELA looking to do something for students. Just a few weeks later, on February 2, he joined Trustee Doug Herzog ’81, LHD ’08, at ELA’s Bill Bordy Media Conference Center for a conversation that explored Burr’s Emerson experience, professional journey, and his advice for anyone looking to make a career for themselves in entertainment.
“This is something I’ve wanted to do forever,” said Burr. “One of the great things about this school is you’re sitting there going like, Jesus Christ, am I really going to try to get into this business when there’s no rhyme or reason to it? And what gave me faith was people that were doing sh*t would come back to the school.”
Burr told anecdotes about times he bombed on stage, discussed the process behind creating his adult animated sitcom F Is for Family (figuring out what the characters would look like was particularly cumbersome), and shared stories about how he launched his standup career.
“All it is about is having the nerve to do it,” said Burr. “As long as you go up there, it’s a victory, and then everything else you figure out along the way.”
That’s advice Kat Mondor ’23, a Comedic Arts major, found reassuring. The aspiring comedian has her first open mic show coming up in LA.
“It helped me feel better about getting up there and just doing it,” said Mondor.
During the two-hour event, Burr shared that he had an interest in comedy growing up. He’d buy comedy albums and recite the routines, imagining himself performing in front of his class.
“All the pretty girls that I had crushes on would laugh, and I wouldn’t have to do any work on myself as a person, and they would just magically love me and all my problems would be solved,” Burr joked. “But even though I would do that, it never dawned on me that I wanted to be a comedian.”
Growing up on the South Shore of Boston in the days before the Internet, Burr felt that show business seemed far away. He thought he might get into construction. He tried sales and other jobs, but failed miserably. One day, a co-worker at a warehouse said he wanted to try standup, and the idea of doing the same dawned on Burr.
To say he’s been successful as a comedian would be an understatement. Ranked as one of the 50 Best Stand-Up Comics of All Time by Rolling Stone, Burr has released multiple comedy standup specials, received Grammy and Emmy nominations, hosts the popular Monday Morning Podcast, and recently became the first comedian to perform at Fenway Park in front of a sold-out crowd. He co-wrote, co-produced, and is making his feature directorial debut with the upcoming Old Dads, a film aboutaboutthree men who find themselves out of step with the modern world after selling their business.
“I’ve been such a big Bill Burr fan, even before I went to Emerson,” said Dan Perrault ’09, a Peabody Award–winning TV writer and producer whose show Players premiered on Paramount+ last year. “It’s been cool watching him hone his voice over the years and become one of the best.”
The event was part of the series All Joking Aside with Doug Herzog, a production by Emerson’s Center for Comedic Arts that provides viewers with an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at the comedy business. Past events have featured comedians like Trevor Noah and Tig Notaro.
Nearly 200 students and alumni joined the event in person at ELA, while students in Boston watched from a viewing party in the College’s Beard Room. Others tuned in across the country via Zoom.
Burr previously performed at ELA and sat down for an interview with Trustee Kevin Bright ’76, LHD ’11, in 2015. He had wanted to return to ELA, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. A recent conversation with fellow alum Henry Winkler ’67 spurred the comedian to swing by the building.
Self-described as “horrifically shy and introverted,” Burr majored in Communications with a focus on radio at Emerson, so he could be on a microphone and talk to people but not look at them. His shift on WECB was from 2:00 to 6:00 am.
“I was an absolute mess of a human being when I first came to Emerson,” said Burr. “I deliberately took classes to get up in front of people.”
By his senior year at Emerson, he was performing at open mics. Offering advice to aspiring comics in the audience, Burr said it’s important to be forgiving of yourself.
“I’ve made freaking every mistake you could make a zillion times and it somehow worked out for me,” said Burr. “Just keep trying.”
Students had the opportunity to ask questions toward the end of the event and Burr encouraged Emersonians in the audience to speak up with any question they might have.
When asked about his process and how he comes up with bits, Burr told the audience that there’s no right way to do it.
“A big thing is to have belief in your funny,” said Burr. “You’re gonna figure out what your process is….If the process doesn’t feel like this is the way you should be going, then try something else.”
For Jackie Cotter ’23, a Comedic Arts major who wants to write for television one day, that advice resonated with her.
“It was reassuring. He can tell us everything about his career, but at the end of the day we have to be ourselves,” said Cotter, whose chill vibe Burr complimented and encouraged her to use in her sets.
Responding to one of the questions about how to stay motivated when beginning standup, Burr said good sets and encouragement from older comics helped him. Chuck Friedman ’23, a Visual and Media Arts major who’s been performing at open mics for eight months, asked Burr about taking the next step from amateur to professional comic.
“Everything that I’ve found in this business, it’s like you’re ready for a while before they pick you,” said Burr. “It’s the fun and frustrating thing about getting into entertainment. All of this stuff is going to work itself [out].”
At the end of the event, Burr was presented with a special gift of frozen pizza from Town Spa Pizza in Stoughton, Massachusetts. He mentioned it as one of his go-to spots in an interview with Boston Magazine. Before leaving, he stayed to shake hands and take photos with all the attendees. Casey Shatraw ’18 was one of them.
“Emerson really delivered. It was like an hour of standup for free,” said Shatraw, who works at ATTN: as a media supervisor. “A lot of the advice he gave resonates: Believe in yourself, persistence, find your voice. All that translates across in any industry.”
“It was fun,” Burr mentioned as he greeted an attendee. “I’ll come back.”