Bill Burr on Alternative Comedy Rooms

Chicago comedian Scott King has a comedy blog which is affiliated with the Chicago Tribune.  He has now branched out writing for Laughspin (formerly Punchline Magazine). Scott has a similar taste in comics to myself, so I’m a fan of almost everyone he has interviewed.  You should check out his site, Class Act Comedy, as it has some of the best stuff you can read on the standup world.  Even though I was one of the people he interviewed, my favorite interview he did was with Bill Burr. The past few years, when people would ask me who I think the best standup is working today, it was always between Greg Giraldo and Burr.  I get asked sometimes about my thoughts on alternative comedy and I can’t describe my feelings any better than what Burr says in the Scott King interview.
CAC (Scott King): Last time you were on Greg’s podcast you had 1 of the funniest lines I’ve ever heard on a podcast.  You were describing how all “alternative” rooms are the same by saying, “You go in there, and they all have their f***ing Buddy Holly glasses…”  And I think it perfectly described most of the “alternative” rooms and open mics here.
Bill Burr: Those “alternative” rooms, I’m not saying they’re all bad, but there is that error, of that these crowds are really intelligent and they’re smarter than the crowds in comedy clubs.  It’s just something about it, like, “You are performing in front of a crowd like you.”  So I don’t see where the challenge is.  As much as those guys make fun of like the Blue Collar Tour, it’s like 4 southern guys performing in front of a bunch of southerners, you’re doing the same thing. You go into those rooms and people will have bits about like reading comic books or Sci-Fi movies that fing destroy.  And you’re just sitting there like, “Okay, that was funny, but it wasn’t that f***ing funny, why is it killing that hard?”  Then it’s like, “Oh, he’s basically doing an I love Texas bit in Texas.”  I don’t know, this is weird.  It probably sounds like I’m disrespecting their scene.  I’m not.  I’m not, because I’ve seen absolutely brilliant stuff, but I’ve always maintained that there’s no difference, when you really look at both, between a comedy club and an “alternative” room.  You look at 10 people, 3 of them are awesome, another like 6 or 7 are trying to get to the level of the 2 best people on the show.  And then there’s that 1 or 2 when you’re like, “Who the f**k ever told you you were funny?  Why are you onstage?”  But 1 thing I don’t like about those “alternative” rooms is I don’t like how it’s too safe an environment.  That’s why I don’t like them.  It’s like declawed comedy.  Like you’re going to go in there, everybody is going to be sober, everybody is going to be paying attention… Which is a great thing, but if that’s all you perform to… I don’t know, you start packing on the pounds.  You get a little lazy I think.  
I could not say it better. It’s declawed comedy. It’s comedy for the lazy. It’s comedy for those who want to just preach to the converted. The comics I respect the most are the one’s who can walk into almost any club or bar and kick some ass. That takes confidence, skill, and intelligence. Making a bunch of inside jokes that your fellow hipsters nod their head to is not what I respect the most.
Here is a big part of the equation. The people who write about standup comedy (for the most part) are nerds. They rate the top comics and they are all alt-comics in their top 10. I see these lists and guys like Burr, Greg Fitzsimmons, Attell, etc aren’t on them. The only exception to this is Louis CK, who I think the critics have come to love more because of his show, not as much his standup. It’s like music. David Lee Roth was once asked why do critics love Elvis Costello so much more than his music. Roth: “That’s because they look like Elvis Costello, they don’t look like me.” Now I happen to love early Van Halen and early Elvis Costello. Same goes for some alt.comics and some in your face comics. It’s just when the media critics only tout the people that speak to their view of life that it can boil over into some hate…
I like most alternative comedy ideas.  Here is what I have a problem with too many of them.  I don’t feel like they are developed well and much like music, I like there to be some hooks in there.  To write a hook you usually have to make the piece tight, no matter if we are talking songs or a jokes.  Another thing that is difficult is that it seems that almost everyone who gets a comedy central special is doing this style, which is frustrating.  It wasn’t good back in the mid-90’s when too many were wearing a sports coat with rolled up sleeves, doing a second-rate version of Jerry Seinfeld.  At this site I try to embrace diversity.  Most of the people on the Comedians of Comedy tour were great comics (Zach, Patton, Maria), but there was definitely a difference in quality-levels between the acts.  Guess what? I could say the same about Redneck Comedy Tour, as well. (Ron White is GREAT, Foxworthy pretty stellar too, LCB has his moments, Bill Envall is a lucky SOB)  Just like music, there is a place for all types of voices.  If all you listen to is what you programmed your Pandora to play, you are missing out.  Same goes for if all you listen to is what Pitchfork tells you to.  I’m all for having a favorite style, but try to keep an open-mind to other flavors.
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3 thoughts on “Bill Burr on Alternative Comedy Rooms

  1. There is a section in there that really hit a nerve with me, “It’s like declawed comedy. Like you’re going to go in there, everybody is going to be sober, everybody is going to be paying attention.” That describes the main room I run perfectly. It is a cafe inside of a library, so ofcourse everyone is sober. I also think it can be more challenging to make sober people laugh than drunk people.

    That being said, I agree with you that diversity in comedy is much more fun, entertaining and enlightening. My favorite comedian working today as well as my favorite overall is Damon Williams. He is cerainly not your coffee house variety comedian. Most of my favorite comedians are people I work with like Dave Odd and Marty DeRosa. As far as big name comedians who influenced me, Paul Mooney and Richard Lewis immediately come to mind. As much as a stigma as there is to the name, I have to say that Larry CG has been a huge influence in that I wish I had his delivery and he makes me laugh my butt off.

    I still am not sure what alternative comedy is. By Burr’s definition, I guess it is what my audience comes to see which is puzzling because hipsters hate me. What I do know is that diversity is an integral part of my comedy, and even more so, the rest of my life.

    Thanks again, Scott, for posting something that really challenged me to think.

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