When a comedian gets in trouble, Bill Burr believes he knows who’s to blame. “This is fucking Millennials! You’re a bunch of rats, all of you!” he yelled, to audience cheers, on the talk show Lights Out With David Spade last week. The stand-up was offering his perspective on Saturday Night Live’s hiring and rapid firing of Shane Gillis due to a plethora of racist material the latter had recorded. “None of them care! All they wanna do is get people in trouble!,” Burr continued, eliciting laughs from the crowd. It was typical button-pushing from the comedian: a hot take wrapped in a crude insult, delivered loudly and enthusiastically. Usually, though, he follows up such bits with actual introspection.
Burr wasn’t the only comedian to defend Gillis in some form. Sitting next to Burr on the Lights Out panel was the Australian comic Jim Jefferies, who said that Gillis’s firing was “cancel culture” going after “a couple things back in his history.” The SNL alumni Rob Schneider and Norm Macdonald offered their support for Gillis on Twitter. But each of these defenders seemed more concerned with the general precedent of SNL reneging on its hiring decision because of internet backlash—and with the idea that there might be a limit on what comedians can say going forward. None wrestled with the offensive jokes in question; no one analyzed Gillis’s attempts at making comedy, how miserably he had failed, and how that failure had led to his undoing as much as anything else.
Funnily enough, Burr—a charming agitator who has climbed to the top of the stand-up heap on the back of his high-energy, provocative, and coarse comedy—is a perfect counterargument to his own tirade about Millennial “rats.” His latest special, Paper Tiger, released on Netflix last month, opens with a blistering 10-minute rant against every politically correct concept Burr can think of. “Fuckin’ U.S., everything’s so goddamn heavy. Every joke you tell!” he says, mocking the complaints of people who are “triggered” by his material. “I don’t know what the fuck is going on, but I think white women started it,” he pronounces. “I’m really annoyed that white women have the balls to throw my white privilege in my face … You’re sitting in the jacuzzi with me! Quit your fuckin’ whining!”
He then rags on Michelle Obama’s beloved status as first lady, claims that feminism is “full of shit,” ridicules the “overcorrection” of the #MeToo movement, and challenges the idea that all women should be believed. “What about the psychos?” he jokes. “Everything has become absolutes.” But then he starts heading in different, perhaps unexpected, directions. He makes fun of the belligerent right-wing response to the former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests in 2016, notes that many self-proclaimed “male feminists” are covering up their own bad behavior, and digs into his own anger problems, which he says he’s worked to overcome since starting a family.
Burr has recorded six stand-up specials and is a fixture on Netflix, where he also created and produces the animated sitcom F Is for Family. Paper Tiger was filmed at London’s Royal Albert Hall, one of the grandest and largest arenas in England. In other words, his career is doing fantastically well, and it’s not simply because Burr has a penchant for outrageous material. It’s because he has the kind of onstage presence most stand-ups can only dream of—as well as the ability to lead the most hostile of crowds down a precarious rhetorical path, and the self-awareness to analyze his own irate and reactionary nature.
Paper Tiger’s centerpiece is a digression in which Burr unpacks an argument he had with his wife (who is black) over Elvis Presley’s legacy of cultural appropriation. Burr describes his wife’s exhaustion with his attempts to defend Elvis, recites her incisive breakdown of why Elvis is worthy of criticism, and then exhales. “Fair enough, you made about seven or eight good points there that you can’t refute,” Burr recalls replying to his wife with a chuckle. His response to her was that anyone who flies in a plane is “appropriating white culture,” an incoherent joke he immediately apologizes for, while still attempting to have the last word. “If, historically speaking, black people enjoyed the same amount of freedom and privilege [as white people], they would have had the money and time to figure out how to fly, too. However … your music would have suffered,” he concludes, flashing a smug grin at the audience.
Burr knows how terribly he comes off in that story, and how much humor lies in his recounting of that conversation. There’s more intelligence and introspection in that one bit than in any of the inflammatory material from Gillis that circulated after he was hired. Burr, like his contemporary Dave Chappelle (another Netflix favorite who loves to monologue about hot-button topics), is in no immediate or obvious danger of being “canceled” because of his stand-up, or losing work, or angering his substantial online following. As much as the term would likely provoke an eye roll from Burr, the comedy scene largely remains a “safe space” for performers to test out all kinds of incendiary jokes.
Gillis’s own career will likely benefit from headlines generated by his firing, even as he misses out on the national stage of Saturday Night Live. He’s still performing at stand-up clubs, still hosting the podcast that drew so much national attention (and that has thousands of patrons), still free to bat around whatever wretchedly stereotypical material he wants to whatever market he can find. As Anthony Jeselnik—another comedian who has made his name as a master of offensive joke telling—said on his own podcast, Gillis wasn’t fired for “pushing boundaries” or “taking risks,” despite Gillis’s assertions in his weakly scripted apology.
“He was not able to talk about having lunch in Chinatown without dropping several racial slurs and doing basically the worst comedy I ever heard,” Jeselnik said. “I think if his apology had been like, ‘Hey, that was the worst joke I’ve ever done. I’m sorry, I was just screwing around on my podcast,’ he may have been okay. But him being like, ‘Sometimes you gotta take chances’ … You’re like, ‘Get out of my face,’” Jeselnik sardonically intoned. “The humor offends me more than the actual content.”
In comedy, the humor is always going to matter most; it’s perhaps the only notion held sacred by such an irreverent art form, and it’s one worth remembering every time a new set of complaints about “cancel culture” emerges. Gillis’s jokes flopped because they were not only offensive, but also entirely without perspective—a series of rambling and irrelevant thoughts delivered by a man who seems delighted to mock people he views as different from himself. Burr should understand better than anyone that when stand-ups are onstage, no matter whom or what they’re talking about, the spotlight is always going to be trained on themselves. It’s the sort of legitimate scrutiny that Gillis seems to have been unprepared for.