Breaking Bad actor Bill Burr defends free speech ahead of Hong Kong comedy show
With free speech a hot topic, HK-bound stand-up Bill Burr tells David Major he won't change his routine
I'm just three minutes into interviewing Bill Burr and already he's starting to bristle. I should have expected this. The hint is in his website bio, a brusque entry which is about as long as Burr finds self-promotion a fun activity.
In the terse summary (since updated), he skims over a few of his recent efforts - the stand-up specials, his role in the television series Breaking Bad. "I love my dog. I hate bankers. I have issues with women. In my head, I'm a great guy," Burr says before signing off: "That's it. Go f*** yourself."
On the phone, Burr - who is due to perform at Cyberport on February 7 - is nicer. We speak before he appears as a guest on Real Time with Bill Maher, which turned out to be a provocative show. Discussing the film American Sniper, Maher described Chris Kyle, whom the film was based on, as a "psychopath patriot". The right was predictably apoplectic.
Telling society what it doesn't want to hear can be risky. I ask Burr about the Sony movie, The Interview, which set off a diplomatic row between North Korea and the US, and the fatal attacks on the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Is comedy getting caught up in foreign relations? It seemed as if punchlines suddenly have global consequences. This is something no stand-up likes hearing. "Because of one incident? I don't think so," Burr says, testily.
"No, I think that now everything is blown way out of proportion, and they make it seem like the sky is falling … It's one of those questions that keeps coming up and they have, like, one or two examples. I think bankers have way more of an effect on the world we live in than comedians. I make people laugh, what I say is silly, then I leave."
After low-profile parts on television shows beginning in the mid-1990s, Burr landed a role on Dave Chappelle's show, which recalibrated what sketch comedy could achieve, especially with issues such as race relations and black identity. Burr went on to voice a character in Grand Theft Auto IV, the controversial video game series that sold 150 million copies at last count. His Monday Morning Podcast, in which he talks about whatever has been bugging him the past week, consistently ranks on top of the iTunes comedy podcasts.
His biggest break came when he was cast as Patrick Kuby, a character in Breaking Bad. He was the mouthy henchman to Saul Goodman, the lawyer who could fix any problem for chemistry teacher turned meth producer Walter White. This year, Burr is making an animated series for Netflix, titled F is for Family, based on his experiences growing up in the 1970s. "We've recorded six of them … I was in the writers' room every day, slugging it out in there with a very talented group of writers. Now it's getting the animation back from the animators to see what the characters are going to look like. It's a long process, but I am really enjoying it."
Burr also just released his fourth stand-up television special, I'm Sorry You Feel That Way. In it, he takes on many of a comedian's usual subjects - relationships, misguided public outrage, racism, growing old - but it's the handling of the material that makes him so gripping to watch. It's a high-octane performance: he weaves like a boxer around his target, and his mastery of technique means every hit connects.
Burr on religion and going to heaven: "I actually resent the fact that I'm gonna get judged someday … It's like dude, you made me, so this is your f***-up. Alright? So let's not try to turn this around on me … you give me freedom of choice, you make whores, you have me suck at math and you don't think this thing is gonna go off the rails? Like, you set me up to fail, and now you got the balls to question your own work?"
The upcoming show will be Burr's second visit to Asia, coming after a tour of Australia in 2012. But these will be his first stops in Singapore, Hong Kong and later India. He has yet to play on the mainland. But if the opportunity arose, would he agree to avoid sensitive material?
"No, I wouldn't," he says. "Because I wouldn't trust myself to not screw up and end up doing the bit. I don't do gigs like that. I do gigs where it's like, 'Listen, I'm gonna come there and do what I do. Are you cool with that?' And if people say, 'yes', I do the show. If they say 'no', I completely understand and I just don't work there."
Unlike in the US, where comics are tearing down the walls of political correctness, stand-ups in China often deal with authorities who limit free expression in the name of social harmony. "That's the thing - I have the privilege of those walls already being knocked down, so I would actually like to talk to them," Burr says.
"That sounds like a great documentary, but I would be afraid to make it 'cause I wouldn't want to get anybody in trouble, and somebody ends up in jail. I feel like walls always end up coming down because people naturally want to be free, to say what they want and express how they are feeling.
"And hopefully, eventually, the government comes around and realises that letting people be free will not jeopardise their control."
Despite being unfamiliar with Asian culture, Burr is confident he'll connect with the audience. "I'm going to talk about whatever I feel like talking about and if it's going well, I keep talking about it and if I feel the crowd pushing back, then I switch to something else.
"I've bombed in a number of countries so I know the loneliness of bombing in front of people that are not your countrymen. [It's] part of the game. I think my jokes are funny enough that I should be OK."
Punchline Comedy Club presents Bill Burr, Saturday, 9pm, El Charro, Shop 208, The Arcade, Cyberport, Pok Fu Lam, sold out. Inquiries: 2725 4522