Comedian Bill Burr has won over audiences for years, whether performing standup or playing memorable characters on “Breaking Bad,” “Chappelle’s Show” and his new animated sitcom, “F Is for Family.”
But in comedy circles, Burr became famous — downright infamous, actually — after a spontaneous moment of antagonism a decade ago.
Throughout an all-day radio-sponsored festival at a Philadelphia amphitheater, Burr watched as the first two comedians got booed off the stage by a beer-soused crowd. Instead of surrendering during his own set, Burr picked a fight with what appeared to be the whole city for an unbearably funny dozen minutes:
“Rocky is your (expletive) hero? The whole pride of your city is built around a (expletive) guy who doesn’t even exist. Joe Frazier is from here. But he’s black, so you can’t (expletive) deal with him. So you make a statue for some 3-foot (expletive) Italian, you stupid Philly cheese-eating jackasses.” Burr calls it a perfect storm.
“I’ve never had anything like that happen before or since,” Burr tells the Star. “It was a combination of comics who were on that night. The combination of people who came to the show. The type of radio show it was. Philly. There were 10,000 people in an amphitheater, and I couldn’t see beyond the first row. There were people in lawn seats booing me. What am I supposed to do with that?”
Yet the magic of this incident wasn’t merely that Burr, wielding his aggressive Boston accent and defiant demeanor, continued abusing these abusers for the full 12-minute slot. It was how he eventually converted them into fans.
He left to thunderous, affirmative applause.
Burr’s been doing that to audiences ever since. Even those who question his non-PC outlook will probably fess up to finding him hilarious.
“There’s a certain laugh that goes beyond just, ‘Oh, you said something funny,’ ” the 47-year-old performer says. “It’s when they’re really relating to what you’re saying. There are three different top-shelf laughs: There’s one where they’re relating to you, there’s one where they appreciate the ride you just took them on and then there’s the laugh of ‘This guy’s out of his mind.’ Everything else sounds like a chuckle, and I feel like I have to do better.”
Given the verbal beatdown he conferred upon that Philly horde, are there still hecklers these days who try to goad him?
“Yes. But I also say a lot of absurd things,” admits Burr, who headlines at the Sprint Center on Saturday. “And if I say something that’s stupid or it makes you want to say something back, well, I do provoke a little bit.
“It’s kind of cool that there’s that interaction with the crowd. I’m not one of those people that has an announcement before the show about ‘no heckling’ and ‘everybody shut up.’ I feel like what keeps it alive is that all the sudden someone can disagree with you or make fun of your shirt.”
Fortunately, Kansas City audiences are unlikely to suffer that type of tirade from the actor/comedian. In fact, he confesses to having a real fondness for KC, despite his ingrained Boston heritage. Credit the Royals.
“I know that’s very in vogue right now because they just won it, but I used to like the Royals in the late ’70s and early ’80s because the Red Sox could never beat the Yankees,” he says. “What would happen is the Royals would always meet them playing for the pennant. … I always wanted to go to their stadium because as a kid I thought it was really cool you had the fountains.”
Years later, after becoming a regular on the comedy club circuit, Burr finally made it to Kauffman Stadium. But it happened during that interminable drought between the initial wave of Royals playoff glory and the most recent one.
“It was in the steroid era when the Yankees and Red Sox were buying up the Royals like a farm team,” he recalls. “It was blistering hot. I go and there’s nobody there. But the Royals are just crushing. They had some deal with Krispy Kreme where if they scored 12 times in a game, everybody in the crowd got a free coupon for a dozen doughnuts.
“So the Royals get up to 11, and there’s like 4,000 people going crazy. This was hilarious to me because it was 100 degrees out, and the last thing you want to do is eat a glazed doughnut. They scored, and it felt like they won a playoff game.”
Although Burr admits that a lot of his best memories are sports-related, he also holds an affection for the era itself of when he first began following the Royals. So much so that his newest project, “F Is for Family,” is set in 1973. A time when Watergate was beginning as the Vietnam War was ending. When Roe vs. Wade battled Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs as issues of the day.
In the animated Netflix series co-created by Burr, the comedian voices Frank Murphy, bitter patriarch and baggage worker at a regional airport. He loathes his job, argues with his wife (Laura Dern) and deals with the poor choices of his kids (Justin Long, Debi Derryberry and Haley Reinhart).
Like much of Burr’s comedy, the unsentimental stories are mostly culled from personal experience.
“When I see Frank Murphy, I see an amalgam of everybody’s dad in the writer’s room,” says Burr, calling from his home in Los Angeles.
“When I was a kid, your dad wasn’t your buddy; you were afraid of your dad. Not necessarily in a bad way. He’d throw the ball around with you and everything. But you knew when he came home, what your mom let you get away with was not going to fly with him. At least it was that way in my house.”
Burr first unleashed his concept for the racy series during a 2012 meeting with writer-producer Michael Price (“The Simpsons”) and producer Peter Billingsley (yes, that kid from “A Christmas Story”).
“Bill gives you honesty with no real artifice,” says “F Is for Family” co-creator Price.
“Me being an old sitcom hand with ‘The Simpsons,’ where everything is ironic, and we’re looking to mine jokes out of every line, I had to retrain my thinking while working on the show. While Bill wanted it to be as funny as possible, he didn’t want it to come off like a sitcom. … What really struck me was how passionate he was about this idea.” Price continues to be a writer and co-executive producer of “The Simpsons.”
Like Burr, Price grew up during roughly the same era on the East Coast (specifically New Jersey) in an Irish-Catholic family. He says that first meeting with his collaborator involved discussing what it was like to be a kid in the ’70s. Much of the conversation ended up as themes in the series.
“One story I told that kind of got in the show was how growing up in New Jersey they had this thing in my town called the Mosquito Control Commission,” Price says. “And they would send this truck out that blasted this toxic smoke — like DDT-style smoke — to kill the mosquitoes. You could hear this truck coming about two blocks away. We were all enchanted by it. So we all ran outside, got on our bikes and paraded behind it. We were engulfed in this toxic cloud that smelled really sweet. For a 9- or 10-year-old, it was just so cool.”
Burr says he still enjoys watching TV shows from that decade. He cites “The Rockford Files, “Barney Miller,” “All in the Family” and “The Jeffersons” among his favorites.
“I also like watching ‘Adam 12’ because I like trying to figure out where they are in L.A.,” he says of the police drama. “And every single call, they always have to make a U-turn. They were never going the same direction as the crime.”
What does he miss most about growing up in that period?
“Aside from being young?” Burr says.
“That was actually a really tough decade for adults. But if you were a kid, it was great. I was able to have a childhood before the Internet. I was able to be a kid. My world was really small. Going out and just playing baseball and football sounds like Tom Sawyer stuff now. Being able to play in the woods, pick up a stick and pretend it’s a gun.
“There weren’t playdates. Friends would just come over. You just went outside and had no idea what you were going to do until someone would come up with, like, ‘Let’s go climb a tree.’ So you’d climb a tree. I’m glad I had that before it was this adult-supervised playdate.”
He adds, “Adults have now tried to take all the pain out of life for their child, forgetting that as much as it hurt or stunk, it did something for you. It also gave you a gate, too: ‘I didn’t get bullied. I didn’t get humiliated. Nobody beat me up. What a good day!’ ”
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Bill Burr performs at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 23, at the Sprint Center. Tickets are $29-$48. More information at SprintCenter.com.