Comedian Bill Burr reaches success, but fears short stay

Bill Burr has arrived. But he won’t be pulling up in a sports car.

“What happens in this business is you don’t get it at all and then you get it all at once and then it goes away. It’s terrifying,” says the comedian.

“This business will be done with me some day whether I like it or not,” he adds with the laugh fans know from his “Monday Morning Podcast.”

But he says this near the end of a chat filled with reasons why that isn’t likely to happen soon. And no matter what happens next, fans have the trajectory timed right for this weekend.

The 46-year-old is at the top of his game, returning to headline The Mirage a week after taping his fourth stand-up special in Atlanta.

Burr has reached that level of stand-up where it just seems effortless. He’s so prolific and natural, off-the-cuff riffs in his weekly podcasts come off stronger than belabored club sets from the guys in the loud blazers.

He agrees he is “right where I want to be.” But hasn’t been there for so long to forget it’s “a brutal, brutal business.”

“You gotta play it smart,” he says in that no-nonsense Boston street guy voice of his, which is less agitated and more analytical on the phone than it is on stage. “No flashy car and the big watch. You gotta be careful with that stuff. You get some assets … maybe buy a little bit of real estate here and there, nothing crazy.

“There’s no 401(k) plan for a comedian.”

He has known this from the days he worked close to home in a suburban Boston warehouse in the late ’80s. And by the way, he loved that gig. It wasn’t one of those comedy-rescued-him stories.

“It was only two years of my life but it was two of the best years,” he says. “It was all class clowns, musicians, it was people that had maybe a little substance-abuse issue but hadn’t gone off the rails yet because we were young. Very fun, independent-thinking, creative people were in the warehouse.”

But anyway, when some of them got promoted up to a cubicle job, that’s when they bought the car and got in debt.

“My older brother, he broke that whole thing down: ‘You need to be liquid, you gotta be saving your money and you gotta have options, that if you don’t like your job you can walk away from it and be able to survive for a good six months.’

“I never forgot that,” he says now. “Because of those lessons I’ve been really good with my money.”

But now a Rolling Stone headline proclaims Burr “the undisputed heavyweight champ of rage-fueled humor.” And the stand-up gigs left time for an attention-getting part on “Breaking Bad” (as Saul Goodman’s henchman Kuby).

“You really just sit there scratching your head going, how the hell did this happen? How was I able to get to this level?”

But he kind of knows how.

“I worked hard,” he says, and “eventually 40 people became 50, and 50 became 60. That’s just how my career went.”

Burr also was early to podcasting, before everyone started doing it. His first “Monday Morning” in May 2007 is a little more than a minute long, and consists of fellow comedian Robert Kelly trying to teach him how to work the equipment.

“This is the beginning of something mediocre,” Burr says in the debut outing.

Now, for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, the podcast is so downloaded overseas that he can put together tours of Northern and Eastern Europe.

Other top podcasters, the Joe Rogans or Jay Mohrs, lean more toward conversations, where the listener can feel like he’s eavesdropping on name comedians in a diner booth. Burr has the occasional guest, and often pulls his wife Nia in for the homestretch. But the first part is usually just him riffing to a blank wall, like we are hearing stage routines in their formative stages.

Apparently not though.

“Every once in a while I hit a topic and if I see a lot of potential in it I’ll stop and say, ‘I gotta take that to the stage.’ It happens very rarely though.

“You can get into this hoarding mentality. Especially early on when you’re trying to build up an act,” he adds. “Everything that has potential you want to bring to stage.

“You kinda gotta separate the material from just hanging out, shootin’-the-(breeze) funny,” he says. “You can’t act like what you just said was the last funny thing you’re ever gonna say.”

So, he has basically quit sitting down to write jokes.

“You get to a new level of comfort,” he says. “I’ve always equated it to, if something funny happened to you and you wanted to tell your friends, you’d just go tell your friends. You wouldn’t sit there and write it out, rehearse it in the bathroom mirror or whatever, you just go and tell ’em. And you wouldn’t be nervous because you’re with your friends.

“You try to get to that level of comfort in the club, where you’re just talking to your friends. … When you get to that point, you can kind of make anything funny.”

Still, somehow, he worries.

“I’m already thinkin’ about how to parachute out of this (stuff). I’m 46 years old,” he says, finally sounding more like his agitated stage persona. “In 20 years I’m gonna be 66. Who the (expletive) is gonna go out and see a 66-year-old comedian?”

He worries, but somehow we don’t.

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.