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Bill Burr’s new Netflix special exposes the problem with both-sides comedy

‘Live at Red Rocks’ finds the comedian in a familiar angry mode, mostly about the same things, while the country around him is in chaos.

Bill Burr’s new Netflix special exposes the problem with both-sides comedy
[Photo: Koury Angelo/Netflix]

One of the many folks who pop up in HBO’s recent George Carlin documentary to praise the legendary comedian is Bill Burr. His inclusion makes sense; much like Carlin, Burr is an incredibly successful, rant-prone stand-up, with an aversion to political correctness and a penchant for nihilism. In his testimonial, Burr recalls attending the taping of Carlin’s 1988 special, What Am I Doing in New Jersey—and being shocked. He’d expected more of the same wordplay-heavy comedy Carlin had leaned on for years, perhaps a rehash of his celebrated My Stuff routine. Instead, he found that Carlin, at 51, had reinvented himself as America’s preeminent shredder of political and cultural hypocrisy. He’d evolved.

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There’s no evidence, however, of this admiration for either Carlin’s evolution or this specific iteration of him on Burr’s new Netflix special, Live at Red Rocks. At 54 years old, Burr is entrenched in the same stand-up comfort zone he’s lived in for ages. He’s angry! Mainly at women! And his position on most issues boils down to: both sides bad! Although it’s undoubtedly due in part to the highly charged moment in which his new special arrives, Burr’s both-sides shtick has never felt more threadbare or calculated than it does right now.

First comes the pandemic material. Burr is fed up with both kinds of COVID hypocrites: the patriots who didn’t trust a government vaccine and the safety evangelists who (gasp!) pulled their masks down in public sometimes. Just two equally repugnant types of people.

The problem isn’t that it’s wrong to joke about folks who are annoying about masks in various ways; it’s that Burr doesn’t actually have any jokes about them. He just cites their existence as proof that America is a fiercely divided country, one in which . . . both sides bad. Never mind that if you believe in the importance of vaccination and at least some mask usage at some point, as Burr seems to, one side is empirically much worse.

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Why equate them at all, especially if not for jokes?

Burr then segues from the pandemic to cancel culture because there must be a clause in every Netflix contract requiring comedians to devote part of their special to the topic. But Burr’s definition of it is intentionally vague. It’s not the jailing of serial sex criminals like Harvey Weinstein, which Burr is in favor of, but pretty much every instance of a powerful man getting called out in any capacity in the years since. According to Burr, after all the bad men were rounded up—a thing that definitely happened—some undefined “they” used this new tool called cancel culture to “get rid of some men that maybe were in your way.” (If you can think of any examples, please let Bill Burr know; he doesn’t offer any.)

Defining cancel culture so broadly reduces several complicated issues down to two bad sides: men who sexually harass women and the people who thrive on getting rid of powerful men. Putting aside whether anyone enjoys doing so, what does “getting rid of” these men entail? For Burr, it seems to be “being mad on Twitter, briefly.” He recalls, for instance, the day in 2019 when a bunch of people got fired up about a resurfaced 1971 Playboy interview in which the actor John Wayne, who died in 1979, said some racist things. They were mad about it on Twitter and then . . . nothing happened. Nothing at all. Yet Burr points to that moment as proof that both the #MeToo movement and cancel culture have gone too far. For a guy who is often enraged at people who supposedly make mountains out of molehills, he sure seems to make a bigger deal out of this than it deserves.

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Burr first debuted his bit about John Wayne while hosting SNL in late 2020, and apparently nothing happened in the year that followed to convince him to update his act for the special. Well, not exactly nothing. He also mentions the horrible thing that happened when Sean Connery died: Some people on Twitter brought up Connery’s past comments about hitting women. That’s it. They didn’t burn Sean Connery in effigy, nor did they organize and agitate to have his movies banned from HBO Max or whatever. They tweeted, briefly. If instances like these represent the pinnacle of cancel-culture overreach, I have some great news for Bill Burr. He can just log off of Twitter and those moments won’t even exist.

Instead, Burr wonders why the people who would dare get mad at Sean Connery aren’t also mad at Coco Chanel for her connections to Nazis. What the two have in common is anyone’s guess. I think the point is that women have also done some bad things in life, and yet historically nobody has ever been mad at a woman.

Later in the special, Burr rails against the hypocrisy that “you’re not allowed to say” someone looks like a lesbian while it’s perfectly fine to describe certain college-age white men as looking like date rapists. To unpack the difference between the two sides that he’s constructed here would take up more space than I’m willing to commit. But the further great news for Burr is that he is allowed to say that. In fact, he just did on this special. For lots of money.

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While Burr is demonstrably outraged by what “you’re not allowed to say,” though, he doesn’t appear to notice or care that as he was taping this special, conservatives were getting laws on the books to ban teachers from talking about certain parts of Black history in class. Or that they were on their way to banning teachers from mentioning LGBTQ issues altogether. Those issues may not be quite as vital to free speech right now as John Wayne’s right to be racist in 1971 or Sean Connery’s right to advocate hitting women in the 1960s without having it ever be discussed again, but they do matter to some people. Maybe even some in Burr’s audience.

Perhaps the reason Burr doesn’t have any material about the reactionaries currently remaking America into a less free place is that he knows some of them are in his audience, too. Perhaps that’s ungenerous to suggest. Either way, in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, there’s a reason few people are likely to share the abortion bit from Burr’s new special—he’s pro-choice, but he still thinks it’s killing a baby—and why George Carlin’s decades-old material on the topic keeps going viral.

It’s because Carlin understood that sometimes you have to pick a side.

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