PC Culture

Bill Burr’s Dirty Joke about Michelle Obama, and Other Stuff You Can’t Say

Bill Burr in Paper Tiger (Netflix/via YouTube)
His new Netflix special Paper Tiger is mostly brilliant.

Should we #BelieveAllWomen? Bill Burr is skeptical. People will say, “You can’t make something like that up,” he notes. “Well, did you see Star Wars? Somebody made that up.” He adds, “If women ran the world there’d be no war. Evidently there’d be no due process either.” As for “male feminists,” he isn’t sold on them, either. “What kind of a man who still has his balls is walking around saying that he’s a male feminist?” He asks. “You can’t do it any more than I can stand here and be like, ‘I’m a Black Panther!’”

Burr’s latest Netflix special Paper Tiger is brilliant in spots, taking many of the same contrarian stances struck by other top comics such as Dave Chappelle and Aziz Ansari. The more PC platitudes come to dominate the discourse, the more important the comic antidote becomes. Burr’s funniest bits are way out there, amazing leaps of the comic imagination. A dirty joke about Michelle Obama is hilarious because it’s so unexpected and absurd, setting up a loud crash of expectation by contrasting the former first lady’s agreeable public elegance with an imagined erotic opportunism. An extended sex joke about Sting is even funnier. Burr has the gift of being surprising, of resuscitating a done-to-death subject.

Some of the bits are a bit hackish, though. “I mean, what the f*** is goin’ on?” he asks. This seems to be the new “What’s the deal with . . .?” These days such a query often provokes banalities about the safe spaces where the snowflakes fret about trigger warnings. “I don’t know what the f*** is going on, but I think white women started it,” Burr says, in a performance taped at the Royal Albert Hall in London. “That’s all they do is bitch, moan, and complain. . . . What happened to you today, sweetheart, did they not chill your rosé? Was the trolley not running down at the mall? . . . One of my fantasies is I wanna drive by a women’s rally and just say the most sexist s*** I can think of just to watch them lose their minds.”

Burr has an energetic, mock-angry delivery that makes lines like the above work much better in his act than they look on paper, but I can hear some readers’ teeth grinding even as others bust a gut. Based on the social-media reaction to Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones, there is a lot of comedy schadenfreude happening: This must be triggering the libs, therefore it’s great! Conversely, on the left there is a defensiveness that, carried to an extreme, would be lethal to comedy: “Anyone who carries a membership card in the Club of the Oppressed can’t be made fun of.”

I grade comedy based on whether it’s funny, which in turn usually depends on whether it rings true (unless the intent is the opposite: absolute absurdity). Let’s not measure a bit by whether we think it’s making the right people angry. This is not an argument from political correctness —  let’s bend over backwards to make sure no one’s feelings are hurt. By all means, Bill Burr, be offensive. But giving offense must serve the goal of being funny. Being offensive isn’t a goal in itself, or shouldn’t be. When your object is to be outrageous, you might just get mired in a cliché. Clichés tend to be unfunny.

“By the way, this is gonna be my last show ever,” Burr says, in the middle of a long bit mocking feminists. Complaining about all the stuff that you can’t say anymore, then saying it anyway, is the irony fuel for this school of comedy. As Chappelle’s Sticks & Stones proves, standup is near the center of American culture these days, when ordinary folk find themselves increasingly at risk for venturing one inch beyond received wisdom. Google engineers can be fired for even suggesting in a civil way that there might be differences between the sexes. Because comics can say whatever they want, Burr and those like him release some of the pent-up tension associated with cultural censorship and self-censorship, and so he is in a sense fighting on our side — the side of those who think free speech is not just a constitutional issue but an important informal value.

Still, some bits work better than others. His bit about Colin Kaepernick, whose premise is that it was Kaepernick’s detractors who were being unreasonable, falls flat. On the other hand, a story about a woman who complained that she was sexually harassed by a man who was “masturbating vigorously while holding a shrimp cocktail” leads somehow to that out-of-nowhere Sting joke, which is priceless.

Standups are often at their best in confessional mode, and Burr is among them. He’s in top form discussing his basal level of anger and how it continues to disquiet his wife. “You just go from zero to 100 in two seconds,” she tells him. Not quite, he says. “First of all, I idle at 75 miles per hour. . . . I walked into this restaurant at 75. I could hear that guy talking too loud on his cellphone FROM THE F***ING PARKING LOT.” He has been dealing with the issue in various ways: meditation, wearing sweaters. He put a smiley note on his dashboard to reduce his road rage. Now he’s considering returning to therapy but only so he can dunk on his wife. “What could my wife bitch at me about? Right? I f***ing crush everything!”

A late bit on the future of robots is both really funny and deeply considered. What might happen to our relationships if really lifelike robots should be made to satisfy a man’s every desire? “Everything gets better,” he says, or warns. “You’re gonna be able to come home to one of these things. . . . It’s gonna laugh at all of your jokes, it’s gonna sit down to watch the game with you. . . . There’s not gonna be a human woman in here that’s gonna be able to compete with that for longer than 90 minutes.” A real woman would be accompanied by “all of her hopes and dreams and her needs. You’re gonna be coming home, she’s like, ‘What is going on with you, we’re not connecting, we need a date night.’ All you’re gonna be thinking is like, ‘How do I shut this f***ing thing off? What is it, on nagging mode?’” Even a kernel of truth can make a joke work, and Burr has more kernels to offer you than Del Monte.


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