Bill Burr is a really clever man. But he’s still not nearly as clever as he thinks he is. That’s the nice little contradiction that lies at the heart of Live At Red Rocks—Burr’s latest Netflix special—and how a viewer might respond to it. While Burr has always positioned himself as the angry all-American comic—the contrarian, no-bullshit, foulmouthed, politically incorrect tough guy who’s flawed but has a good heart; a proud ignorance obscuring the folksy wisdom he will dispense on the human condition—the new special sees him try to take a further step forward. He wants to become better; less angry; more empathetic. But just as outspoken.
He starts off with an extended sequence taking aim at both sides of the political spectrum, from the prickly liberals to the vocal antivax lobby. It’s not particularly novel. There’s a fragile balancing act—what the most smug comedians call being an “equal opportunity offender”—where every joke has a dual purpose: a punchline directed at one group of people doubling up as a segue into an attack on the opposition to that first group. Women, he points out, are way smarter than men, and then shuts down the crowd. “Ladies, you shouldn’t be applauding that,” he says with his trademark cocksure squawk. “You know I’m an asshole. You know this isn’t going to end well.”
This entire section is a swinging display of comical, exaggerated misanthropy. “They really need to shut down the internet,” he says, “we are clearly too stupid to all be sharing ideas in this giant townie bar that we’ve created.” Just as often, it involves a serious dose of self-loathing. How far you’re willing to allow it depends on your own perspective on the prejudices that he plays up for easy laughs. When he blames women for the supposed failure of women’s sports, the WNBA specifically, is it just a joke to drive home the larger point he’s making? Or is it the end in itself? Is that larger point even worth making? (It isn’t.) Either way, through this entire first movement of Live At Red Rocks, Burr seems to be lobbying for the down-the-middle misanthropic male comedian position formerly held by Louis CK, whom Burr takes a few shots at (without naming him) in his rant about cancel culture.
More than that though, he also seems to be trying to pull comedy back. Bring it a little closer to the middle, where conflicting identities can perhaps coexist. It’s a somewhat admirable undertaking. Of late, so much of comedy has become about ideological posturing, at the cost of any real insight or new humour. Where are the jokes? Look at the obsession comedians have with “cancel culture”. Or the truly tedious attacks on marginalised communities and, absurdly, pronouns. Just about every popular set these days is about the culture wars. Comedians are spending all their time engaging in circular Twitter discourse. Burr, unlike, say, Ricky Gervais and Dave Chappelle, chooses not to court controversy or followers from the loony ends of the spectrum (in relative terms, of course). He’d rather not spend his time fixating on an agenda. He’s looking for something more inward-looking.
Through [the] entire first movement of Live At Red Rocks, Burr seems to be lobbying for the down-the-middle misanthropic male comedian position formerly held by Louis CK.
The reasons for this shift emerge in the next section, the heart of Live At Red Rocks. It starts with a mushroom trip (the magical kind), and an epiphany about an existential loneliness consuming him. Burr highlights, in great detail, the rage within him, the by-product of a messy childhood spent living in toxicity, fear, and violence. How that’s stuck with him, and taken over who he is. There’s a great bit on model masculinity in there, and, unlike other comedians of his generation, he doesn’t spend any time longing for an idyllic past that never actually existed.
There’s almost a tenderness here—as much as is possible with Burr’s muscular style of delivery—as he talks about a little freakout he had in his kitchen, throwing food and screaming to himself, witnessed by his scared and crying toddler daughter. A humbling and mortifying experience. After his awakening on psychedelics, Burr has decided to give sobriety a shot, exasperating as it is to him, and sort himself out. It’s the love of his children, his wife (for all the standard battle-of-the-sexes humour that he uses her as a jumping point for), that drives him to this.
The story runs in parallel to the set at Red Rocks. He’s still obnoxious; he’s still fuming at modern existence and the seeming hypocrisies it throws up constantly. Many of the empty truisms he spouts here fall apart upon the lightest scrutiny—like the end section where a woman he profiles as a stereotypical lesbian bumps into him on the street, and he concocts a whole imaginary story where they get together at a bar and bitch about their respective wives. This, in his convoluted way, is him empathising with others (oh brother…)
But this thread of self-reflection—a trait he’s always had to varying degrees but never quite engaged with fully—helps him temper the rougher edges of his routine. He’s often ignorant and prejudiced, many times knowingly so. His character, really, is of the uninformed simpleton with supposedly profound insight. But unlike his many peers, he almost never seems hateful. That, in itself, feels like some kind of a win. There’s a lot that Live At Red Rocks fails at, but ultimately it signals progress—the possibility of change from a comic who’s at an age ripe for stagnation.