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Bill Burr Talks ‘F is for Family’

The Boston-based comedian brings his warts and all “family” humor back for a second season on Netflix.

With a 10-episode Season 2 launched this past May 30th, the Netflix comedy, F is for Family continues its successful run, a provocative, adult-themed series based on the stand-up comedy of Boston-born and bred comedian Bill Burr. Burr’s often aggressive, always in-your-face humor, likened to the loud, obnoxious and ill-informed guy at the bar who suddenly finds reason to argue with you, much to everyone’s embarrassment but his, fits perfectly into the medium of animation, following in the footsteps of shows like Family Guy that depict the darker, dysfunctional side of family life. Peppered with raunchy topics, language and behavior, F is for Family, though decidedly non-PC, is rooted in Burr’s real-life stories about his family and those he knew growing up, stories that make people laugh, and cringe, in their un-apologetically raunchy and sometimes uncomfortable truths.

Created together with The Simpson’s veteran Mike Price and Vince Vaughn’s Wild West Television, the show is produced by Gaumont Television, a division of French studio Gaumont, the first and oldest film company in the world. Gaumont’s extensive catalog of film and TV productions boasts over 1100 movie titles and 800 half hours of animation, including Noddy, co-produced with DreamWorks as well as Trulli Tales, Belle and Sebastian and Furry Wheels.

AWN recently had the chance to talk to Burr about his show, his work in stand-up and how animation is the perfect medium for his particular style and sense of humor.

Dan Sarto: How did this show come about? What brought you from standup comedy to an animated series?

Bill Burr: In the first half of my career, when I was a younger comic, I told family stories on stage and they got laughs. When I became the older comic and a new generation of kids grew up, as parenting styles changed, the laughs turned into groans. Actually, sympathetic noises. For those kids, today, for better or for worse, a lot of things are labeled, as far as, “That's bullying, that's mental abuse, that's emotional abuse, physical abuse.” All that stuff. When I was growing up, it was just...I don't know what it was called.

DS: Life?

BB: Yeah, it was called “life.” So, I got frustrated and I stopped telling the stories. Then, one day, I was walking my dog, trying to think, "How the hell can I get these things out where people will get out of this PC mindset and just see them for the humor they have as well as the love underneath?" I thought, "What if I just animate them?" I was going to do little 5-minute shorts, just do them on my website. Of course, I'm a comedian, so I never did anything. Reality is, I just tell jokes and make a living. Why do all that work?

Long story short, I ended up meeting Vince Vaughn through comedian Steve Byrne. We took a meeting, and I sort of half-assed pitched the cartoon idea. And, they were looking to do a cartoon. Once I got in business with those guys...

Vince’s company is called Wild West Television, and they are just a force of nature. I've never been in business with people like that before -- they really, really know what they're doing. I ended up getting paired up with the great Mike Price from The Simpsons, who has done over 300 episodes. Next thing you know, this little idea I had, I was suddenly loaded for bear. We ended up writing a really strong pilot script. It just took one big name to sign on…with someone attached to it, we started getting all these people who were top-notch talent. Here we are. Season Two.

DS: It's nice when it works, isn't it?

BB: Yeah, if you get 9000 at-bats, eventually you're going to get a hit. I'm a 25-year overnight success.

DS: What does animation allow you to do creatively? What does this medium provide you as a comedian, as an actor, an as a writer?

BB: I don't know if it's just the kinds of people that watch animation…like, the easily-offended avoid animation. I don't know what it is. Or, the fact that if it's animated, it doesn't seem real. I remember when they made “Ozzie Osbourne,” or “Meet the Osbournes,” [The Osbournes] whatever that show was called. I remember when that came out. Bill Cosby was going off on it, saying, "This is bad parenting, this is blah, blah, blah." That doesn't happen for some reason if it's animated. I don't know why, but it doesn't. I almost feel bad saying this to you, in an article, because the second you write it down, I'm worried that the easily-offended will be like, "Oh yeah, that's right, we should get offended by animation now. Let's attack that."

I just think, as long as South Park is doing what they're doing, they're always going to be way out in front of what we're doing on our show. I feel like they're on...if we're going through the jungle in “Nam,” they're on point.

DS: I was going to say, they’re walking through the minefield and you just need to make sure you’re following in their footsteps.

BB: Yeah. I'm not saying we're doing what they're doing. What I'm saying is, they have paved the way for us to do this type of show.

DS: Sure.

BB: I remember as a kid I used to go to those Sick and Twisted Animation Festivals. You remember those, before you could do these kinds of things on TV?

DS: Of course. Spike and Mike.

BB: I remember the summers, come June or July, I used to go every single year. It was in Boston at this theater that of course doesn't exist anymore -- I can't even remember the name. It was like this big thing. Every year, I used to try to take somebody new to it. It would always just blow their mind, like, "Dude, what is this?"

What I loved about that stuff back then, the “Sick and Twisted” stuff, was that it was truly done for the hell of it. There was no way they were going to get it on the air. They weren't trying to make a Bugs Bunny or Woody Woodpecker. They weren't trying to make it for kids -- they were making it for adults.

DS: So as far as F is for Family, going back to the first season, how much have you been involved with the show’s designs and overall production?

BB: As far as the look of the show, that's all been a group effort. Mike Price is definitely the captain of the ship, and he's the engine that's driving the show. He's the show-runner, that's his job, and he's the best I've worked with. As far as when we were trying to figure out the look of the show, it was always me, Mike Price, Victoria Vaughn, Peter Billingsley, and Mike Lagnese. That was sort of the core group of people, as far as I remember.

When you first start drawing the characters, it's like...Okay, The Simpsons have a look. Their eyes and nose, that yellow color of everyone's skin. South Park has their look. Family Guy has their look. You’ve got to come up with a look that hasn't been done yet.

I was definitely in on that, but as far as the voice records and that type of thing, that's Mike Price. He listens to all the tapes. He goes through all of them and chooses the tapes, edits everything together. Then I listen to it. Occasionally, I'll say, "You have a better one than that?" But for the most part, like I said, he's done over 300 episodes, he knows what he's doing.

I can't give him enough props, by the way. He's tireless. He throws nine innings every time he goes out there.

DS: What about from the writing side?

BB: Well, I'm in the writer's room just about every day. Every other weekend I'll have a stand-up gig, so I might not be there on that Friday. Nine out of every 10 writer's days, I'm there. I'm in a room of 10 extremely talented people. Emily Towers, David Richardson, we've got so many great folks in there.

What I do in the writer's room, other than pitch jokes…my job is to keep it tethered to a reality. A lot of that absurd style of comedy was refreshing 15 years ago. Everything kind of became absurd, everything just became mocking, which was refreshing and new 15 years ago. Now I just feel like...I don't know, my favorite stuff is stuff that's real.

I know that's probably an overly-used expression. But, it's one of those things where someone will pitch a joke where one of the kids says, "Oh, fuck off," and I'll say, "There's no way a dad would take that from his kid.” Now, if you want to have the kid say that, the dad has to take the belt to him, or something real has to happen after that. We can't just have the kid say, “Fuck off” and there's no ramifications. So, we either need another joke here, or we have to have the kid mumble it under his breath, like Kevin [the son of lead character Frank Murphy] does all the time.

When I watch a show, if moments like that happen, it just reminds me that I'm watching a TV show, and subconsciously, I get less invested. If it's real, and something real's going to happen, and I hear something that's been consistently real, when a moment like that happens I almost perk up, like, "Uh-oh, what's the reaction to this going to be?"

DS: Right. You have expectations for their behavior.

BB: Yeah. I try to keep that real feeling in the show. I feel like that's my job.

DS: What's been the toughest thing for you with this show? Realizing that you've got, as you say, Mike Price, and a great team that's doing most of the heavy lifting, what have been the main challenges for you?

BB: The main challenge is the amount of free time you have as a comedian that is immediately gone the second you sign on to do a TV show. I'm serious. I've always appreciated the job I have, and the fact that I can kind of do whatever I want when I want. Suddenly having a schedule and going back to having a day job was a tough adjustment. It's something I'm still adjusting to, but I always just drag myself in there.

Once I get in there, it's not like when I used to drag myself to a day job. This is actually a creative job. I get in there, and I'm immediately mentally stimulated. I will be honest with you, days when the script isn't working, or we're sure it's working and somebody else doesn't, those are the days when I say to myself, “Why don't I just keep working Chuckle Huts telling shit jokes?”

DS: It would be a lot easier.

BB: Yeah, this is way more thinking than I’m used to. I have this thing sometimes where I just…if I'm not careful, I'll just give in to, "What do they want? Fuck it. Can we just give them what they want so we can get out of here? Who wants to be in an office? Let's go out and go see a movie or something." That's the stand-up comedian disease.

DS: Well, it's more than just the stand-up comedian's disease. It's always an issue of, "How much do I push for what I think is best? When do I push back?" From a creative standpoint, it's not like there's a right or wrong. There are shades of gray with everything. The idea of where do you push, and how much, with regards to a joke, a scene, timing, the final decisions on things. As you say, sometimes you just want to say, "Fuck it, whatever you guys want to do, just do it."

BB: Yeah, I want to go home. I want to see my wife and kids.

DS: Yeah. But going home might not be the best decision. That's a tough one.

BB: Well, you know something, fortunately, I don't know what happened, but all of a sudden, the clouds parted, I get to do the show I want to do with the people I want to do it with. Then, we get great notes. We get to work with Gaumont and Netflix. So far, they've given really good notes. I said, "so far" in case they're reading this. I don't want them to be, "Yeah, he loves our notes," and then just start noting us to death. Yeah, they've really given good notes -- I've always agreed with them. I fortunately don't have that disease where I think I'm right all the time.

I'm not saying I won't still argue my point for a good five to seven minutes. But, if it's three or four people, and they're all thinking one thing and I'm thinking the other, I've got to really think pretty strongly. Those moments have happened, but it's always more of a tone thing with me. Not like a joke, or not even like a story arc or anything. For me, it's more that the tone is there. People really laugh at the show, but they're also like, "Man, I just keep waiting for this stuff to turn around and it doesn't. This is like real life." I laugh, because that's how life is. A lot of times it doesn't come back around -- it's how you adjust to that.

We're not trying to bum people out, but we're definitely trying to stay away from the "everything wraps up in a nice, neat little bow."

DS: Any push-back with regards to topics or jokes where maybe you went too far with things, that you looked at and said, “Yeah, you know, they’re probably right?”

BB: There are definitely times when we haven't agreed with one another, but both sides have been really cool. Netflix is not a, "Hey, listen there, buddy, we're running stuff and you work for us. You understand that, see?" They're not that style.

They come at us saying, "Hey, we feel this way," then sometimes you change it a little bit, that's enough for them. You don't even 100% address what they wanted. But if they come back a second time, that's when we really look at it, "Okay." We get on the phone and we always hammer it out. We're two seasons into this, and we've yet to have any sort of knock-down-drag-out. All those stories you hear about certain shows where they ban people from the set and stuff like that…we've never even remotely got to that. Fortunately, it's been a really fun effort.

It took me forever to get a show, but the business changed enough to where a guy like me could get something on the air in the way I wanted to do it. 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.