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Comedian Bill Burr Says Stand-Up In Asia In Its 'Lenny Bruce Years'


Some concepts are easier to translate across cultures than others. I'll never forget this one time when I was in India trying to explain to some friends what a marshmallow was. They'd never heard of them. And think about it - how do you explain a marshmallow? In the end, I just gave up.

So I have undying respect for comedian Bill Burr, who took on the much more difficult job of taking his act on tour across Asia and Australia. We talked last week just after he got back from Mumbai. When it comes to performing for foreign audiences, Bill took a simple approach - don't explain the marshmallows.

BILL BURR: When I go overseas, I just act like I'm in, you know, Kentucky or something, 'cause I found if you go over there and you start thinking like, oh, my God, do they have this, do they have this, are they doing to get this reference, it puts you on your heels. And it really can mess with your show. I basically - I just go until something bombs. And then when it bombs, I just make fun of myself for thinking that people would understand it.

RATH: What kind of stuff didn't connect?

BURR: Well, most of the stuff connected. It would just be the little things. Like I was talking about my wife making me a sandwich - surprised me one day, gave me a sandwich - and that was one of the great days of my adult life. And she had cut it in my half. And she poured Fritos in the middle, you know? And I guess they don't have Fritos over there. And then I had to switch - so then I started saying chips and then chips or french fries to them. It was just little things like that.

RATH: You spent some time with some Indian comics. What was that like?

BURR: Oh, it was great. Comedy is so new over there. It's literally only like five years old over there - and thanks to Russell Peters, who is the biggest comic in the world.

RATH: He's Canadian originally, right? He's an Indian extraction, Canadian comedian.

BURR: Yeah. Yeah, him doing stand-up in all of these countries that never had stand-up - now, they have these stand-up scenes. You know, it's weird. Like, they're kind of in their Lenny Bruce years over there where they could actually get in trouble.

In fact, they hosted the first roast in India. And it was the classic - you know, the way comics get in trouble now. It's like they did the show, everybody laughed and it was funny. And then somebody uploaded it onto YouTube and then everybody saw it. And, of course, everybody starts getting offended and wondering what's going to happen to children, which is hilarious when you go to India, 'cause you see like a pantless toddler going to the bathroom next to like a Mercedes next to like a stray cow, you know? So, I mean, I don't think comedy is going to hurt it anymore.

RATH: (Laughter).

BURR: Forget about the - like the level of pollution that's over there. I mean, I hate saying that because I had such a good time over there. And I really made some good friends. And I don't want to discourage people from going over there, 'cause it was one of the most amazing cities I'd ever been to. And I basically in my act - been describing that if you basically took like CBGB, that punk rock club - if you turned that into a city, that was the vibe over there. It had like...

RATH: This made Mumbai sound awesome.

BURR: Yeah. But also know that a lot of it looks like the bathroom from CBGB.


BURR: You just have to know that. When you go to India - I had to get a work visa like a lot of these countries. And then when I landed, all of a sudden they told me I needed some sort of governmental paper stamped by them to get out or else I couldn't leave.

RATH: Indian bureaucracy, man, is just - it's the worst.

BURR: It was very unsettling. And it was just like the DMV. I had this whole stack of papers and, of course, in the end, I didn't have the one paper that I needed. And my flight was leaving at four in the morning. So I sort of charmed the lady, thank God. And, you know, three hours later, I was able to leave.

RATH: Next time you go, just bribe somebody.

BURR: Well, why don't you do it and let me know how it goes.


BURR: At least you kind of look like those people. I look like I'm in the Aryan Nation. I don't know if I want to try to do that. They already didn't have a good time with people that look like me. So I just played by the rules over there. But I really want to - when I sat down with those comics, it was one of my - one of my most favorite moments I've ever had as a comedian.

RATH: Were there parts of your act that landed better than you thought or things that you were surprised by in terms of reactions?

BURR: Yeah. You know what? Each, you know, country had sort of its own vibe - like Australia, you know, United States to Australia is not that big a jump. But Singapore was really cool in that the crowd was awesome - very international city.

And, of course, my version of Singapore is like half the movies I saw, like "Platoon," Vietnam War. I'm thinking there's going to be people out on rice paddies.

Like, I had no idea what it looked like because of American schools. All they talked about was Europe. That's all they talked about - was Europe - and not even all of Europe. It was basically England, a little bit of France - nothing east of France.

So I had no idea what it even looked like. Look, I don't read. I have no business even being on this network to be honest with you. Singapore was weird, man. There was definitely this beautiful, modern, clean city. But you just felt this sort of - my wife was kind of going like I don't know. I'm kind of getting this culty, weird sort of vibe. I feel like I'm in some sort of compound where I'm free to go but it's frowned upon.


BURR: I enjoyed it and I'm definitely going to go back. But there was - like the chaos of India needed to be dialed back like 15 percent. And I felt the control of Singapore could've gone India's way a few steps, if you know what I mean. And, you know, so it was definitely eye-opening trip for me.

RATH: That's Bill Burr. He's just back from a tour through Australia and Asia. You can check out his latest comedy special on Netflix right now. It's called "I'm Sorry You Feel That Way." Bill Burr, love your comedy. And it's been such a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

BURR: Well, thank you so much for having me on your show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.