This will be a little different than most of my columns. I generally try to pick comedians or TV shows I dearly love. That love is usually accompanied by knowledge that’s somewhere between thorough and obsessive. I had watched every Archer episode at least five times when I wrote about the show, and I think I’ve memorized half the jokes written by the subject of my first column, Jack Handey. I might be an idiot, but I’m an idiot who usually knows his stuff.
Not this time. I don’t know a whole heckuva lot about Bill Burr, other than he is a comedian and was on Breaking Bad. But after a friend’s wife got sick, I ended up with a free ticket to Burr’s standup show at the Chicago Theater in October. One of his jokes stuck with me, and here we are.
Based on one show, I found Burr a hard comedian to figure out; his persona was a bit incoherent. Much of his shtick seemed old-fashioned and Neanderthal-ish: for example, a long bit about why woman deserve to be paid less than men. The premises of this joke — like how men need to pay for women’s dinners, etc. — were so archaic I felt like I stepped into a time machine, and not a cool one. After the odd routine, Burr assured us all that women do deserve to be paid more, which only added to my confusion. Is the Ralph Kramden routine just a pose to draw in meatheaded fans? Is so, why backtrack? I felt like I had accidentally walked into a Republican fundraiser, and I suspect Burr is like a lot of Republican candidates: putting on a show that appeals to the worst instincts of his crowd.
I have no problem with comics who say awful things: I’m a huge fan of Anthony Jeselnik, whose recent Thoughts and Prayers special on Netflix included a joke about how he didn’t want to give his nephew a Barbie doll — because it gives “little boys unrealistic expectations of how easy it’s gonna be to tear off a head.”
I loved that joke. By any measure, ripping off a woman’s head is worse than underpaying her. The difference is that Jeselnik is being deliberately absurd: he used the old-fashioned, stereotypical idea that “Boys shouldn’t play with dolls” to set up a far more preposterous and unlikely punchline. But Jeselnik isn’t pandering to serial killers: he’s just trying to get a surprise and a laugh. Unfortunately, Burr does seem to be pandering to sexists and other lunkheads, which is disappointing.
I don’t know how much Burr’s performance was hurt by the crowd, which was kind of awful. There wasn’t so much heckling as there was obnoxious, drunken yelling. It sounded like there might have been a lunatic in attendance — or perhaps a real Neanderthal. Burr was annoyed but gentle with the heckler. It was a good reminder that being a standup is one of the hardest jobs in entertainment: it’s not be as physically demanding as being thrown off the top of a cage by the Undertaker, but it might be the emotional equivalent.
Anyway, the joke that is Burr’s Best Joke Ever — er, Best Bit from the One Night I Was Aware of Him — involved Hitler and Michael Jordan. Talking about Hitler isn’t a particularly promising start for a bit. While there is the occasionally inspired idea, like when Louis CK compared Ray Charles to Hitler in an avalanche of absurdity, joking about Hitler is usually about as hacky as it gets (as is talking about airplanes, which Burr did for about a half hour). But Burr did have a Hitler routine with a somewhat decent premise: that Hitler is unquestionably the Michael Jordan of evil, but he doesn’t deserve it because Stalin killed so many more people.
Burr weaved in and out of this topic for about ten minutes, but the endpoint was what made the routine stick for me. To wrap up the bit, Burr summarized:
“Stalin is Jordan. Hitler is just Kobe!”
I love this punchline for many reasons. The first is I’m a huge NBA fan, and it’s the only sport I know enough about to actually argue “Who’s better?” type stuff. I love debating where NBA players like Jordan and Kobe rank with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and LeBron James (who, by the way, might be the Funniest Basketball Player Ever based on his performance in Train Wreck).
This joke is comedy perfection for the NBA nerd who has a sense of how Jordan and Kobe rank. If that’s not you, Jordan is the unquestioned greatest player ever, as demonstrated by his six NBA titles, six NBA Finals MVPs, 5 regular season MVPs, numerous scoring records, and ridiculously entertaining style. He was also a jerk and a bully who actually wore a Hitler mustache for a while.
Kobe Bryant — who recently announced his retirement — came along a little later and modeled himself after Jordan with great success: he has very similar skills and has had a Hall of Fame career. While Kobe hasn’t won quite as many titles as Jordan or nearly as many awards, he has a reputation for being just as much of a jerk and bully. He topped Jordan in the bad human being department with a rape allegation. Kobe is one of the best players of all-time, greatest jerks of all-time, and kind of Jordan’s Mini-Me.
So the idea of insulting Hitler by comparing him to Kobe… that’s pretty damn funny. It also makes me wonder who’s the Tim Duncan of evil or Charles Barkley of evil. With this joke, Burr achieved the high level of absurdity I enjoy in my comedy — even if you have to be an NBA nerd to get it.