At age 47, Bill Burr has the kind of career that most comedians dream of. The Massachusetts native is both critically respected and commercially successful. Often referred to as a "comedian's comedian," Burr is a master at the craft of stand-up, never wasting a word in his premises and punchlines as he rails against modern absurdities while balancing on the line between charming and boorish.
But his newest project, Netflix's F Is for Family, is new territory for him. The animated show, produced by Vince Vaughn's Wild West Television and Gaumont International Television, is loosely based on Burr's and co-creator Michael Price's (The Simpsons) experiences growing up in the 1970s. Burr voices the main character, Frank Murphy, the long-suffering, short-tempered patriarch of a typical working class family. But the character isn't meant to be a direct imitation of Burr's father.
"It's an exaggeration of part of [my dad's] personality, part of Mike Price's dad and then everybody else's dad in the writers' room," says Burr. "If my family sits down and watches it, they'll see little things, but as far as everything else, it's completely different. Every once in a while, I'll throw in something that my dad said, and other times it'll be an experience that happened to me as a child, but there's always a twist on it because there's a bunch of other people pitching ideas in there. And I wanted my family to be able to sit down and watch it and not be mortified that I put all of our dirty laundry out there."
The character of Frank breaks the TV-dad mold by eschewing the bumbling fool trope seen on shows like The Simpsons or Family Guy. The dramatic thrust of the show stems from Frank's relationship with his family, but it's over real-world concerns, like eldest son Kevin (Justin Long) failing most of his classes, or wife Sue (Laura Dern) wanting more to do with her life than just be a stay-at-home mom. When asked if this was a conscious decision by the writers, Burr responds, "Yes and no. I like absurd comedy. I really enjoy it, but that's not my style. I just thought it would be interesting if, even though it's an animated show, if we kept it believable, but you still have fun with the animation. Some of the scenes we do, like when [middle child] Bill (Haley Reinhart) goes into the bathroom at the stadium [and witnesses disturbing behavior and hygiene from a crowd of drunken football fans], you're able to have fun with animation like that. But at the root of it is the mind-altering experience, the psychological damage that that was. We kind of walk that line."
The show has been praised for its depiction of the 1970s, partly because it avoids stereotypical trappings like lava lamps and bellbottoms in favor of a realistic depiction of a time when cigarette machines were everywhere, kids explored their neighborhoods without supervision and it was socially acceptable to use corporal punishment to discipline children.
"Even though the show takes place in the early '70s, the throughline is basically that as much as stuff has changed, having a volatile parental figure or going through getting bullied, a lot of the stuff about growing up and being in a family is timeless. So the cars look different or a lot of the technology is different ... but generally speaking, raising a family is raising a family," says Burr.
Despite his new TV career – F Is for Family was recently picked up for a second season – Burr's first love is still stand-up, and he's excited when he gets the opportunity to bring it out on the road. "I love doing stand-up more than I ever have. I've written a whole new hour and a half worth of material since my last special. It's just a great thing to go back to all these places that I've been to before. I have friends in just about every city." Burr plans to record a new special later this year, with a tentative release in early 2017. "My overall career arc is going to be my body of work with my specials," he says. "Everything else that I get beyond stand-up is gravy."