No doubt about it, Bill Burr is a very talented comedian.
Burr knows how to set up a joke and land a punchline. He knows how to shift a story to keep a joke running. And when an audience member heckles him, he knows how to shut them down. Love it or hate it, Bill Burr's new Netflix special, Paper Tiger, is certainly a well-crafted hour of stand-up comedy. But is well-crafted comedy necessarily funny? That's debatable.
Burr's title, Paper Tiger, refers to something that appears powerful or threatening but in reality is fragile and weak. Within the context of Burr's special, it holds two potential meanings: The phrase could either refer to Burr's role as an "angry" comedian whose jokes don't actually hold any real-world import or to the primary target of this special's ire––"PC culture" and the white women (and emasculated men) who Burr accuses of fueling it.
Inevitably, Burr's special will be compared to Dave Chappelle's incredibly controversial Sticks and Stones, which aired on Netflix just a few weeks prior and also largely revolved around confronting PC culture. Like Chappelle's special, Paper Tiger will almost definitely receive some degree of outrage over its subject matter. Or, at least that's what Netflix wants you to think. After all, controversy generates impressions.
Bill Burr: Paper Tiger | Official Trailer | Netflix www.youtube.com
Except, the difference between Paper Tiger and Sticks and Stones is that Dave Chappelle's content actually has bite. Burr's material, on the other hand, feels toothless. And while that might be the entire goal of a stand-up special titled "Paper Tiger," it doesn't exactly make for vibrant comedy. That's not to say Burr's jokes aren't funny. I laughed a number of times during his special. But none of it was particularly memorable, either.
Before going further, I want to make one thing crystal clear. Comedians should never be "canceled" over the jokes in their sets. For comedy to function as an art form, the stage needs to function almost like a "safe space" of sorts. Great comedy often pushes societal boundaries, and considering how intertwined comedy is with the social climate in which it exists, some jokes will age incredibly poorly (assuming they don't arrive stillborn in the first place). With that being said, comedy is always subject to criticism. A joke being "just a joke" does not make it immune from commentary, discussion, and judgment. If anything, good comedy should provoke thought.
Thought-provoking comedy is an area where Dave Chappelle has always thrived. Even when he's absolutely, 100% punching down, as he does multiple times in Sticks and Stones, his comedy always feels like it's wrestling with ideas and social structures that go beyond just a simple punchline. His impression bit wherein he fakes out the audience and rails against them for holding anything anyone ever does against them (leading into a defense of Michael Jackson, even if he did molest kids) was brilliant, holding up a mirror to the audience to force them to contemplate where their sentiments fall.
Dave Chappelle's Impressions Are Insanely Accurate | Netflix Is A Joke www.youtube.com
And yes, people still have every right to be offended by and critique the jokes for which he punches down. One might even argue that the thought-provoking nature of Chappelle's work makes his "problematic" jokes all the more impactful, as they're clearly more than simple observation––Chappelle has thought things through, and that's where he landed.
Burr spends a lot of time in his set punching down, too, but while a number of his jokes might induce laughter, they all seem geared towards a very specific boomer mentality––one wherein white women who care about social issues are big hypocrites, guys who care about those same things are big p*ssies who just want to get laid, and deep down, nobody actually cares about anything, no matter what they say. It's the same sentiment you can find all over boomer Facebook, albeit in neater, funnier, less word salad-y packaging. But Burr never goes much deeper than that.
At times, he gets close. One particularly stand out bit sees Burr arguing with his wife about whether or not Elvis appropriated black culture. His wife is black, and their perspectives clash. He concedes points––indeed, she's right, Elvis did take influence from black artists who never received anything close to the credit he did––but ultimately concludes that those black artists must have appropriated their stuff from someone else. Right? The joke could have done something transcendent, toeing the line of a white perspective against a black perspective and ending with an epiphany. Instead, Burr reaffirms the status quo and the joke lands flat.
Unfortunately, a lot of Burr's material doesn't even make it that far, oftentimes teetering on hackey lines of comedy that were done to death by the late '90s, akin to "men are like this, women are like this." For instance, Burr does a bit about how men wouldn't need women if there were sex robots, which I'm fairly certain I saw summarized in a poorly photoshopped Facebook meme over a decade ago. But Burr's delivery was good, so I laughed. The joke was still lazy.
Part of the issue might come down to Burr's ideology surrounding comedy. Whereas Chappelle has built his career around satirizing social institutions, Burr strongly believes that comedy doesn't actually matter. He's wrong. Great comedians influence thought. I can't even count the number of times I've been talking about an issue with someone and they've quoted a comedian on the topic––usually George Carlin or Dave Chappelle or Louis C.K. (at least before he was canceled).
That's because, a lot of the time, comedians put people's dissonant thoughts and feelings into words. Oftentimes, putting something into words cements it as an idea, and comedians spread ideas just as well as the best writers. If comedy doesn't matter, then nothing matters. And if "nothing matters" is Burr's comedic thesis, then maybe it's no wonder that Paper Tiger is largely void of substance.