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Bill Burr Takes on Lower Broad

Bill Burr Takes on Lower Broad

The comedian’s pragmatic social critique offers a promising version of Nashville.

The line to get into the Bill Burr show at Bridgestone Arena last Friday was still spilling out onto Broadway by its 7:30 p.m. start time. Those working crowd control attempted to stuff as many cell phones in time-locked security bags as they could before the impending rain set in. The result was utter chaos–just a different kind than was going  on a few yards over as police began closing the street to kick off a weekend of revelry. 

As he’s done since the days before he graduated to Bridgestone from the Ryman, Burr was demanding that his fans live in the moment, preserving the impact of his show for those who have yet to see it on this nationwide tour or the ensuing Netflix special later this year. In return, he promised a ribald evening that would broach topics off-limits to other comedians while maintaining a sense of decorum otherwise too far gone in most social situations. Not only did Burr deliver, but he managed to capture the ideological fissures that threaten the promise of the city’s future better than any pundit or politician trying to make sense of the New Nashville.

While Burr would never claim he has Nashville street cred, his ties to the city go far deeper than most other Los Angeles interlopers. As he told the audience during an impromptu introduction of Brian Dorfman late in the show, the Zanies owner was an early supporter in the days when Burr was just a blisteringly funny unknown trying to make connections outside his hometown of Boston who allowed him a venue to hone the angry white man persona, which has since led to many sold-out arenas. That might explain why Burr harbors so much contempt for the California transplants that served as the butt of many jokes throughout the show. “They aren’t from L.A. They just moved there from somewhere else and couldn’t make it,” Burr said. “Don’t worry. They will leave here soon too.” 

As Burr told the Scene last week, he tries to bring a regional sensibility to each stop on his tour—an equal-opportunity offender who needles social mores in Red and Blue areas alike. One of the reasons Burr’s star has risen exponentially over the past decade is his refusal to kowtow to correct political sensibilities.

While other comedians traveling through Nashville from Nick Offerman to Taylor Tomlinson have made MAGA vitriol a cornerstone of their acts, Burr continues to approach all sides of the political spectrum with a devastating equity that serves to challenge the tribalism at the core of American politics over the last decade. It’s why he is the only comedian who could have opened his Saturday Night Live hosting gig in the Fall of 2020 with jokes that laid BLM and COVID hypocrisy bare while not just surviving but flourishing in their wake. 

Though his bluster and venom seem to indicate otherwise, Burr is comedy’s ultimate unifier, the only presence on the scene capable of cutting through ideological fault lines and forcing his audience to reexamine the dogmas they hide behind. To borrow a favorite Burr word, it takes balls to do a prolonged bit about gun control in a city still reeling from the Covenant tragedy and the nauseating political posturing both sides of the aisle have created in its wake. But that’s exactly what Burr did as he suggested liberals are too buffoonish to embrace firearms and those who worship at the altar of 2A shouldn’t be too proud of their AR-15s and ear-plugged weekends at the shooting range, much less the spent targets they hang up in the garage. 

Burr also proved himself one of the only comedians who can successfully implicate his audience and induce immediate self-reflection. As he concluded a meditation about getting older and seeing his family members fall into dementia, the audience cooed in sympathy before a joke about Biden’s mental capacity that drew one of the biggest laughs of the night. “That’s America right there,” Burr said, a place where strangers offer support to those succumbing to old age unless the same tragedy befalls a political opponent. Though nearly 20,000 people strong, Bridgestone sounded as if it were empty for a few seconds after. 

Because of Burr’s intentional poking of leftist sympathies, many on the right have embraced him as their own. But, Burr is one of the few remaining entertainers who understands that his job is to provoke. As British author Alain de Botton claims in his book Status Anxiety, the role of the comedian is to “to convey with impunity messages that might be dangerous or impossible to state directly.”

It’s a sentiment that, excluding the AP English students using it as a writing prompt, most of us have spent the last few years failing to understand–one central to Burr’s act. He’s a comedian unafraid to refer to the Gaza conflict as an argument over “whose kids are worth more” while obliterating those who explain the particulars of Hamas’s use of human shields with an analogy about a guy who punches through a baby to attack his neighbor (“You have to work around that!”). What the Right can’t acknowledge is that Burr couldn’t exist if its messaging wasn’t an abysmal failure full of dad joke memes and boring daily outrage. 

It seems fitting that the week after Burr’s nearly sold-out show, Nashville’s Metro Council would again become a national embarrassment while unwittingly violating the First Amendment after fashioning a rote sign request for Morgan Wallen’s bar into the type of political soapbox ripe for a Burr joke. However, as Burr’s local popularity proves, there are two Nashvilles: one craving the type of practical critique the comedian dishes out and one feigning a boots-on-the-ground authenticity with vague gestures to the “constituents” it exploits while benefitting from the privileges of local politics. 

It comes as little surprise that Burr’s most popular takedown of the evening involved him screaming, “Woo!”, while yelling about pedal taverns before exclaiming, “Jesus Christ! That’s gonna be a mother one day…” Burr may share his views on Nashville woo girls with the city’s current mayor, who rooted his campaign in rhetoric opposing bachelorettes and billionaires.

But, like Burr, Freddie O’Connell has proven himself aware of the reality that Nashville is a city that has to cater to multiple contingencies, a reason he spent the week talking about increased police presence and modest yet impactful transit improvements while his former council mates continued to stoke the culture wars. As Burr knows, Nashville is more than the sum of its stereotypes and one-dimensional politics. So is the nation. And our future depends on the type of hard truths Burr has been priming his fans for since those early days at Zanies.