Comedy specials have become a bugle call for herds of people looking for reasons to be offended and to demand the end of a celebrity’s career. They have also become a “safe space” for people who like to laugh at politically incorrect humor and provide relief from a life where saying what you really mean is incredibly risky. Bill Burr’s “Paper Tiger” is no exception, delivering a swift kick straight into the hornet’s nest of strident feminism.
In his hour-long Netflix special, Burr is undaunted by the recent backlash against all forms of comedy by people who seem affronted by anything that hits the ever-growing list of “off-limits” joke topics. Like Dave Chappelle in “Sticks & Stones” just days earlier, Burr leans hard into an outright attack against those who have called to have him “cancelled.” For Chapelle, it’s the “Alphabet people” of nonheterosexual identities; for Burr, it’s modern feminism.
Burr has never held back in stressing emotional elements of his personal life to evoke humor in his comedy, often joking—loudly—about his anger in dealing with menial tasks and patience with his wife, to whom he is also quite affectionate.
In the opening half of his show, Burr jokes about women who applaud women only because of their sex without acknowledging other elements of success and character. “You don’t even know what her f—king platform is, and you automatically cheer,” Burr says to an applauding audience after suggesting a woman could soon be president. “Feminists are not as smart as they’re coming off, I’m telling you.”
Burr suggests strongly that former first lady Michelle Obama is deeply unqualified for her “arena tour” of speaking engagements, noting that he spent decades grinding in comedy night clubs before reaching the same professional threshold. Spending more than a few moments on the former first lady, Burr tasked the audience with naming any of her professional qualifications.
Early critiques of “Paper Tiger” from farther left outlets recognized Burr’s strong comedic performance but largely rejected his critique of identity-based feminism. This, however, is where he was actually the strongest.
It is, in fact, quite possible for women to be successful based on their own merit in the United States without insisting they should get special treatment because of their sex. Burr’s line of jokes on the subject were not only funny but rang a bell of truth that should not offend women but empower them. Women do not need to be chosen based on their biological identity to be successful, and to make them think they do is to take away the reward of personally achieved success.
Burr also took aim at the #BelieveWomen hashtag that emerged in the wake of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the unfounded accusations against him. Burr dismissed the notion that all women should flatly be believed. “That’s a little open-ended, huh?” he says. “What about the psychos?”
This point, rarely said aloud in mixed company, dramatically demonstrates why flatly believing anyone based on his or her identity is a heroically stupid idea. Certainly, claims of sexual abuse should be taken seriously, but a flat call to believe “all women” with or without corroboration is a joke in itself, and Burr was right to satirize it.
Burr spent the hour flexing his strongest tool as a comic: anger at just about everything. While Burr’s signature style of comedy is “angry,” his zeal for life that hums just below the surface endears him to the audience. His tirade against radical feminism wasn’t about an anger at women; it was anger at an ever-growing idea that women should be weak and humorless.
In an interview with fellow comedian Joe Rogan ahead of the premiere, Burr reiterated his intentions as a comedian. “I’m not trying to … hurt anybody, it’s not malicious. I’m doing my job; I’m talking about what’s in the news … it’s part that and the other part is just me talking about my flaws and my temper and trying to work that s—t out.”
Underneath the façade of boiling anger, Burr calls on all of us in “Paper Tiger” to remember why we turned on a comedy special: not to be outraged, but to laugh.