Bill Burr: Why Do I Do This?

Editors' review

August 16, 2016

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Denis Leary '79 will host the 22nd Annual Comic Come Home benefit November 12 to support the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. Courtesy photo

Denis Leary '79 will host the 22nd Annual Comic Come Home benefit November 12 to support the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care. Courtesy photo

Actor/writer/comedian/Emersonian Denis Leary ’79 will return to Boston’s TD Garden on Saturday, November 12, to host Comics Come Home, an annual event to raise money for the Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care.

Leary founded the event 22 years ago to support the organization started by his good friend Neely, former Boston Bruins right wing and current team president. Since 1995, Comics Come Home has raised almost $10 million for the Cam Neely Foundation, which spends 91 cents of every dollar on pediatric and adult cancer programs, research, and services. This year, a portion of the proceeds will help renovate the Neely House, a home-away-from-home for cancer patients and their families.

Comics performing in this year’s show include Lenny Clarke, Nick DiPaolo, Robert Kelly, Jay Larson, Wendy Liebman, Wanda Sykes, and fellow Emerson alumnus Bill Burr ’92.

Emerson College Today asked Leary and Burr about their involvement with Comics Come Home and their connection to the College.

Denis Leary

How did you get involved with Comics Come Home come?

I got involved because Cam Neely asked me to. Back in 1993, Cam came up with the idea for an event built around bringing famous comedians back to Boston for a one-time-only concert. I couldn't say no to Cam. He’s one of my closest friends. And also much bigger than me. And when he puts his mind to achieving something—he won’t take no for an answer.


Why the Cam Neely Foundation?

The Cam Neely Foundation was formed after both of Cam’s parents succumbed to the disease. His family lost their mom and their dad at very young ages. Once he processed his grief, Cam’s response was to fight cancer in as many ways as possible. 

We started out with an aim to build the Neely House at Tufts [Medical Center], where patients and their families could be treated in relative comfort with the most up-to-date medical staff and science available. Soon after we achieved that dream, Cam’s foundation moved into cancer research and the development of newer and more effective treatment. His stamina for this cause is endless.

Have other alumni worked with you on fundraisers or other creative projects?

Lauren Dombrowski—a terrifically talented comedy writer and producer who graduated in the Class of ’79 with me—was actively involved in raising funds to fight cancer in Los Angeles and gathered Martin Short, Bobcat Goldthwaite, Lenny Clarke, and our fellow Emerson alums and original Emerson Comedy Workshop members Mario Cantone, Adam Roth, and Chris Phillips for the gigs out there. Adam and Chris have both been a part of Comics Come Home from the beginning, as members of my onstage band and co-writers of all the comedy songs we perform each year.


You’ve founded a charitable organization (The Leary Firefighters Foundation), and you’re involved in a number of fundraising events. Many Emerson students are interested in starting nonprofits—particularly ones that use art to advance a cause. What advice do you have for getting something like that off the ground?

The best advice for anyone forming a charity or just putting together a charity event is: Never take no for an answer. Every time you hear someone say, “It’s impossible” or “Can’t be done”—just keep pushing forward. One of the least recognized aspects of the American way of life is how much we care for each other. People have big hearts. People want to help. It’s your job as a fundraiser to get their attention, and once you do, make sure your event is something they will remember. Because if they do? They will donate year after year.

You’re best known as a comic and a screenwriter, but do you write in any other genres?

I’m only capable as a writer within the areas I was trained in at Emerson College. That includes writing for TV and the movies and my one-man shows. The books I’ve written are just extensions of what I say onstage—and when I perform standup live, I’m working from a set of maybe five ideas in my head. I write it on my feet live in front of the audience. It’s a unique combination of improvisational tools and half-developed ideas that I’ve stored up in my brain. Once I get onstage, I let the monsters roll out. And the audience’s reaction will dictate how long I spend on a particular subject—and if they’re with me, I can end up doing ten minutes with it and discovering things I hadn’t even planned on saying. 

Most comedians who work this way find the same thing: It’s our conscious mind meeting our subconscious brain and building a concrete idea live under the lights. It’s thrilling and scary and a massive adrenaline rush. Which is why live performance is so addicting. There’s no cutting, there’s no do-overs. Everything comes back to the theater: The curtain goes up at 8 and there’s no feeling like it.

What are three things you think of when you think about Emerson?

My wife, my son, and my life. Emerson truly saved me. I got a scholarship and a student loan to attend—it was the only school that gave me a shot. My grades in high school weren’t all that fantastic. But someone at Emerson saw some potential in my writing and acting. 

Many of my closest lifelong friends came out of Emerson. I met my wife, Ann, who was a student in a class I was teaching after my graduation. (It wasn’t against the law then—and even if it was, it’s too late for jail time now.) Ann altered my life in all the most important ways. She was introduced to me by Dr. Jim Randall, who was also the faculty advisor and a major supporter of The Emerson Comedy Workshop. 

Without Emerson, I don’t know what I would have done. It sparked such creative freedom for me and taught me everything I needed to know about acting and writing. It put me where I am. It made me the writer and actor and father and husband I am today.

Bill Burr

Bill Burr '92 will perform at Comics Come Home in Boston on November 12. File photo

Bill Burr '92 will perform at Comics Come Home in Boston on November 12. File photo

How did you get involved in this year’s Comics Come Home event, and is this your first time?

The first time I performed at Comics Come Home was in 1996. I just realized this is my 20th anniversary. Wow. I was only about three to four years into my career when Denis asked me to do the benefit and he has been really supportive of me throughout my career. 

Will you change your set in any way because it’s for charity?

No, not because it’s a charity. I might switch it up a little bit because it is an arena. All depends on when I go on and the vibe of the crowd.

How has comedy changed since your Emerson days, and is that good or bad?

I think comedy has grown by leaps and bounds since my Emerson days. The audience is infinitely more knowledgeable about comedy than they were when I started. I attribute that to the influence of the Internet. So many of the people in the crowd have posted videos/use Snapchat and then received positive or negative reviews. Through that experience they learn what plays and what doesn’t, comedically. With audiences getting more savvy, it was natural that all performers had to keep moving forward or they would be considered corny. That’s probably why there are so many great TV shows and comedians nowadays. As annoying as people can be on the Internet, the feedback is priceless.

Who is the funniest person you ever met who wasn’t trying to be funny?

You just described most of the people I grew up with outside of Boston. What I love about people from New England is just about everyone there is a character. I have no idea why that is, but I’ve done enough traveling to understand how truly lucky I am to be born and raised in Massachusetts. Just about everyone I went to school with, partied with, or worked with during my time in that state were just as funny as any comedian I ever met.

What are three things you think of when you think about Emerson?

I remember seeing pictures of Leno, Leary, and Anthony Clark in the Emerson handbooks and thinking, “They went here and became comedians.” It gave me a lot of hope.

I remember doing the 2:00–6:00 am shift at 640AM WECB. It only broadcasted to the dorms. No one ever called in for a request, but I was cool with that because I was just trying to get comfortable on the mic and was really shy.

Lastly, I remember trying and eventually failing to lose my Boston accent in that career speech class everyone was required to take.

Special Offer for Emerson Students, Faculty, Staff, and Alumni:

The Cam Neely Foundation for Cancer Care is offering the Emerson community discounted tickets to Comics Come Home 22 (#CCH22), on Saturday, November 12, 8:00 pm, at TD Garden. 

Tickets are available through Ticketmaster for the special price of $27.75 (regularly priced at $46.50) plus service charges, with a maximum of four tickets per person. Use the promotional code “LIONS” to purchase tickets on Tickemaster.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, and at the TD Garden Box Office. Enjoy the show!