Fangs Out With A Big Heart


This essay was part of the final paper submitted for my ENGCOMP 3D course, which earned a grade of A.

Here’s a riddle. A father and son were in a car accident where the father was killed. The ambulance brought the son to the hospital and he needed immediate surgery. In the operating room, a doctor came in, looked at the little boy, and said, “I can’t operate on him, he is my son!” Take a moment to think of an explanation.

If you guessed that the boy was conceived out of wedlock and the surgeon was the boy’s gay father, you get points for open-mindedness, at least outside of the Bible. But did you also consider that the surgeon could be the boy’s mother? Don’t worry if you did not. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sexist. In a 2014 psychological study conducted by Boston University, only 14.5% of the subjects came up with the mom’s-the-surgeon answer. Among the overall subjects, women outnumbered men two-to-one, a majority were young people who identified as feminists, and they typically had mothers who were employed or were doctors. Yet, they tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle was a woman. This psychology study essentially proves the existence of “unconscious bias” within most of us, and depending on our respective experiences, it manifests itself in different ways and to varying degrees. To help his audience view their own unconscious biases from a spectator’s position, Bill Burr adopts the role of a trickster in Paper Tiger and intentionally paints himself as a toxic, sexist male. 

I will be the first to admit that at first glance, Burr appears to be a distasteful comic. Especially in contrast to performers such as Hasan Minhaj, whose comedy aims to share an ideal and spur a change for a better society, Burr’s coming out the gate with his fangs bared and claws out, mocking members across every level of society, from quadriplegics to the First Lady herself, appears to be a desperate attempt to elicit cheap laughter from his audience. However, if you are able to ignore the alarms going off in your head and avoid jumping to premature conclusions, you will find that this problematic portrayal is intentional. As a comedian performing in the height of politically correct (PC) culture, Burr understands that every joke he makes will come under intense scrutiny from every angle, with critics going out of their way to find things that offend them. Instead of playing it safe within the boundaries of what society deems acceptable, Burr uses these judgments as leverage to expose the blind spots that we so often have for our own unconscious biases. For instance, Burr aggressively crosses boundaries when he rants about oversensitive feminists and fantasizes about antagonizing those attending a women’s rally by shouting the most sexist things he can think of; in doing so, portraying an extreme version of a toxic, sexist male (4:34). By using his position as a White male to paint himself as both the provocateur and the dunce, Burr allows his audience to reflect on their own unconscious biases, without prematurely challenging his audience’s established beliefs. If Burr were to purely rely on logic and reasoning to explicitly point out his target audience’s biases, he risks a fight-or-flight response where his observations on PC culture are critiqued for being “unwoke”, or even worse, simply written off. However, by placing himself as part of the punchline, Burr ensures that the bread and butter of his skit — pointing out the unconscious biases in PC culture — is delivered through his comedy.

It is also important to note that due to Burr’s identity as an able-bodied White male—the epitome of privilege in society—his ability to portray vulnerability is restricted. Burr recognizes that people’s perspectives are shaped by the history they understand, the culture they inherit, and the experiences they encounter. In Burr’s case, people’s integrated and established beliefs that White males drew the long end of the stick limits his ability to share vulnerable personal experiences, as it would come off as a whine instead of a call for change. Where his fellow comics Hasan Minhaj and Chris Rock are able to leverage their racial identities to expose realities about the discrimination that their communities face, Burr simply cannot. The same also applies to Ali Wong and her identity as an Asian woman, which allows her to call out issues such as gender inequality. Nevertheless, by using rage humor, Burr is able to turn his comedic limitations into a strength. Since Burr’s privilege takes away his license to share narratives about his vulnerabilities, he adopts the role of a trickster to provide his audience “a shelter for reflection and a possible reconsideration of the self” (Weaver and Mora 483). Throughout Paper Tiger, Burr constantly alternates between offensive jokes and insightful comments. When he takes jabs at male feminists and the #MeToo movement, he follows it up with a personal story about being sexually assaulted as a man and acknowledges how hard it can be to come forward as a victim (21:48). It is this back and forth between crude jokes and astute observations that helps Burr’s audience consider whether they are unconsciously biased towards White males and assume that White males should not show any form of vulnerability due to their privilege. In many ways, this is also a reflection on PC culture which Burr is against, where someone may say something offensive and be defined by that one moment as if life isn’t equally a collection of terrible and inspiring moments. The constant tension and release between Burr’s jokes and insightful comments is the opposite of PC culture’s resistance to change. This creates a space for his audience to safely reflect on whether the screaming, insensitive man on stage is a portrayal of their unconscious biases, before leading them to embrace the ability to change themselves later on in the show.

Towards the end of Paper Tiger, Burr’s role as a “boundary crosser” helps him show glimpses of his vulnerability and empowers others to make changes as he did (Weaver and Mora 481). With a swathe of comedians of color using humor to reveal the discrimination their communities face, Burr’s portrayal of a trickster comes off as a refreshing way to use charged humor and gives his jokes a different tenor. Instead of using personal anecdotes and realistic examples of oppression to inspire a change in others, Burr promotes empowerment by acknowledging that every change one envisions starts from within. For instance, today’s PC culture isn’t one in which he wants his daughter to grow up. However, instead of lashing out at every oversensitive person he comes across, he is willing to go to therapy and try out meditation to get his anger issues under control, hence changing himself before he expects the world to change (29:24). This places the power in his hands to directly change reality for his daughter and wife, instead of waiting for PC culture to change. In leading by example, Burr shows that we are capable of sparking change in our respective communities, rather than expecting society to accommodate our beliefs.

As long as one is willing to give Burr the benefit of the doubt and allow him to make his point before jumping to premature conclusions about his show, they would find Paper Tiger a surprisingly heart-warming piece, offensive jokes and all. My favorite part is the still shot at the end, which is a beautiful image of the notoriously angry, grouchy, intolerant Burr holding his toddler in his arms like a gentle giant (1:05:35). If his previous comment about being a better man for his family isn’t explicit enough, this picture perfectly communicates his familial love and the lengths he would go to provide the best for his daughter. Paper Tiger attempts to show that unconscious biases exist in all of us. Hopefully, we all have a vulnerability that makes us want to do better, and it looks different coming from different people. Sometimes, vulnerability makes us sob a little every day before coming to terms with the truth; other times, it shows itself for all of 0.8 seconds before we bottle it up again. In Burr’s case, this vulnerability roars in rage but would do anything for his little girl—fangs bared with a big heart.

Works Cited

“BU Research: A Riddle Reveals Depth of Gender Bias | BU Today.” Boston University,