Perhaps it was desperation that forged Bill Burr into one of the the country's funniest comedians.
"I did horrible in school, I was failing in college, I got into warehousing for a while unsuccessfully," Burr says. "I didn't have any other options; I tried on a lot of shoes and none of them fit."
Then he signed up for a comedy contest. Hey, Cinderella, your chariot awaits.
Turned out that onstage, Burr, who plays two shows at Upper Darby's Tower Theater on Saturday night, is a five-tool funnyman.
Keen observer, clever anecdotalist, absurdist, mimic, devastating punch-liner - he's the whole package.
But Burr - with his red hair and pug Irish face, he resembles actor William Atherton (Die Hard) - also has a comedy superpower: He's a shatterer of shibboleths.
He'll take a commonly accepted truth, even a sacred one, and challenge it aggressively. And when he's done, once you've stopped wheezing with laughter, you'll say, "Dude is crazy. But he has a point."
"My favorite Bill Burr bit, and one that exemplifies what he does better than anyone else right now, is the one where he challenges the notion that mothers have 'the most difficult job in the world,' " says local comic Doogie Horner via e-mail. "He says things that other comics would be afraid to say, or wouldn't be able to say without seeming like jerks. He doesn't choose easy targets."
You want to see a comic skate out onto thin ice? Watch Burr's most recent stand-up special, You People Are All the Same, on Netflix. He does an extended bit refuting the idea that men should never hit women. Utterly reprehensible. And gradually hilarious.
"There are a lot of comics who claim to be brave or courageous who, in reality, are merely going after easy, socially acceptable targets," says Brian McKim, stand-up comic and coauthor of The Comedy Bible: The Complete Resource for Aspiring Comedians, via e-mail. "Burr tackles subjects that are politically off-limits and, in doing so, gets huge laughs."
His Promethean style succeeds in part through subterfuge. With his thick Massachusetts taproom accent and cocky posture, he comes off like a yahoo. But his insights reflect a surprising intelligence and curiosity.
You do not want to trifle with him, either. He does not suffer hecklers gladly.
In fact, while Burr has been constructing his profile incrementally with appearances on Chappelle's Show, Conan, Howard Stern, and Late Show With David Letterman, and a recurring role on Breaking Bad, his career got a big boost from a savage bootstomping he once administered to some ticketholders. In Camden.
In 2006, he was part of a comedy tour organized by radio's Opie & Anthony. A determinedly rowdy crowd at what is now the Susquehanna Bank Center set Burr off on a corrosive, intensely profane 12-minute tirade about the city of Philadelphia, its landmarks, sports teams, cuisine, and citizenry.
The condemnation was so ferocious that William Penn's knees were seen to buckle. Of course, Burr's rant became an Internet sensation.
Burr is on the phone while walking his dog, Cleo, in Los Angeles. "I'm the only white person who ever rescued a pit bull," he says. "People look at me when I'm walking her like I'm a gang member."
Yes, race is fodder for his act. He once did a bit built around Pride, the 2007 Terrence Howard movie about an African American swim team in Philadelphia.
But Burr wants to make it clear that while his comedy may run rampant over sensitive issues, he himself is no hater.
"If I really didn't like people, I wouldn't be doing this for a living," he says. "I'd be the guy in the back of the shoe repair store."
And he loves what he does.
"I got a nine-city tour coming up starting in Italy," he says. "I'll go to the Colosseum, eat a bunch of pasta, and then go run my mouth in all these other countries.
"It's the greatest job ever, once you start selling tickets. You can go see a movie whenever you want. That's as free as you can get."
8 and 11 p.m. Saturday at the Tower Theater, 69th and Ludlow Sts., Upper Darby.
Information: 610-352-2887, thetowerphilly.com