Bo Burnham is 25 years old but looks younger. He has sophisticated opinions about Kanye West. He has a cynical, confident, post-smartass (but also just-plain-smartass) stage persona. He makes it look easy but wants you to know that it isn’t but also that you shouldn’t think about it too much.
In a stand-up world dominated by storytellers, Burnham is a performer. Like Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex Girlfriend), Adam Conover (Adam Ruins Everything) and a handful other young comics, Burnham worked out his comedy on YouTube but has largely moved to more traditional forms; unlike Bloom and Conover, who were drawn to TV, Burnham chose stand-up.
Burnham finishes his new Netflix special Make Happy with a stunning musical set piece. While he sings the repeated line, “I don’t think that I can handle this right now,” you never forget that he’s complaining about the size of a Pringles can and his ruined Chipotle burrito. He also wants your approval and isn’t completely comfortable with how he feels about that. It’s performed emotion and real emotion, and it works.
We sat down with Burnham to talk about Make Happy and the state of comedy.
Stand-up is usually pretty lo-fi, but you use a lot of technical elements. How do you write for that?
I’ve experimented with those elements before. For this show, I wanted to build in the tech from the ground up, so we wrote and workshopped the show. We hired a lighting guy and a sound guy, and we had a warehouse in Philadelphia where we worked out the whole show before we took it on the road.
It’s a pretty intricate setup. Have you looked at doing the show as a residency somewhere like New York or Las Vegas?
We were able to keep the show pretty consistent by traveling those elements everywhere we went. If I stationed in one venue, I would have a lot more freedom to do things. I like the idea of writing a show with the tech and with a specific venue in mind.
There’s a musical set piece at the end of Make Happy that’s intentionally ridiculous but very emotional. Is that all performance for you, or are you experiencing it as an emotional moment?
It’s a little of both. The emotion is connected to the ridiculousness of the performance. The emotion I’m trying to express is the emotion I feel while performing. That last piece, for me, is a weird, backward way of talking about my own performance anxiety.
It’s kind of a parody of a Kanye West performance, and I’ve wondered the same about him—whether he’s really feeling it or if it’s all performance.
He’s certainly more confident than I am. [laughs] The line between him and his performed persona is blurred. As much as the bit is poking fun at him, I actually really like him and think he’s a coherent version of a famous person because he’s so incoherent. Someone who’s that famous should be that insane. For him, having a freakout seems like an appropriate response.
A lot of your humor in Make Happy is about white privilege and political correctness. Are you very political yourself?
I think everyone right now is pretty political. My main concern with politics is the volume of noise, and I don’t need to contribute to that. People need to shut up for five seconds and listen to people who know things, and I feel like I should be a listener instead of a speaker on politics.
With video, podcasts and social media, you’ve got a lot of tools to get in front of a bigger audience than what you can get in a theater. Why do you still do so much live stand-up?
It’s what I’ve always loved doing, and there’s something magical about it. People are inundated with screens between you and another person, and it’s nice to strip that away. I don’t want people to have to sift through mountains of crap to get to what I do. There are entertainers who are doing so much all the time that when they put out something they worked really hard to do, it gets buried beneath all the other stuff. I want to work hard and put something out every couple of years. I want it to be easy to find the stuff that I want people to see and not fight against my own white noise.
Have you gone so long doing your own thing that you couldn’t turn yourself over to a theater director and be the fourth lead in a Broadway show?
I have much less interest in doing that than I do being the director and not being in the show at all. It would be nice to write for and work with people who are better performers than I am.
I don’t do autobiographical material onstage because there’s so much I have to talk about to even get to that point.
But you’re probably getting TV scripts, right?
Yeah, but I don’t think people see my act and think it would work for a TV show. I don’t want the live show to be a stepping stone to something else. The live show, for me, is the endgame. I want you to be able to see it and not be able to picture it in any other medium. My favorite books are books that I’d never want to see as a movie.
Give me an example.
Like Slaughterhouse-Five. Its strength is that all of its changes in setting and time work best on the page. I’m not saying that good books can’t be adapted, but there’s a sort of impulse today to make everything translatable to something else. Part of what makes things distinct is their inability to translate to something else. So many Broadway shows are based on movies, and I miss the days of Sunday in the Park with George.
One of the approaches you use in your stand-up is to move in a particular direction and then rip it at an unexpected time. That’s almost inherently funny. Why do you think that is?
The basic psychology of comedy is about subverting expectations, and that can be incredibly subtle like a turn of phrase, or it can be huge and loud and structural. I don’t think what I’m doing is that much different than what Steve Martin was doing in the 1970s and doing better than I do. People like to not know what’s coming—and not just with comedy but with any entertainment.
You’re too young to know who Steve Martin is.
I listened to those albums—Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy. His stand-up in the 1970s is a marker, and there wasn’t a lot of what he did post him. Comedy seems to have been more dominated since Martin by the successors of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin and Richard Pryor. Steve Martin connected with me more than those other guys.
Autobiographical storytelling is definitely the trend right now in stand-up, but that’s not what you do. Do you see other people out there doing the more performance-based stand-up that you do?
Yes, and I think you’ll probably see more of it in the next few years. I think I’m part of a generation that’s just now getting the opportunity to do that. There are young comedians like Kate Berlant and John Early who are talking about the artifice that’s impeding honesty instead of just being totally honest. I don’t do autobiographical, honest material onstage because there’s so much I have to talk about to even get to that point, and that feels true for a lot of people my age.
Did you see John Early’s episode of Netflix’s The Characters?
Yeah. It’s the best one.
I’m not even sure if it’s comedy, but it’s incredibly entertaining.
I think he’s one of the funniest actors I’ve ever seen. So much of his acting, for me, is about witnessing someone trying to fool you or lie to you and reacting to his own lies. There’s so many layers to his performance. There’s different paths to honesty that don’t just mean sitting on a stool and talking about real shit.
Burnham’s stand-up special Make Happy is available on Netflix.