Bo Burham is a fucking genius. He is one of the most innovative minds in the history of stand-up comedy. He also has serious issues.
Burham first found success at 16, when the spoof videos he made in his bedroom went viral. At 18, he became the youngest comic ever to record a Comedy Central special. In 2013, still just 22, he co-created and starred in a sitcom for MTV, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. That same year he released a full-length special on Netflix and published Egghead, a book of poetry that became a New York Times bestseller. His YouTube videos have logged over 125 million hits. Currently he’s finishing up a new, nationwide tour, and virtually every date has sold out.
You might think that someone so young, talented and successful would be on top of the world. Mostly though, Bo Burnham is anxious. That anxiety, beyond the sheer force of his wordplay – the utter dazzle of his semantic gymnastics – is at the core of Burnham’s success.
He isn’t even sure how to define himself. The world calls him a stand-up comic, but there’s a sort of machismo in American stand-up comedy at odds with the bulk of Burnham’s work. Comedians, after all, aren’t supposed to get famous online. They are supposed to find success only after years of touring gritty nightclubs. Comics certainly aren’t supposed to use props, musical instruments or stage effects like Bo does, lest they be lumped in with the likes of Gallagher or Carrot Top.
“Stand up comedy in America is just slightly limited in terms of how we define it,” Burnham says. “In Europe and Australia, stand-up does not all look the same.” He cites Flight of the Conchords as comedy that doesn’t conform to the traditional forms; same with Bill Bailey, Tim Minchin and Dutch comic Hans Teeuwen.
“I would love for the center to be a little bit wider,” he says. “But I also understand that the culture we are in is so overstimulated. Everything that we are seeing has been so tested and noted and presented to us. I understand why there is this boom in, really, the most stripped down art form we have.”
That overstimulation, and the sense of dissociation it creates, is at the heart of Burnham’s appeal.
His intellectualized absurdity is reminiscent of Stephen Wright. The machine-gun delivery recalls Robin Williams. His love of wordplay echoes George Carlin. Carlin, however, was a moralist at heart. As was the great Bill Hicks. Burnham, by contrast, is profoundly suspicious of anyone, least of all a comedian, telling people what’s right and wrong. That suspicion is what truly sets Burnham apart – his obvious discomfort with authority of the stage. He loudly struggles with the very idea of performing. The song “Art is Dead” essentially offers a three-minute apology for his own superficiality.
In “Sad” he self-mockingly says “Being a comedian isn’t being an insensitive prick, capitalizing on the most animalistic impulses of the public. It’s being a hero!” The new show closes with “I Can’t Handle This” a song which describes in painful detail the love-hate relationship performers have with their audience – the angst of needing the approval of a crowd while simultaneously knowing that the crowd’s approval can’t fill the emptiness which drives performers to seek the applause of strangers in the first place.
“When I started,” Burnham says, “I was wanting to do material that was honest about what I was going through – when I’m on stage talking about the fact that I’m a performer or making reference to the fact that there’s an audience. And, really, making reference to the sort of anxiety it causes me — which is very real in my life — the anxiety of being on stage.”
Sometimes he expresses that anxiety by attacking the conventions of showbiz. “Repeat Stuff” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nt9c0UeYhFc) is a savage takedown of the venality and banality of corporate pop. In “Beautiful Like My Mom (Support the Troops),” created for his memorable guest spot on Parks and Recreation, he mocks the faux-homespun patriotism of country music.
He’s especially good, though, poking fun at comedy itself. He comments on the awkwardness of his own segues. He mocks hack comics who pluck the low-hanging fruit of relationship troubles or the differences between races. There’s a lot of Steve Martin and Zack Galifianakis in that work — an unpacking of comedic conventions. But Martin on stage was surreal and silly. Galifianakis, at his best, is self-effacing. Burnham, by contrast, is angry, with a healthy dose of willfully exaggerated narcissism.
Martin, of course, was also adept at mocking himself as the egotistical performer. But Martin always let the audience in on the joke. For Burham, the performance itself is the joke. The audience is never allowed to forget that we are watching a show; the presentation of a fabricated reality which is not to be trusted.
“When I started performing that way I was thinking ‘this is just going to be bullshit, meta-, postmodern stuff that really doesn’t mean anything to anyone except for me and maybe other people who perform.'”
What he found, though, is that the audience connected with the meta material "in a weirdly Seinfeld-observational way.”
“People can relate to the idea of being a performer, of having an audience, of feeling like you have to say something that has to be worthwhile – of being watched all the time, of performing your own life.”
That is, Burnham’s audience relates to his work not merely because people are tired of conventional showbiz tropes, or because his rapid-fire delivery and theatrical presentation mimic the overstimulation of daily life. People connect with Burnham because he is a performer who is profoundly uncomfortable with the implications of performing. His continual insistence that his on-stage persona is inauthentic speaks to our fundamental mistrust of the mass- and social media landscape in which most of us live. This is comedy for the era of photoshopped models, unreal reality TV and clickbait headlines; for an age when even our most intimate moments are manicured and packaged for public consumption.
“Life right now is very strange,” Burnham says. “There’s a lot of meta-narratives. There are a lot of people on their phone and projecting life digitally and watching that life, and watching people watch that life. And I don’t think the perfect way for me to talk about that would be to get up there and say 'Hey, isn’t texting weird?’ or 'Do you ever notice when you are on your phone…’ For me, the more important thing is to portray that reality.”
In the future, he will most likely be portraying that reality from outside the spotlight, performing less and writing more.
“I’m interested in pursuing projects that don’t have my face on it,“ he says. For someone so demonstrably uncomfortable on stage, that only makes sense. Burnham will, most likely, end up writing and directing more than he performs – Harold Ramis might be an analogous career. Anyone who does want to see that face on stage, performing his intellectually blistering, genre-blending form of stand-up, better hurry up and do it soon.
Hampton Stevens is a freelance writer who covers entertainment and the arts. He has contributed to The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, ESPN the Magazine, and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @HamptonStevens.