Bo Burnham: A Performance About Performance
“I don’t worship comedy; at the end of the day, I don’t fall to the altar of comedy unquestioningly,” says Bo Burnham.
Bo Burnham is an American comedian, director, writer and producer, whose comedic topics span widely from songs commenting on the intricacies of the internet’s effect on mental health to routines about making peanut butter sandwiches. His work is mainly comprised of satirical songs that hold up a mirror to his own art form and bring attention to current issues with performance, audience and social media.
In his 2013 comedy special “what,” Burnham opens with a robotic voice-over insulting his appearance and behavior, claiming that by isolating himself in pursuit of comedy, he had become arrogant and detached. The routine introduces the audience to Burnham’s stage persona: someone who is so self-absorbed that he is practically disconnected from reality. Burnham uses this character to deliver his humor effectively. His show isn’t him retelling relatable stories that end in a perfect punchline; it’s a completely meta show about the flaws of performing, most importantly highlighting the tricky relationship between the artists and their audience. Several comedians claim to be “just regular people” while standing on stages in front of hundreds of fans. Burnham exaggerates this disconnection by acting overly egotistical onstage and alternating between entertaining the audience and insulting them.
In his song “Repeat Stuff” (played in the same comedy special), Burnham continues exploring this theme by parodying the Justin Bieber-esque pop style to comment on the manufactured nature of today’s love songs that “spread like the plague.” He points out the corporate vagueness of the lyrics that have been crafted so that any teen girl could project herself onto them. Burnham shines a light onto the toxic ways we idolize celebrities.
Burnham explores the audience-creator relationship in the majority of his work. In songs like “Repeat Stuff” and “Pandering” (a song highlighting the condescending nature of modern stadium country music), Burnham displays the ways creators “dumb down” their content to appeal to larger audiences and pander openly to gain popularity. He also critiques popular songs with oversimplified messages in his heavily satirical song “Kill Yourself.”
Before you become offended over the use of suicide jokes in comedy, it’s important to explain that “Kill Yourself” was not written to make light of a serious issue but to be used as an extreme example of songs that dangerously oversimplify deep and complex societal problems. The songs he targets are those in the same genre as Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Telling someone with genuine problems just to “be brave” is the same as telling a clinically depressed person just to “be happy.” The real problems are ignored in favor of a catchy chorus that will pull in millions of sales. Burnham says, “You shouldn't just be brave, you shouldn’t just roar, you shouldn’t just kill yourself” and that “Signs of depression go overlooked...You need to book a therapy session, talk about your depression.” His point is purely that life’s hardest problems shouldn’t have simple solutions and that pushing notions through pop songs is hazardous to young consumers.
Mental health plays an important role in Bo Burnham’s shows. Among the issues in performance that often are glossed over in favor of bright lights and makeup is the entertainment industry’s erasure (or ignorance) of mental health conditions.
In both “what.” and “Make Happy,” Burnham finishes the shows in a more introspective and blatantly serious tone. In the closing number “We Think We Know You” of “what.,” Burnham encounters a string of voice-overs, conversing with him as if they were present on stage.
Facing a high school classmate, a talent manager and a friend of his cousin’s roommate's friend, Burnham demonstrates the way fame and audience have impacted his life. The former classmate invites him to “play one of your songs or something” at her party even though “we never talked or hung out ever, but um…I think that's what made our friendship so special.” The manager tells him that “it's not important whether your material's "good" or not. What's important is that you keep the Bo Burnham brand “alive and well.” Finally, the friend of his cousin’s roommate's friend deduces the reason that Burnham is so quiet must be because he’s aloof, not “cause you're shy and introverted in real life and people shouldn't expect you to act the same way offstage as you do onstage.” Burnham then remixes their voices into a song, their conversations overlapping into a catchy yet overwhelming package that channels the feelings of the overwhelmingly toxic expectations in place for performers.
In “Make Happy,” Burnham confesses that during the run of the “what.” tour he faced immobilizing panic attacks in between each show because of the immense pressure that came with performing and his unaddressed, preexisting depressive and anxiety disorders. He closes the show with what he calls a “Kanye Rant”: an auto-tuned half song, half speech about the issues plaguing him at the moment. The introspective rant mixed comedic discussion about the size of Pringle cans and Chipotle burritos with a sincere confession about his worries regarding entertaining his audience and the anxiety-ridden refrain of “I don’t think that I can handle this right now.”
Enter social media. If the name Bo Burnham sounded familiar at the start of this article, it’s likely because you have heard of his film “Eighth Grade.” Burnham realized that the anxiety he felt around performing was the same anxiety younger people were experiencing through and around social media. A few minutes prior to the “Kanye-rant,” Burnham explained, “Social media. It’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’ It’s performer and audience melded together… It’s chaos.”
“Eighth Grade” follows Kayla through her last week of eighth grade. It’s an authentic telling of the reality of social media and anxiety as well as the oddly rapidly changing world of a Middle Schooler in the present day. Though the movie differs from his specials in ways of format and delivery, “Eighth Grade” still carries the same themes and messages instilled in all of Burnham’s work.
Burnham depicts the issues in performance and audience through his comedy specials and film. He’s not only an entertaining comedian but also an unique thinker in his style and perspective. His comedy might come off as harsh or intense to some. Burnham’s style, however, is meant to keep you on edge and a little confused. His work is steeped with conclusions and meanings, but perhaps the best summary of his message is “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”
Three of Burnham’s Movies I Recommend:
1. “what.” — It can be found in most movie stores. It’s for free on youtube!!!
2. “Make Happy” — It can be found exclusively on Netflix.
3. “Eighth Grade” — It can be found wherever you buy movies and is included if you have Amazon Prime.