Know, Love and Hate Your Audience: My Thoughts on Bo Burnham’s “what.” and “Make Happy”

The more blog posts I write, the more aware I become that I have absolutely nothing new to say. Everything I want to say has probably already been written about by more articulate and insightful people. Not to mention the less articulate and baser troglodyte-people of the internet who I’m sure have launched their opinions into the ocean of the digital world to form a sticky patch of hate-and-ignorance ooze the size of the Pacific garbage patch. But I am a member of my generation. And I must perform.

About 10 years ago, Bo Burnham posted videos of himself singing and playing a keyboard. The backdrop was the inside of his gable-roofed teenager’s bedroom, complete with rumpled bed sheets and detritus. Presenting as mildly geeky, lanky and awkward, but endearing with his tongue-in-cheek attempts to appear mature and worldly, he quickly developed a fan base as one of the early YouTube celebrities. Clearly a student of musical theater, his songs were full of carefully enunciated raps and purposefully pubescent vocal hitches, it’s no surprise he was accepted at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts…the program every musical theater student dreams they’ll attend before making their debut in “Rent”…wait, shit, I just dated myself. Umm…what’s a more recent one…”Spring Awakening”? “Hamilton”? I’m nowhere NEAR turning 30…*laughs nervously and tightens bra straps*

Like both a good cheese and a bad porno, Bo’s comedy has aged and matured. He now has over 170 million views on YouTube, 5 albums, cameos on “Parks and Recreation”, “Key and Peele” and “Kroll Show”, and most recently two hour-long comedy specials streaming on Netflix under his belt.

Because I’m a brilliant human being who decided to move to the south in fucking JULY and it’s currently 98 degrees and rising outside,

Not to be confused with these studs

Not to be confused with these studs

I decided to watch Bo’s two specials back-to-back. I may also be feeling especially sluggish because I went to see “Ghostbusters” yesterday and made myself sick on popcorn because apparently I’m a fucking infant. Someone take these goddamn jalapeño pita chips away from me before I hurt myself! Here is my qualitative and in no way quantitative analysis.

what.

It starts out with footage of him as a toddler hamming it up for the family camera…clearly he’s always been a performer. Voiceovers are used frequently, starting with a scientific-sounding British woman telling the audience that Bo has “isolated himself in pursuit of comedy and in doing so has lost touch with reality. You’re an asshole, Bo.”

He clearly likes to play with the form. Rip-away pants reveal the same pants underneath. He takes comedic advice too far by giving serial killer eyes to one audience member for 40 seconds while chanting “pro-longed eye contact”. He still uses the silly, self-deprecating and (hopefully) intentionally racist jingles that got him famous in the first place in between trying to take his pants off and dancing around in a way that could be interpreted as skiing or participating in a gay porn, but his work is infused with far more self-hatred and introspection than before. He tries to play with the audience’s expectations, like when he introduces a beat-heavy dance number with the title “What Did I Do Last Night” before quickly stating, “I cried myself to sleep” and moving on to the next bit. In an upbeat song he sings that “art is a lie, nothing is real”, pretends to mess up, and then uses a voiceover to prove he’d actually written that error into the show.

One of my favorite numbers of the show is one in which his left brain and his right brain are manifested in two separate entities in an effort to bring him internal peace. His left brain is personified as logic and analysis in a cold blue light while his right brain, the center of emotions and creativity, bops around in a warm red one. Enjoy it below:

Just like in that number, he constantly bounces between cynicism and idealism. He rejects the idea that his fans know him and yet he continues to share his intimate fears through the show…seeming to crave understanding. He ends a song about how depressing the world is with the schmaltzy realization that “being a comedian isn’t being an insensitive prick that capitalizes on the suffering of others…it’s being a hero.” In this statement, he seems to be telling the audience that no matter how hard he tries to convince you that he’s a cynical jackass, he still hasn’t completely lost his desire to make people happy or else he wouldn’t be on stage performing. Which leads us to his second and most recent special.

Make Happy

Ambrose Bierce defines happiness as “an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another”. See? I just cited something…I must know what I’m talking about. Once again, a voiceover welcomes the audience and reminds us that the world is not funny. This is typical Bo. Saying something is not funny and then try to make it funny one sentence later. Settling in by messing around with the form again (keeping bits going for too long or using amateur segues)

He clearly hates anyone who takes themselves too seriously. And by clearly I mean he jokes in both of his shows that people who do so should kill themselves. He shows not a small amount of animosity towards his audience, which certainly isn’t a new technique in stand-up, but at least he’s honest about it. And some of his audience seems to deserve his disdain, as he gets heckled more than once. When a girl yells “I love you”, he angrily responds, “No, you fucking don’t”. This is reminiscent of the closing song from his first special, which is essentially about how his audience thinking they know him causes him distress. When another girl in the audience yells, “I love the idea of you” he responds with “stop participating”. Finally, a male voice yells, “Take your pants off”, to which the audience roars in laughter. And I actually really love how Bo responds to this…by pointing out the hypocricy of an audience that will laugh at his jokes and feign to be higher minded than the common man, but also provide an easy laugh for what’s essentially a homophobic joke that’s been made a million times before. He then adds, only half-joking and not entirely masking his annoyance, “don’t objectify me”. You get the sense that Bo’s discomfort with the enfringement of his private life that so often goes hand in hand with celebrity has only grown. But at the same time, he tries to acknowledge that his so-called problems are, in perspective, not really problems at all and sings a sarcastic song about how terrible it is to be a straight white male. This is a savvy move, because he preemptively makes fun of whatever angst he is going to bring up later in the show. And by criticising himself first, he takes the sting out of any outside criticisms that may follow.

He ends a song about how you should lower your romantic expectations with the surprisingly optimistic observation that “we all deserve love” because “it’s the very best part of being alive”. But within a couple of minutes he’s turned around and is explaining the reasons young people should not aspire to be like him…they should strive not to be performers. “This is not a meritocracy. I’ve lead an extremely privileged life. And I got lucky. And I’m unhappy.” He makes a point that social media is just the market’s response to the need of an entire generation that wants to be performing constantly. Which is so true it hurts. Especially since here I am, performing the act of an intelligent, self-aware, funny but inoffensive first-worlder for an audience…even if that audience is just an audience of five (Hi Mom, Bev, Susan, Jen and Dan!). For an interview Bo recently did with Conan O’Brien where he expands a bit more on his reasons for encouraging young people to lower their expectations, see below:

Bo’s last number is a Kanye West-inspired crisis over the terrible ratio of the human hand to the opening of a pringle can that morphs into an existential crisis. “Come and watch the skinny kid with the declining mental health and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself,” he sings. If this seems a fairly dark note to end a comedy show on, you aren’t wrong. And as cynical and jaded as Bo is becoming, even he isn’t able to end his show like that. He comes to the realization that the only thing he has is the opportunity to make other people happy. And that without that he is nothing.

So, Bo wants to know. Are you happy? Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. Batman. But you know what? I’m not the unhappiest I’ve ever been. And THAT is something.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil’s Dictionary

 

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