Bo Burnham: interview
Is US prodigy Bo Burnham the man to save comedy from arena-tour exploitation? Time Out meets the new saviour of stand-up.
Seldom do you see an interview with Bo Burnham without the label 'YouTube sensation'. Indeed, the video-streaming website is how he first entered the public eye, aged just 16, with his bedroom-filmed songs acquiring 90 million views and a fanatical following. But Burnham has made a remarkably natural transition to live comedy.
In the US Burnham's enthusiastic following know his lyrics word-for-word, and his gigs often seem like kara-Bo-ke. But I'm here at the delightful Cat Laughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny where the mostly local Irish audience, unfamiliar with his work, are left dumbfounded by an onslaught of lyrically intricate songs and densely packed material.
'This is a song about how deep I am,' the 20 year old says in a hotel-ballroom-turned-comedy-venue for the medieval city's fun annual festivities. The song mocks the kind of ridiculous philosophical lyrics typical of over-earnest singer-songwriters. But speaking to him later I discover he doesn't save being 'deep' for on stage in an ironic way. In fact, he constantly deconstructs his own performance. 'I do think too much,' he admits, 'it's a problem.' Pretentious? Maybe. But when you're as ludicrously talented as Burnham, you can afford to be.
Complex wordplay has been a big part of your comedy. Where did your love of language come from?
'I'm left-brained, so I'm all about a mathematical approach to language. I've always been interested in that. But I've gone slightly off wordplay. The new show, it isn't so much about that.'
So you feel you're still learning?
'Yes, I do. A lot of comedians find the thing that they're good at and ride that forever and they're just so fucking boring. I think I've found a general aesthetic, maybe. I don't know why it is or how it is, but I know what it is. With my new hour I'm taking a postmodern approach. Meta-comedy is everywhere and always seems so cold and to me is really kinda snarky. But to actually turn meta-comedy in on itself, to have that self-awareness become vulnerable and self-critical is interesting to me. We're constantly self-aware of everything we do. That's a big part of internet-culture comedy, but it's usually lighthearted and distant self-awareness. But self-awareness can be very introspective. When you turn it in on yourself it becomes violent and really engaging.
'I'm honest at times but I'm surreal at times. But in exercising that I'm defining who I am. Doing my show and showing the weird things that I can think of is such a better representation of myself than me telling a story about what I'm feeling, or talking about my family. Stand-up is such a self-aware art form and the absurdity of what it is, which is 800 people watching you pretend you're doing something for the first time, is so disingenuous. If you expose it for what it is there's a lot of drama in that. It sounds ridiculous when I say it, but I'm really trying to go for “mind-blowing”.'
That's an ambitious bar to set for yourself. Do you think you can achieve that?
'No, I don't, I don't at all. But I go into it thinking: Let's try to blow minds every single fucking second. And to not be afraid to really drag things into “serious”. I've had fantasies of vomiting on stage, I swear to God. I won't do that, but I've had fantasies of vomiting or crying, really ripping out my heart. There's not enough comedy that makes you really feel something.'
Do you think your audiences will embrace these new ideas?
'I don't know if it will come together or if people will like it… A horrible thing to say, I know. But I don't really give a fuck. I mean, I want everyone to be happy, but I need to be myself, you know? And in America I have a bunch of fans that are young kids. I don't know what this will do to them. But it's such a small part of their lives. People say, “I owe it to my fans.” Oh fuck yourself, your fans aren't your fans, they like your things. “Fans” comes from “fanatic”. These people have lives and maybe once a month enjoy your things. If you were gone out of their lives they'd be fine. I respect everything they've done for me because I wouldn't have my life without them. But I've given them what they've liked because I've served myself and why would I do anything different?'
The audience will be expecting to laugh, though. Do you care whether they find it funny?
'No, I don't care whether it's funny or not. I've kind of stopped valuing laughter as the end-all measurement of what I'm doing. I want to be funny and entertaining, but I want it to be a little more nuanced than that. It's all about surprising people, and you're not surprising people if you're making them laugh every five seconds.'
So do you feel the performance itself is more important than the material?
'Well, I don't want people watching my stuff saying, “Wow he's a good writer,” neither, “Wow he's a good performer.” I want people saying, “What is this thing that's happening?” I want them to be like, “Holy shit, this kind of magical thing is happening.” That intrigues me much more than, “What's the best dick joke I can write?” or “What one-liner can bring down the house?” I will always look at individual parts being very well-written and polished but there's more to comedy than people think. There's beauty, sadness, humanity and vulnerability. Honestly criticising yourself, and not in a lighthearted way. I have problems that I can't fix in my life. Things that I hate about myself and I'm not happy with, and I shouldn't have to get on stage and lie and smile. That's not a valuable thing to give people. I think comedy can be a little bit more than laughter and punchlines. I'm really interested in having moments of catharsis. Moments of clarity and poignancy in the middle of these silly jokes.'
But at what point is that no longer comedy?
'I don't know, but I don't think that's for me to judge or to even worry about. It's going to naturally be comedy because that's how I think. Comedy is the only thing I take seriously, that's the paradox of it all. I don't really give a shit about anything, but the only times I get angry or really hurt is when I see things being done to comedy. I see such potential in it, and it's just stomped on and dismissed and used and exploited. I want people seeing this beautiful thing for what it is. That in this weird, crazy kind of fucked up place you can share something so organic, so directly a reflection of what's on the inside of a person. And when I see it being clawed and turned into everything else in the world, when it's bought and sold and packaged and thrown into a fucking arena with 12 screens on it, I get angry and I defend it like it's my kid.'
You talk about being honest in comedy but you've always performed with a persona. Why did you create one in the first place?
'Well, I hated the YouTube one. I looked like Michael Cera with a guitar. And then I thought I'd take on this distant, cold, artistic one because when I elevated myself to that cocky level all these silly jokes looked much more ridiculous. It inadvertently made fun of guys that take themselves so seriously. But I realised I have so much fun in exploring different forms of comedy I should explore different personas too. But I don't know. I don't really know who I am. I have no idea what I am. I never really know what I'm doing exactly.'