Bo Burnham: comedy in the age of anxiety


There is something undeniably addictive about Bo Burnham’s work, and watching Eighth Grade only deepened my appreciation for him. He intrigues and saddens me in equal measure because he’s prodigiously gifted. How can one person, at only 28, possess so much talent? Yet to skewer Uncle Sam’s ideologies so precisely will no doubt have taken its toll, a topic that has been explored at length through think pieces. I’m aware that other performers will have covered this ground before – nothing is new under the sun — and others will in the future. But I’ve spent weeks wrestling with his ideas, the existential self-reflexivity, the way that someone so young can see right into the state of this self-conscious, performative generation. He’s a postmodern entertainer, which is to say that he is both entertaining and continually self-deconstructing. I’m going to take a look at the ways he approaches performance both on stage, in film, and online, using comedy as a way of exposing prevalent anxieties in society.

Bo has built his career on subversive comedy, songs flying in the face of political correctness as far back as 2006, and sketches that tear dominant ideologies to shreds. Becoming a viral sensation at the age of 17, his songs became more elaborate, his jokes multiplying, and he immediately began satirizing the very medium which gave him stardom. He turned down offers to study at NYU, Harvard and Brown, instead deferring to pursue his standup career, showing that his voice was of more value to him than the curriculum. Just take a look at the line-by-line analysis of  “Words words words” to consider how he can condense complex ideas. In the way that musicians like Don McLean have become canonical with songs like “American Pie” (now taught in school curriculum), Burnham has basically become canon to the online community.

Bo’s two most recent standup shows, what. (2013) and Make Happy (2016) are currently streaming on Netflix, and they’re some of his best work. Bo is famously averse to social media, making it completely ironic that he’s become a craze, an online sensation; the very thing he was protesting was a lost generation looking for icons to look up to. The reason his work matters to a younger generation is because he serves to make them aware of the ideas they live by, even if they’re not aware themselves. Of course, it’s relevant to all of us in order to help us be more mindful of the things we say and do. Some say that it’s counter-productive to analyse the ins and outs of comedy. But given that Bo’s career has been built on this kind of meta probing, I’d say it would be unreasonable to approach his work without thinking about it.

Standup comedy

The idea of comedians and observers and deeply introspective people has been on my mind for a long time: last year I wrote a piece exploring the idea of comedians and mental health, the identity crisis that comes with being such a perceptive observer. Along with comics from Chaplin to Carrey, Bo has captured the deep ennui of being alive. And in the stream-of-consciousness found within Dave Eggers’ and Maggie Nelson’s writing, I see the same distilled sense of self-wonder in these one-man shows. Bo is expertly self-referential, linguistically precise, lucid, fluid, when it comes to deconstructing his own style. As what. reaches its finale We Think We Know You, an imaginary agent describes and how “young people are very passionate, reliable consumers…but they don’t respond well to this challenge to the form stuff.” It’s almost as if drawing attention to the purpose of art and entertainment – it is built only to be undone – and to refer to the generation that he’s primarily aiming at.

One of the most insightful interviews with Bo explores the topic of anxiety and an audience, which is itself both ironically comic and tragic given his birthing from YouTube (“I’m an internet provider/Came from the web like a horny spider.”) Anxiety is of course a tendency to over-question everything, and it spills out into his routines. He’s simultaneously a prophet and a satirist about his work and that of others, alert to the addictive, anxiety-inducing toxicity of social media on the young and impressionable.

Eighth Grade

Known for his fluctuating relationship with social media, Bo may not have been the first or most obvious choice to direct a film about the struggles of an anxious teenager surviving her final week of middle school. Yet somehow, he’s exactly captured it: what it means to experience such turbulent emotions, to feel an outsider looking in, to desperately try to fit in and to conform even when it’s against your own judgement. The reason I think Bo has made the transition so smoothly is because of the link between social media and performance: it’s just like a stage show, therefore he understands it completely. To quote him in Make Happy:

“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 prison, it’s horrific. It is performer and audience melded together, what do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member?”

His creative flair comes in the form of montages, superimposed images overlaid with a distinctly heady, operatic-electronica score from Anna Meredith. Her score for the pool party sequence is at once terrifying and surreal: the escalating scale crescendos as the pitch rises – coupled with images of children diving into the pool, warped by goggles, the message is clear: they’re animals. They’ve been turned from a generation of young children enjoying their youth to a horde of barbarians, able to destroy your reputation and your social standing in a moment online, forming a subculture that nobody questions. Nobody can afford to.

We can all take lessons from this. Nobody is alone in what they experience in this hyper-connected, hyper-isolated society. I feel profoundly moved by this film because of Bo’s evident investment: in a piece with Indiewire, he explained that he’d had enough of film work feeling like homework and just wanted to start articulating some of his experience. It shows – at once we feel the genuine authenticity of his malaise of generation Z.

The film has the candor of a Jim Jarmusch picture, an essay-style film observing the process of life as a slow-burning epic. Bo has plumbed the depths of his thoughts towards modern life and the idea that children have to compete with models and multimillionaires online to feel valued. There are moments I had to physically look away: it’s profound, devastating, and honest — comic, but also incredibly sad. Kayla’s story comes to a close with both hope and uncertainty, and ultimately, the Internet plays itself. It will remain a part of her life (Bo won’t go so far as to deprive her of her online network), but at least the film has brought to light its toxic effects and the central message: that you don’t need to be a performer to be worthy of love. If only he, “the skinny kid with declining mental health [who] attempts to give you what he cannot give himself”, could take this on board.

The role of performance

Bo has previously stated surrealism is one of his influences for his material, and it certainly comes across in standup routines as erratic as what. In the same way that surrealist playwrights like Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett broke down limitations of form, Bo is constantly asking “What is this show about?” He uses comedy as a vessel for his messages and to show the discombobulation of a confused generation.

What I find the most satisfying about Bo’s work is that it’s not afraid of self-reflexive parody. He’s made this explicitly clear in sketches like Left Brain/Right Brain. At one point during what. an audience member shouts “I love you!” Not missing a beat, he replies: “You don’t love me. You love the idea of me. It’s a parasocial relationship and you don’t want that, but please, continue to buy my stuff forever.” He’s been described as cynical, but is it cynical to be hyper-aware of the truth of what’s going on around you?

In many standup routines, Bo is preoccupied with his own integrity as a performer and the very act of performance: “We did not plan that. How does he do it? Does he pretend to do it? How does he remain contrived? I’m not honest for a second up here! Honesty’s for the birds, baby. You want an honest comedian? Go see the rest of them.”

He examines the idea of performing and deconstructing his own performance throughout Make Happy: “I worry about making a show about performing would be too meta, it wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that I don’t think anyone isn’t.” Building on his very public hatred of social media, he states how we’re all presenting unreal versions of ourselves every day. It’s a predicament of authenticity that preoccupied the existentialists to the postmodernists.

There’s no doubt that his work can be weighty. A lot of the heavy lifting is done through his painful honesty: “You know, once a week I like to slip into a deep existential depression and lose all my sense of oneness and self-worth.” We’re relieved he can laugh it off, spin it into an eloquent song. But as his performances end they’re always bittersweet, pathos undercutting the humour, a hallmark which characterises Chaplin to Carrey.

And underneath, I worry about Bo. I do wonder about the effects of producing such soul-searching material, ironically or otherwise. He’s even famously predicted his own death – while it would be grotesque simply to assign a mental health diagnosis to someone who’s ironically written the hit song Kill Yourself, someone so difficult to read, I want to know why we’re not doing more in response to his very real questions. I want us all to understand that he’s right about the toxicity of culture and for us to be more mindful about the ways that we approach our identities online and in real life.

Sesame Street and beyond

According to Deadline, Bo is now on board with the new Sesame Street movie. Even if you’re ambivalent about the resurgence of another nostalgic TV show, it’s likely that the unusual talent behind it should pique your interest instead. Bo’s involvement opens a whole new discussion on the role of self-reflexive comedy and its influence on a younger group of viewers. It will depend on studio interference, but given his track record, I imagine he’s going to use this platform in order to subvert some of the ideas about childhood in ways that he’s already explored in the songs “Words words words” and “High School Party

Songs like “Art Is Dead” show just how open he is about the idea of performance as an illusion, so is he going to embrace this role as a children’s entertainer? There’s no doubt his clever wordplay and perceptive remarks have recommended him, but he’s still his anxious, introverted self with a lot to say about culture and performance. The fundamental irony is that we laugh at his work and satisfy ourselves by listening to his songs and feeling undeniably woke. We retweet gifs of him and make him our wallpaper for a month and listen to his soundtracks. Like the greedy, vacuous consumers that we are, we’ll carry on gorging on his material, pretending that we really took on board what we said. In reality we’re just simulacra, copying the very culture he is trying to deconstruct. There’s only so much we can ignore what he’s trying to say, so maybe his response will be to preach to toddlers instead. 

Sian Francis Cox
Sian is Flixist’s UK Editor and has written for sites including Escapist Magazine, Destructoid, and Film Enthusiast.