Bo Burnham is a product of the very thing that he hates. The comedian, known for his elaborately staged performances and caustic humor, got his start nine years ago by posting funny songs on his YouTube channel. But during a recent conversation with Rolling Stone, Burnham, now 25, was quick to rail against life in the Information Age. "You can't escape anything," he said. "Like, all the shit that you could run away from in your life now follows you everywhere."
The oppressiveness of social media is just one of the many topics Burnham skewers with skill in his latest special, Make Happy, which debuted on Netflix earlier this month. The show is more theatrical spectacle than traditional stand-up set, featuring dizzying lights, smoke cannons, tongue-in-cheek songs and a myriad of pre-recorded voice-overs that constantly interrupt, and sometimes even insult, the comedian. But Burnham pairs these splashy set pieces with quiet moments of honesty, during which he expresses his frustrations with the entertainment industry and its lack of substance.
The response to Make Happy has been impressive – Amy Schumer likened it to the Lemonade of 2016 comedy specials – but Burnham can't help but feel uneasy about his growing fame. "The only value a celebrity has, or any artist or actor or anything, is the things that they make," he said. "And for me, the things that they make, lately, feel like it's completely secondary to them as a person."
The irony isn't lost on Burnham that his comedy bites the virtual hand that feeds him. "This stuff that I'm talking about can't be commented on without being a little hypocritical," he admits. "I fully embrace myself as a hypocrite."
He spoke with RS about creepy fan interactions, poking fun at Kanye and why making fun of Donald Trump is pointless.
You launched your career by posting videos on YouTube. When you look back at that, is there anything you'd want to change about how you got started?
[Laughs] No, certainly not. I know that there's a butterfly effect. Chances are, were anything to change, I'd be, like, in rehab or on the street. I definitely don't want to touch it. The quality of the work when I was 16 ... I've had my issues with it, but I've learned to forgive myself because I was 16 years old. Like, was the song about Helen Keller very tasteful or original? No, but I was 16, so I was figuring it out. Like, it happened the way it had to. Or not the way it had to, but the way it did. I try not to think about all that stuff.
Look at that quick, cogent first answer, not just me rambling on.
Your performances and your comedy tend to be pretty meta and pretty insider-y. What is it about typical, normal stand-up comedy that kind of turns you off?
None of it turns me off; I enjoy all of it. But people tend to think that, like, if you're doing something in one genre, you're saying like, "This is what it has to be." Especially in stand-up comedy. When one form of comedy is really good, people are like, "This is what comedy is. If you're not doing comedy standing in front of a brick wall, talking honestly about stories in your life, then you're not a comedian." And to me it's like ... I want it to be like music, where there's so many genres, and there's so many peaks and valleys of quality in different areas.
For me, I grew up doing theater, and my interest was always in the spectacle of what theater was, of putting on a show, of incorporating production and theater elements into it. I think I found, in this show, a way to connect to people by going so inside, to find a weird form of honesty in meta-ness. The things that might come off as meta and a little inside are, strangely, me struggling to be honest and emotional. That's the only way I feel like I can be honest, because that's what life honestly feels like to me.
Life, to me, doesn't feel like a straightforward story, it doesn't make sense for me to get up there and just tell a story. Life feels like what my show feels like; chaotic and strange and disconnected. Things change really quickly and it's a little confusing and it's a little loud. It is a weird form of trying to be honest.
You've described your relationship with your audience in the past as kind of difficult. What's the weirdest audience experience you had while you were touring this show?
In Georgia, I was talking to the audience, and I turned around and a drunk man was sitting at my keyboard. He had climbed onto the stage and was just sitting at my keyboard [laughs]. And he had, like, a long ponytail, and I walked over to him and sat next to him and just, like, talked gently to him to get him off the stage.
Especially considering the Christina Grimmie shooting, do encounters like that ever freak you out?
It does freak me out. It's scarier than it felt at the time. I mean, I think the awful thing is that I'm just not in the same position, being a man. You know, I think, horrifically, young women get freakily fetishized by fans more often than men do.
It isn't necessarily me talking about me and my audience, and how I really feel about us in this moment, as much as, like, [the fact that] this fan/audience thing is fucking weird. It's just weird and strange. And like, it's gotta be talked about a little bit, because it feels just like it's sort of everywhere. Especially if a comedian's supposed to be the guy that's just getting up and being honest with you and just talking about what's on his mind. For me, there's so much in the way. My show's almost like, "OK, let's get past how weird this is, and then let's talk about our lives." But then the show is ... We never get past it.
One of the things that really struck me about the show was that you were a little less than kind to a number of celebrities, like Jimmy Fallon, Kanye West, Katy Perry and Keith Urban. You seem to take issue with the culture that puts these people on a pedestal.
In this weird way, it's me trying to advocate on behalf of the audience. Like with The Tonight Show – people getting up and throwing darts at balloons with, like, Charlize Theron's face on it. Or playing fucking spin-the-bottle. Like, you deserve better entertainment than this. You deserve better than famous people acting human, you know? These people that we deify to be better than human, and then we're so happy when they get on late-night shows and act like human beings. Like, who gives a fuck?
"You deserve better entertainment than this. You deserve better than famous people acting human, you know?"
With a lot of this stuff, it's more about these people's persona as something greater than what they make. For me, the only value a celebrity has, or any artist or actor or anything, is the things that they make, you know? And for me, the things that they make, lately, feel like it's completely secondary to them as a person. [If] you go to your baker and you're like, "Give me some fucking doughnuts," then you get the doughnuts. You're not so concerned with who the doughnut person is, who they're dating, what they're up to, you know? But celebrities are able to make a whole industry out of their lives, and I just think it's like ... They should be working harder. They should be making better things.
I will say the Kanye thing was done with love. I truly do love him. And for me, Kanye is a coherent celebrity because he's incoherent. It makes sense, if you're super famous to me, if you're crazy. What doesn't make sense to me, when you're super famous, is that you're clean and smiling and happy all the time. That seems so much more psychotic to me than Kanye. And for me, why I like Kanye, is, like, Kanye does all that shit, but then at the end of the day, he makes amazing things and he pours himself into his work. And that's totally respectable to me, someone that's actually gonna commit and take risks and things.
You tend to not bring things like politics into your performances. Have you been following the election? Have you been tempted to make jokes about Trump?
I have definitely been following the election really closely. I'm not tempted to talk about that because, to me, Donald Trump is a symptom of entertainers and entertainment. He is a really good entertainer, and all these satirists that think they're shitting on him, to me, are playing right into his hands. Like, this is what we wanted. We wanted someone to shit on. We wanted someone to talk about, but the problem with Donald Trump, for me, is the noise around him. You can't make any noise to undercut that. The only thing I'm ever tempted to do with Donald Trump is to shut the fuck up more. You know?
I think that was the huge appeal that people didn't realize, was that he was a good television performer. He realized that the camera is in a close-up, and he should act for the camera, and he did it. I wish that it wasn't a thing. I wish CNN didn't look like ESPN. [Laughs] You know, I wish that all of these points about entertainers and celebrities weren't relevant, but they are. I think what sucks is that it's everywhere. It shouldn't be, but it is. Like Hillary tweeting all of her cool, young, pandering quips to Donald Trump. Like "Yas queen," and I'm like, "I'm dead. I'm just dead." [Laughs] It's insane, what the fuck is happening?
Do you often find yourself straddling the line between being satirical and being hypocritical?
Oh, not even. I feel like I am fully in the hypocritical territory. I fully embrace myself as a hypocrite. The show is almost what it feels like to be that. I mean, of course, I'm getting up there and making fun of someone like Katy Perry manipulating their fans into liking them. And I'm manipulating my fans into liking me by making fun of it, you know? It's a show that pretends like it's undercutting spectacle by trying to pull off spectacle. You know, at the end of the day, my show is still trying to make you love me by the end, even if it's like in a really subtle way. Where it's like, "Ooh, I like him because he's honest." [Laughs] It's all a mess.
But I do think that, like, this thing that I'm talking about, this stuff that I'm talking about can't be commented on without being a little hypocritical. And I think that, like, there's such a fear of being that. There's such a fear of being a hypocrite nowadays that no one says anything because they think they can't live up to it. It's like you can't call people sellouts anymore. It's like, why the fuck can't you call people sellouts? When did that expire?
The millennial generation that makes up a lot of your audience is often heavily criticized for being entitled, lazy and self-obsessed. Do you think those are valid criticisms?
... Sure? Like, I don't think it's a valid criticism, but I think it's a valid observation now. But how the fuck do you think we got this way? Do you think it was from the parents who, like, shoved Pixy Stix and Coke down our throats, told us that we were the best ever and told us that we could do anything? They told us to go to college and follow our dreams and express ourselves, and then we all got out of there, and there were all of 12 jobs waiting for all of us. But I don't put the blame on anyone else. I think that we need to own up to what's happening and fix it, and I think people are.
Millennials are really difficult to talk about as a single generation, because I think we're so fractured. There are kids working their fucking ass off. I'm just saying, like ... I have a lot of friends that aren't in my line of work, and they're working their fucking asses off to make a life for themselves. I think everyone thinks [that] every millennial are the kids they pass in Williamsburg, you know?
The problem with blogging and thinkpieces is that they're only written by bloggers or thinkpiecers. They're kind of getting like an L.A., New York version of the generation. And as a member of the generation that lives in L.A., I will say that, like, we're the worst! There are members of our generation out there, like, building houses and, like, in nursing school. Don't judge us based off the kids you see in your local coffee shops on their laptops. You know, that's not the whole generation.
Do you ever get concerned that you're going to say something onstage that's going to turn into a blog or a thinkpiece?
Oh, no, I don't care. But I'm also not a comedian that's like, "Yeah, fuck you, take a joke!" The truth is, comedians get up and ask the audience to listen to them talk for an hour, so like, I'm not angry that others have an impulse to be listened to, you know? Like, of course, I express myself, now you can go and express yourself; that's completely fine. I can stick up for one of my bits. I've had kids that wrote me, being really angry that I used the word "faggot" in my show. You know? And I get it, and I'm not gonna be like, "Take a joke." Like, I understand if you don't like hearing that word. But, you know, I have an explanation for it. I don't even use it; the show literally calls me that. It's more just, like, what it truly feels like to live online.
Anyway, my point is, you do this stuff to get a reaction from people. You do this for other people to think about. So you can't soak up people's love and adoration and then try and silence them when they're pissed about it. That's just the other side of what this is. You're trying to create a dialogue; you're trying to get people to think about stuff, and sometimes they'll disagree with you. Now, if they're saying, "This comedian shouldn't be able to say that," then I disagree with them. But if they just want to continue a conversation and say, "I don't think that was right," then I'm fine with that.
At the end of your show, you share a pretty honest, genuine moment with your audience. Was that scary for you?
That was one of the last things that I put in, and it was really me being frustrated and going, like, "I'm just gonna explain it." [Laughs] Instead of trying to be all coy and subtextual with what these ideas are, I'm just gonna fucking say it. And then, when the idea of the house lights coming on happened, it felt right. It felt like a cool thing to ... I liked that the show was stripped down and become its most bare and small and intimate before it became its biggest.
And it's funny, you know? It's so funny that in the show, like five or six minutes total of serious stuff makes people feel like the whole thing was serious. And I mean, what's nice about the bit was that dropping the laughs for a little bit goes a long way.
In that moment, you referred to social media as "a prison." Can you explain further what you meant by that?
It's not the social media itself; it's the idea of you now have this whole other life to maintain. That not only do you have your own personal feelings in your own heart, but you have, like, this thing outside of yourself to maintain that has, like, quantifiable numbers associated to it. Like, your emotional life now has numbers in the form of likes and comments and shares. And, like ... your real life is hard enough to maintain, let alone some weird, curated version of yourself. And then [you have to] reconcile yourself with this curated version of yourself, knowing that you'll never look as good as your best pictures.
"Your real life is hard enough to maintain, let alone some weird, curated version of yourself."
Everyone talks about the ideas of these things. They talk about the big ideas, like, "Oh, social media, and Snapchat!" And I just kind of wanted to talk about the kind of gross feeling we all have. Like, don't you all feel more nervous than you did? Don't you kind of, like, all have a bellyache when you go to bed more often than you used to? Like you can't escape anything. Like, all the shit that you could run away from in your life now follows you everywhere. And it's gross!
And people suck online. Everyone sucks online! You end up just hating people because everyone's presenting the worst version of themselves in the most, like, shallow way. It's gross. And no one gives a fuck about us. I'm just saying, like, Facebook and Twitter, they don't give a fuck about making us happier or making us better friends with each other or being healthier people; they don't give a fuck. They're collecting data to sell to ad agencies. They just want as much of our attention as they can possibly get.
So it felt like the appropriate place in a live performance to go like, "We're all here. We're kind of just waiting for each other." That's just at the very end of the special, walking away from it and being like, we can probably agree that if happiness is anywhere, it is not here. It's not between me and you. It's not with a lens between us or a screen between us or a stage between us. It's probably just hanging out with the people who actually give you joy. You know, your friends, your family, the people that actually matter.
Do you see yourself continuing to do these specials? What do you want to be doing in the future?
I'm gonna take a break from stand-up, definitely. This feels like I said something that I finally have been working towards for a while.
I miss collaborating and working with people. I just feel very tired of expressing things through my face and through my voice. I'd love to be able to say something or tell a story through someone that isn't me. So yeah, I don't know, it's mostly just writing and hopefully I can try and get like a little movie off the ground, or something. But I just want to maybe take a break from me for a bit, and try to do something else like that. And who knows what that will shake out to be.