To any actual eighth-grader, Bo Burnham, the director of the achingly empathetic new film Eighth Grade, must seem old. So, so old.
How old is he, you ask? In Internet years, the comedian-filmmaker is so old, he went viral before “Dramatic Chipmunk.” The man is so old, his teenage skits, songs and rants made it rain before “Chocolate Rain.” He is so World Wide Web ancient that if you’re a 13-year-old middle-schooler now – a demographic that was once his core audience – you were just one year old when he broke out as a YouTube star in 2006.
“I was breaking in so young,” Burnham says by phone, “and I was so defensive of how I was being perceived as a YouTube comedian or an Internet sensation. I only got over that pretty recently. For a long time, I was called ‘a comedian for 13 year old girls.’ At a certain point I was like, Yeah, I am. And I wrote Eighth Grade.”
Burnham – 27 in offline years – will make a very old-fashioned transition for a comedy star by revealing that what he really wants to do is direct. His first film as a writer-director, Eighth Grade (which premiered at Sundance in January and opens wide on July 20th) is a wrenching story about an anxious young girl struggling to find her place in a world of teen-girl peer pressure, social-media saturation and adolescent awkwardness. It’s a somewhat startling turn for a comedian whose witty, high-energy, tousled-hair, anything-for-a-laugh persona seemed like it might make him a one-click-wonder or goofy millennial mascot. But Burnham has been ambivalent about his teen-friendly online persona for years. “YouTube is the place for people to share their ideas,” he sang at the 2008 YouTube Live awards, before adding: “If by people, you mean 13-year-old girls and by ideas, you mean how they love the Jonas Brothers. I’m just kidding but let’s be honest, that’s a hefty majority …”
In the decade after his online breakthrough, Judd Apatow hired him to write an “anti-High School Musical” script (“I was not ready to write a movie at 18”). His witty stand-up and sharp gag songs like “Kill Yourself” and “Repeat Stuff” led to four comedy albums, a satirical MTV show (Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous) and three stand-up comedy specials, including Netflix’s go-big-or-go-home stage show Make Happy. He’s parlayed his experience calling the shots for his own, aggressively stylized specials into directing two of the best, most intimate stand-up showcases in years: Jerrod Carmichael: 8 (2017) and Chris Rock: Tamborine (2018).
Burnham’s own act was often viciously critical of the tweentertainment industry, perhaps due to having spent his entire adult life on the precipice of becoming the kind of marketable, superficially charming and secretly cynical heartthrob – a role that he actively rejected. “I stepped away from stand-up after Make Happy,” he says. “I just felt like I did what I wanted. I had no more ideas in that space and I felt like I’d sort of exhausted myself as a subject.”
For Eighth Grade, the writer-director wanted to do something personal but decided to put the focus on someone much younger: Kayla (played by newcomer Elsie Fisher), an anxious, uncomfortable teen girl who struggles at school to fit in and be heard. After school, she then comes home to make inspirational YouTube videos like “Be Yourself” or “Put Yourself Out There” for an audience of nobody.
During his research, Burnham sought out teens, much like his younger self, who were telling their stories online – but who, unlike himself, were not racking up millions of views. He searched “videos by upload day, rather than view counts”; he wanted to see the kids who typically get ignored. “I remember just watching these [clips] and thinking: If this was a performance, this would be incredible,” he says. “What got me was that image of a kid looking into a camera, addressing an audience who she knows is probably not there. Yet we’re there, watching the movie.”
When Burnham broke through online, YouTube “was more like America’s Funniest Home Videos: I’m submitting my little bit to the Internet via this thing. As opposed to: I’m going to live on YouTube and people will respond to me and either like me or not. It was more a stage than it was the other the other side of a phone call with a friend.”
His film gets at how shift has rewired so much of what it’s like to be young, as when a high-school jackass tells eighth-grader Kayla that a generational gulf separates them, since having access to Snapchat in fifth grade must wire you differently. “That feels like the one place where I slipped in what I really believe overtly,” Burnham admits, laughing. “The other truth is that when you riff on, like, the philosophy of a generation, you sound like a shithead boy, like the dick at the lunch table. The big cultural things that would make generations feel different – We had rotary phones – those things happen every two years now. All of a sudden it goes from Instagram 7.6 to 7.7 … and the brain chemistry of an entire generation was just altered slightly.”
Yet it’s not like Burnham set out to make a moralistic film with a lesson attached: Kayla doesn’t throw her phone away like some back-to-nature purist. But make no mistake, he is pissed off. “Now we’re all acting like celebrities and commodifying ourselves,” Burnham says. “Kids act like their own publicists. They curate their fucking brands! As someone who had a little bit of a little taste of that as a D-list comedian celebrity, it’s the worst, worst way to live your life.”
And as a kind of tweeting canary in the social-media coal mine, Burnham says he doesn’t trust the easy think pieces about how the Internet is either destroying kids or saving them. He hopes the film gets at the subtle unease he feels all the time: “a sort of numbness and slight loneliness and haziness. Is it like a dissociative disorder? I feel like it’s made everyone have a sense that: My life is not real. My friends aren’t real. It’s hard to describe in words… all of my fears and all of my worries, I have because I am addicted to the Internet. It has made me worse.
“Somehow we’re convinced that the story of the internet are these loud, brash, Jake-Paul-in-a-Japanese-suicide-forest kids or whatever – and it’s not,” he continues. Instead of “talking about the internet on the Internet’s terms,” he says, “I wanted to talk about the part of the internet that gets excluded from the conversation, which is quiet, subtle, scared, nervous people. The majority of the people on the internet are people expressing themselves and not being heard. The internet is a really beautiful place with so much raw emotion. It isn’t just a bunch of losers that you can make fun of. It’s not all Idiocracy and Trump, or just some hellish satirical wasteland.”
Most of all, Burnham says he identifies with Kayla’s anxiety, which is exponentially magnified by social media; he’s suffered from something similar for much of his life. “Anxiety is a language,” he says. “People without it can’t get it. In high school, I was in and out of the hospital because they thought I had some like stomach disease … I was just nervous. Every day. And that’s why I was, like, on the toilet. I know I have a legitimate anxiety disorder.”
And like Kayla, who has trouble verbalizing what it feels like to feel so anxious, the writer-director fishes around a bit for the words. “My experience, the way I describe it, is that my nervous system is like a bull and I’m riding it … and I just have to hold on to it and not get thrown off and break my neck,” Burnham says. “Being in the world with anxiety is like riding that bull and looking around and everyone’s an equestrian. Kayla doesn’t even say the word anxiety. She thinks: I’m the only one feeling the way that I’m feeling.”
At the core of Eighth Grade is that fundamental anxiety: the way Kayla feels like she must broadcast her life, even when what terrifies her the most is what other people will think of her. It’s also about the way that constant worry gets internalized. “Part of Kayla’s anxiety in the movie is she’s worried that the movie of her life would suck,” Burnham says. “That’s a really anxious way to live.”
As he rolls the film out, Burnham says he’s hearing from plenty of kids – and plenty of anxious parents after screenings too. He is only happy to amplify their worst fears. “It’s often, like, the panicked parents that have a three-year-old, like my sister,” he says. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry, the world will be so much worse by the time they’re 13. The phones will be, like, in their brains.
“But don’t worry,” Burnham adds cheerily. “Because by then, we may just be looking out into a charred wasteland of a country, anyway.”