A little different from some of our more common topics, I am also a huge fan of Stand Up Comedy. One of the greatest comedians of our time is, in my opinion, Bo Burnham.
For those of you who don’t know, Bo Burnham started his career the same way that Justin Bieber did. He wrote songs, performed them in his bedroom, put them up on YouTube, and quickly became incredibly popular. One major difference, is that Bo Burnham’s songs were funny, like a Tim Minchin, or Axis of Awesome. The first big viral song of Bo’s was ‘My Whole Family (Thinks I’m Gay)’ in 2006 when he was 16.
This became so popular, that at age 18 he became the youngest person to ever record a Comedy Central Special, as well as sign a record deal with Comedy Central Records.
In his first full length special, Words Words Words in 2010, his songs were very silly, occasionally poking at institutions such as the Catholic Church for their homophobic views. However, one song stands out from the rest, Art is Dead, where he examines what it means to be a performer in a capitalist society. When the simple act of creating art can be monetized for profit, the art itself begins to decline. Instead of focusing on creating the art in it’s purest form, you shift your focus to audience appeal and profitability.
His next special, what., is what put him on the map for many people, with songs like ‘Repeat Stuff’, a Justin Bieber parody song. This 2013 show did change a lot for Burnham. Previously, as an awkward theatre kid in high school, he dealt with anxiety and depression. However, while touring for what., he had a total of 13 panic attacks on stage while performing. If you aren’t familiar with his work, it is scripted down to the word, and even the breath.
So as you can imagine, even when having a panic attack on stage, he cannot break, he cannot even take an extra breath to attempt to settle himself. He has to attempt autopilot, repeating his routine beat-by-beat, while simultaneously working his way through one of the scariest positions ones own brain can cause.
This anxiety, as it continued to ratchet it’s way up, led to much of the inspiration of his 2016 special Make Happy. While still having some fun surface-level comedy in songs like ‘Country Song’, there are songs about working to make love work ‘If You Want Love (Lower Your Expectations)’ or depression and suicide with a song called ‘Kill Yourself’. These deeper themes became very center-focus in his songs, and culminated with the finale ‘Can’t Handle This’, which has a very important lyric.
I can sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringle cans, and burritos. The truth is, my biggest problem’s you. I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out that you deserve, but I want to say what I think, and not care what you think about it.
Part of me loves you, part of me hates you. Part of me needs you, part of me fears you. And I don’t think I can handle this right now.
Look at them, they’re just staring at me like “come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.
I don’t think I can handle this right now.
These lyrics are incredibly deep, while surrounded by lyrics about a chicken burrito at Chipotle. For many, it reminded us of the story of Pagliacci.
A man goes to a doctor, says he’s depressed. He says life seems harsh and cruel. He says he feels all alone in a threatening world, where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain.
The doctor says “Treatment is simple. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.
The man bursts into tears and says “But doctor, I am Pagliacci.”Watchmen, though the story predates the comic by over a century.
After he finished the special Make Happy, he decided to leave performing for years, as his mental health was in such disarray, he couldn’t bring himself to perform. During this time, he directed the movie Eight Grade, which was well received and was nominated for various awards.
Now, in his newest special Inside, he mentions briefly his return to comedy. (Can songs have spoilers? If so, spoiler warning)
You wanna hear a funny story?
So five years ago, I quit performing live comedy because I was beginning to have severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a great place to have them. So I quit, and I didn’t perform for five years, and I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally.
And you know what? I did! I got better. So much better, in fact, that in January of 2020 I thought “You know what? I should start performing again. I’ve been hiding from the world, and I need to re-enter.”
And then, the funniest thing happened.Bo Burnham, Inside, All Eyes on Me
With the Covid pandemic and related lockdown, where everyone was required to stay at home, and not leave for any non-essential reason, someone like Burnham was in a terrible position. He decided that in order to pass the time, he would record his own comedy special, from a single room in his home (technically his studio/shed in his backyard).
However, just like all of us, the lockdown lasted much, much, much longer than previously expected. Remember when they said “It’ll be over by Easter”? I remember thinking that July 4th weekend would be just back to normal. Now we are coming up on another July 4th, things still aren’t completely back to normal.
Bo Burnham let’s us watch him, as he slowly slips back into poor mental health throughout his lockdown experience. We can tell the passage of time as he never shaves or cuts his hair, and so we can see when some recordings were close to each other, and others were farther apart.
It should also be said that the special was written, starred, directed, filmed, cinematographed, designed, and edited by Burnham. There was no one else involved. This isolation is the primary cause of the pain we see Burnham slip into as time goes on. One specific moment happens that is the epitome of that isolation. On the eve of his 30th birthday, Burnham brings us in as he is two minutes from turning 30, a moment he didn’t think would be spent alone, in a room, with no one around. Later in the special, Burnham tells the audience that he is “Not well” and then immediately breaks down into tears.
All of this is just one aspect of the special. Throughout, we also see how he deals with being stuck inside all day with songs like “Welcome to the Internet” and “FaceTime with My Mom” which inevitably lead to his depression, anxiety, and anger to worsen. However, some of the most powerful moments, I think, are when we see him examine himself, who he is as a performer, and as a person. There are shots that are him rewatching and editing the special you’re currently watching. There are songs that end in, or even interrupted by, wanting to retry the song you heard, because he’s not yet satisfied with it, even though it’s clearly the version we see in the final product.
As a theatre kid myself, I can understand the unstoppable urge to view oneself as though they had an audience, treating my life like my own Truman Show, not being able to “turn off” the performative nature of simply existing. As a person with ADHD, the complete directionless reaction to a lack of stimulus, mixed with hyper-focus that leads to self-frustration, is completely relatable. As someone who seems to require interpersonal interaction, I think aloud constantly, and talk to myself, as a way to process my own thoughts. How Bo Burnham reacts to his ongoing isolation and mental health are wholly unique to him, through his incredible perspective on life, while also being some of the most true and relatable moments that I’ve ever seen on screen.
I’ve been fascinated by him since 2011, a full decade, and yet every time I see something new from him, it’s always a little off-putting. Whenever the credits roll the first time I watch a Bo Burnham special, I think that it was a little weird, that it had funny parts, but overall I’m not sure I liked it. Then, the next day, I find myself humming one of the songs, and I look up the lyrics again, and realize that I understand something else that I didn’t before. Then it follows suit with more and more of the songs, until I’m rewatching each song on YouTube, and finally I rewatch the special, and it hits me in a completely new and interesting way, that honestly gives me chills.
I don’t know why I have such a delayed reaction, maybe I’m just trying to keep up with his pure theatricality, that I’m not able to focus on the meaning and message he’s telling, but ineveitably, I’m returning again and again to his music, as I continue to understand it.
Much like Bo, I had no idea how this article was going to go when I started it, but just continued writing down my thoughts, until now I find myself at the end, wondering what I’m going to talk about next. Bo Burnham is a treasure, and you owe it to yourself to experience everything he wants to give you, and really think about it.