When Bo Burnham burst onto YouTube at the age of 16, he was seen as another come along sing-song comedian that made jokes relating to life and what have you. In his nine years since that start, the Hamilton, Mass., native has grown into something that many wouldn’t have seen coming.
In 2008, the comedian signed his first deal, a four-year contract with Comedy Central Records, and released his debut EP Bo Fo Sho in 2008. The EP was a small sample of what the comedian offered, but a glimpse of what was to come in his first full-length album, appropriately self-titled Bo Burnham.
Since then, the comedian has grown mostly out of his YouTube days, working most notably with Netflix over the past three years to debut his specials, including 2013’s What and most recently on June 3, Make Happy.
The same robotic voice echoes in the theater before Burnham takes the stage, stating the real world problems the world faces and that people shouldn’t try to escape them. “The world is not funny, 12 percent of the world doesn’t have clean drinking water,” rings loudest as Burnham walks the streets of New York in clown makeup.
What makes Burnham such a meta-comedian? At the age of 25, his self-awareness and understanding of his brand drive his performances. In his latest special, he quickly delves into why he calls himself a “performance comedian.” Burnham discusses how talking about traffic and laundry felt unnatural, but that when he started, he feared doing a special about performing would be too meta.
Introspection puts Burnham at the forefront, comedic-wise, giving fans a glimpse into what it really takes to be a performer, a person that thousands of people look to for a “night out” and an escape from their day-to-day.
The brand that Burnham creates is something to behold in just how well he straddles the line between his content and being realistic and expressing what he wants to express.
Burnham opens bright and lively in Make Happy, engaging the audience from the get-go, driving humor inside to test the “Pavlovian tendencies” of people wanting to take part. The open is something Burnham prides himself on, with a fun vibrant feel that kicks off an hour where most might not know where he’ll go.
After a bit of banter and audience shouting, Burnham makes his way to his keyboard and jokes as the audience cheers. The first song “Straight White Male” shows what Burnham does best, lyrically challenging the notion that it’s easy to be a straight white male. “I’ve never been a victim of a random search for drugs, but you can’t say my life is easy until you’ve walked a mile in my Uggs,” Burnham bellows.
One could say more planning goes into a Bo Burnham show than any comedian, and even Burnham himself jokes about being “planned to the word, to the gesture.”
That straddling becomes most evident when Burnham discusses music, a larger portion of Make Happy. A fan of hip-hop from birth, Burnham references legitimate poets in the genre like Kendrick Lamar, but mocks the idea that a sick beat with literally anything over it causes mass hysteria. Cue the comedian spitting nursery rhymes over a beat that would’ve made Young Metro proud.
The theme is evident in the middle portion, where Bo turns to country music and the “poser” type of country artist that “take millions of dollars from actual hard working people.” Mentioning legitimate songwriters like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton as “some of the greatest songwriters of all time,” Burnham name-drops Keith Urban as the type of country artist he’s referring to.
Throughout Make Happy, Burnham hits critical points in culture, and that’s really what makes it such a poignant special. Discussing love and suicide, even in jest, the most real moments shine through. Some find the comedian abrasive, and that might be easier with a song like “Kill Yourself,” but Burnham discusses the topic so well. Mentioning how depression is overlooked and that people with depression should seek out a professional to discuss with, not search for moral wisdom in Katy Perry’s lyrics.
Even explaining the joke afterward, it’s easy to see that Burnham is aware of how real some of that hits, and how problems aren’t something that can be avoided.
After an all-impressive “breakup” song, Burnham seemingly exhales, discussing the end of a night of theater. He references the Yeezus tour that Kanye West put on in 2013, and the rants that West would make at the end of his shows, you know, the autotuned ones.
Burnham himself launches into one of those, joking about how he can’t fit his hand in a Pringles can, or how Chipotle screwed him on a burrito. When it becomes most real is when Burnham talks about how he wishes those could be his biggest problems. Burnham turns his attention to the audience, talking about how the real big problem is performance.
“I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself,” Burnham says. “I want to give you the night out you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it.”
That self-awareness is something that most assume comedians face, but when you’re just referencing stories and day-to-day problems you don’t see it. Burnham puts it front and center, and it makes you respect the man.
“A part of me loves you, part of me hates you,” Burnham croons. “Part of me needs you, part of me fears you.”
Burnham closes with one last chorus about his lettuce and cheese, gives his thanks, and hopes they’re happy. Even in that mindset, you can see how much it means to Burnham, and what it’s really like to be that figure, standing there in front of so many who criticize.
The special ends with Burnham taking a seat at his personal keyboard, breaking the fourth wall in reference to it just being him and the person watching. “Are you happy?” Burnham sings, asking mid-song what kind of question is that.
“You’re everything you hated, are you happy? Hey look Ma, I made it, are you happy?”
That kind of openness isn’t found in comedy today, and it’s something that may not stay much longer. For the time being, however, Burnham made happy, and made his fans happy. Make Happy shows the most real Bo Burnham to date, and it’s the evolution of a man who’s understanding really who he is, and he’s only 25.
To contact Lifestyles Editor Olivia Ladd email firstname.lastname@example.org.