Bo Burnham: Barely legal comedy

By | June 23, 2008 at 1:08 am | 4 comments | Features | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Bo Burnham Comedy Central

A year ago, not-yet-legal Bo Burnham was just a scrawny kid from the suburbs who had a knack for writing funny songs. But now, millions of YouTube views and a record deal with Comedy Central have made the kid a star.

If you spend a lot of time on YouTube, chances are you’ve heard of Bo Burnham. Since his first video postings –wherein Bo is seen performing funny songs in his bedroom (see clip below) — in December of 2006, the self-described “YouTube addict” has, himself, become an Internet sensation.

After garnering millions of views online (his songs “3.14 Apple Pie” and “My Whole Family” have nearly two million views each) he signed a deal with Comedy Central Records and recorded a six-song E.P, Bo Fo Sho which was released last week on iTunes and as of this writing is ranked the number two comedy album, just behind Kathy Griffin and still beating out four Dane Cook releases.

It’s a busy time for Bo, who turns 18 in August. The Hamilton, MA native just graduated from St. John’s Prep, an all-boys Catholic school in nearby Danvers. He’s prepping to perform at next month’s Just for Laughs comedy festival and he’s set to start studying theater at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.

But the young comedian recently took some time to chat up Punchline Magazine.

Was there a change in your daily life after you started getting millions of views?
Yeah, I guess it has mostly just been numbers on a screen. Like I still go to school and my friends treat me the same way. My life really hasn’t changed. I mean, I guess I’ve seen different numbers, different friend requests on Facebook and MySpace and stuff like that, but I’m really living the same life. That might change if the record does really well. And I’ve started to do some live performances. I’ve performed in London.

Are you getting recognized a lot now?
No, no I mean, I get an occasional look, but nothing anywhere near bodyguard status.

Have you had to directly deal with anyone who said they were offended by your songs?
I used to perform at a local place, and would get kicked out. Every week, the high schools would get together and the bands would play. And the woman once told me, “You can go up and make fun of gay people, that’s cool, but don’t joke about abortion, which was a little terrifying. And I don’t really make fun of gay people, but apparently homophobia’s cool in this town, just don’t bash the feti.

Which were the first two videos you posted?
“My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay” and “My Little Secret.”

Did you obsessively read your video comments at first? Do you still?
Oh yeah, I spend a couple hours a day reading comments and responding and stuff. It’s a good ego boost for a bad day.

Are there any memorable comments anyone’s left about your songs?
The best comment I ever got was from a person, where all they wrote was ‘Go go gadget faggot.’ That was the best one. And early on, after I’d posted my first video [“My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay], I was at the mall. And nobody really knew me, but one kid had apparently seen it, and across the movie theater shouted, ‘Hey, that’s the gay kid!’

Since your success, have you had the chance to meet anyone you’ve admired?
I got to talk to Tim Minchin. I saw Chris Porter, who’s a great comic. I got to hang out with Joel McHale. I really like him a lot.

Bo Burnham Comedy CentralWas there a specific inspiration that compelled you to start writing comedy songs?
It kind of happened as I was teaching myself guitar and piano. A big influence of mine is Stephen Lynch. People tend to think I’m more influenced by him than I actually am. Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian, is an influence as is Bill Bailey, who’s a British musical comedian. I don’t know, I guess I started writing jokes and I realized the jokes worked better as a song. Like, I naturally wrote with a rhythm.

How complicated is your song-writing process?
It takes me a little while to find a subject that I think there could be a lot of jokes in. But once I get a good subject, usually the lyrics flow pretty well. I tend to write pretty systematically. I take a word or a common phrase that’s sort of funny and I’ll break down the roots and see what word fits with it.

Like my songs lately have used much more wordplay and puns and stuff like that. And as far as that goes, I’m naturally much better at math. So I think I actually write – even though it’s music and it’s considered more of the humanities — more mathematically. I recently posted a song, called “New Math” so I think that demonstrates it.

How would you describe the style of your videos?
Well, before I described it as pubescent musical comedy. Or maybe a sacrilegious, vaguely homoerotic kids show. I’m not gay, just to let you know. If I keep it ambiguous I feel like the jokes thrive, like a Petri dish of androgyny. Is androgyny a noun?

Are there any other performers in your family?
Not really, there’s a few athletes though. I have an older brother and an older sister both in college.

You don’t play any sports?
No. I play golf some. I used to play basketball, baseball, football, but then I started doing theater in high school.

What kinds of plays would you do?
A lot of classical stuff. The Odyssey, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Were you generally the lead?
Yeah, I got good roles.

So how then did you develop your interest in comedy?
I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian. I didn’t think it would happen as soon as it did. I’d listen to George Carlin, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Andy Kaufman. I like Chris Rock, also.

Then it was summer of 2006 before my junior year of high school that I started writing these songs on the piano, and played them for my friends. And I wanted to show my brother, who goes to Cornell. My friend suggested posting it on YouTube so my brother could watch it. So I posted two songs and it sort of leaked out from there. A month later it was featured on Break.com and it got like a million views in one day, so I just kept making them. And here we are.

Was that one of your first live performances?
Well, I’ve performed a couple times at Boston’s Comedy Connection. I performed once at World Stands Up in London. That was for around 600 people, with a lot of other comics, like Ty Barnett and Jay Oakerson. I got to open for Joel McHale in Philadelphia. I haven’t done a lot of live performances, but they’ve been fun.

Do you ever do straight stand-up, or has it been only musical comedy?
I’ll do the songs, and I might do a transition in between. But my act right now, is pretty much musical.

Do you watch comedy on television much?
I watch Comedy Central a lot. All the Comedy Central Presents, Live at Gotham, Last Comic Standing. I watch all the HBO specials. Louis CK’s Shameless is one of my favorite specials.

How has your family been about all your success?
Vaguely hesitant at first, but they quickly supported it. And not just because of fame, or anything like that, but just because they’ve all got a good sense of humor.

Despite your deal with Comedy Central, will you keep posting stuff on YouTube?
Well, I took about a nine-month break before the last one. I’m sure I’ll never completely give that up.

I would hope that I could — maybe not put away the guitar, but I would like that if I ever have a huge comedy special — like to do a bit of stand-up and a bit of music. I’d like my stand-up show to be very diverse. I’d never say I want to stop playing guitar or stop the musical comedy, but I want to push myself to see what I can do.

Bo Burnham Comedy CentralDo you have anything in the works with Comedy Central for something like that?
We’re trying to pitch around a show — maybe a scripted half-hour, like sort of a Flight of the Conchords thing. But I’m trying to book some college dates also. Hopefully if this E.P. takes off, it’ll open up some doors.

For more info, check out boburnham.com.

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Daniel Perlman

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