On tour: Catching up with Bo Burnham

By | April 17, 2010 at 6:39 pm | One comment | Features | Tags:

Bo Burnham, 19, likes to begin his comedy routines like Hitler began his speeches.

Recently at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he strutted over to his piano leading a cheer of “Hey! Ho!” with the audience, and said Hitler gained power in the same way.

Burnham gained his power with an endearing, nerdy persona and YouTube. He was the youngest comedian to appear on “Comedy Central Presents,” and performed first for his family as a child at “Bo Shows.” He grew to 6’5″ but never outgrew of his need for attention.

In 2006, he posted videos on YouTube that he filmed in his room in Massachusetts. The videos had 10 million views in eight months. He’s moving from home movies to the big screen now, writing a script for filmmaker Judd Apatow. Burnham named the main character “Bo” in hopes of landing the starring role.

His floppy hair makes any joke seem less offensive, but he says he’s not in comedy to shock or offend. He hates being called a “shock comic.” His witty jokes and self-deprecating humor, often juxtaposed against dramatic piano chords, make him one of the biggest crazes on college campuses nationwide.

He’s touring the U.S. and Ireland this year in his Fake ID Tour with a piano, guitar, triangle, and a notebook of haikus.

The 400 seat venue at IUP sold out in less than a week. He took the stage with a Red Bull in hand, boasting that his “Where the Wild Things Are” t-shirt was a size medium.

Burnham is a fan of his fans, and didn’t let his security guard’s rules stop him from getting pictures with students after his show. He politely excused himself from his dressing room filled with Peeps, Red Bull, candy cigarettes, and a giant bowl of assorted candy to see his fans, saying that he felt bad for leaving them out there. Security soon told to him to go back inside.

His frenetic energy, or possibly a high from sugar and energy drinks, was as obvious on stage as in the interview. It was held outside near a semi-hidden staircase. He looked crowded as he perched his lanky frame on a cement wall for the casual chat, while my legs nearly dangled off the ledge. But, despite his subtle narcissism, Burnham isn’t one to make his fans feel small.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your comedy?
There’s no real huge angle I’m trying to get at. I’m not trying to say anything or prove anything. The comedy comes from the comedy I love. I just want to challenge the form a little bit. I think all the alternative comics did that, but just settled into this post-modern smarminess. It’s so weird, because in stand-up comedy the only rule is you have to stand on stage and talk and be funny, but for some reason, 95 percent of the acts look exactly the same.

Bo Burnham – His Whole Family Thinks He’s Gay

Can you tell me about your “Bo Shows” that you did as a kid?
Well, I believe firmly that there’s nothing to respect about anybody that entertains for a living. They’re just little kids that wanted attention, and then, when they grew up, never learned selflessness and never learned every single day isn’t about them, and, sadly, get rewarded for it. It’s wrong and it’s horrible, and I’m aware that it’s a vice. But nothing has really changed from “Bo Shows” to now. The mentality has not changed. I’m still a 3-year old up there, just to be, like, “Look at me!”

How did you get discovered?
I posted some videos online and those spread around — the whole viral thing. It just slowly and invisibly built an audience. I kind of tried and, and it worked, and just kept going with it.

How has the notoriety effected you?
I’m not notorious in any sense. My personal life is no different than anyone else’s, really, except buzzing around and doing this stuff.

What do you do in your spare time?
I’m on the Internet a lot. I play piano. I read a little bit. I watch a lot of comedy.

What was your worst experience at a show?
I played a show at an army academy, and all the sergeants were in the background with their arms folded. I think I said something about “don’t ask, don’t tell,” and it didn’t go very well. They neither asked, nor told, nor laughed.

What did you think of the protestors at Westminster in March, 2009? What was your reaction to that?
They’re so bored, they’re like, “Oh, let’s protest a kid with a guitar.” They had misquoted lyrics. If you listen to my show for more than four seconds, you would realize, “Oh, it’s a comedy show. Ok.”

If you weren’t in comedy, what would you be doing?
I’d be at NYU studying theater. I’m glad I’m not doing that. I love theater, but I don’t know where that was gonna go.

Why did you decide to integrate music into your routine?
I stumbled onto it in the beginning, and now it’s more about trying to make music an integral part, and at the same time move away. I don’t want to be, like, a sing-songy concert comic. I want it to be more like a cabaret act.
It’s not learning where to integrate the music, but learning more if the music needs to be integrated. Does the music add another layer, or, are you just telling crappy jokes that are made decent because there’s a tune under it, which I don’t like. I definitely love the music, but I never want to use it as a crutch. The music needs to be there for a real reason.

Do you think you would have the same appeal if you weren’t a young, innocent-looking person? If you were, say, a middle-aged balding man?
That’s hard to say, because what would I be? How would I think? If I was a middle-aged balding dude with an 18-year-old voice, probably not. I don’t worry too much about that stuff. I think that’s a big problem when comedians try to write for the audience. What do people love nowadays? Snuggies! I’ll write a song about Snuggies!

When I started getting a little bit of success, I thought, “Well, I’m never going to write for anyone but myself, because that’s what got me here. If I was a 40-year-old balding dude, I would be writing about whatever I thought about as a 40-year-old balding dude. There’s that Sarah Silverman irony in understanding what your image is and playing off of that.

I think jokes should always be more clever than they are offensive, and the offensive stuff should just be like the King Lear. The higher they are, the bigger the fall, and the more dramatic it is. So, if you take something that’s very dramatic, and very elevated in people’s minds, then the comic fall will be bigger. So you use that. But, no, don’t just be like, “Aids!”

Bo Burnham – Bo Raps

How has your comedy evolved since you first began?
My first CD was material that I never thought would be on stage. But this new act, I’m building it for the stage. A song should be embracing the lyrical way you can write jokes. I’ve been trying, with the music, to become more dense and more varied and more subtle. The big change is building the material for the stage, and building a cohesive show rather than like I’m playing around a campfire.

What are your plans, personally, for the future?
I don’t know. I’m not worried too much about that. I am a young comic that needs to find his voice. In having that young mentality, I feel like it gives birth to other experimentation. I just want to keep experimenting on stage and keep challenging myself to do other things.

For more info on Bo, check out boburnham.com.

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