Just four years ago, Bo Burnham was a YouTube sensation—just another one of a dozen or so A-list viral video stars. With little more than a camcorder, a piano and a guitar, he made himself famous.
Ok, “little more” is completely unfair. He had a lot more. It’s clear now, that whether he self produced songs and videos in his suburban Massachusetts bedroom or whether cable giant Comedy Central is pushing his work, the 20-year-old has talent. A lot of it.
On his recently aired special Words Words Words – also out on DVD and CD – Burnham proves his comedic versatility; throughout, he weaves songs between straight stand-up comedy, beat poetry and yes, even haikus.
He rhymes, offends and is constantly attacking his own hubris—or is it faux hubris?
If you had any doubt left about Burnham’s artistic standing – gimmicky Internet hero or real-life comedian? – Words Words Words should have proven he’s clearly the latter. If you’ve seen the show and think otherwise, you are wrong. If you haven’t seen the show and consider yourself even a casual comedy fan, you should put it on your to-watch list.
We recently caught up with Burnham to chat about Words Words Words, where he sees his next hour going (it’s only getting bigger, folks) and why artists are self-important jerks. Check it out.
In your new hour, you kind of frame your performance and pepper bits throughout with this underlining disclaimer of sorts. And that disclaimer seems to be that you don’t want people to think that you are too proud of your success. Is that an accurate assessment or am I reading too much into the show?
The motivation for me isn’t that I’m trying to be liked. I do want people see that I’m self-aware. I’m not a dick. I’m not begging people to see that I’m not a douchebag, I actually tell them that I am a douchebag.
I see so many comics that get up there and do self-deprecating material where its like ‘my wife never sleeps with me and I can’t get girls.’ And I’m like, well, we’re comedians; the real self-deprecation material should be, ‘we’re horrible people because we take all this attention, all this money and we act like we are giving something. We act like our job is to give laughter to the world– but it’s really like a job of take, take, take.’ So for me, I just thought it would be funny to instead of saying I’m such a weird, awkward person, I’d say I’m a bad person—because I do comedy, and I’m in the entertainment business, which is horrible. I feel like at least if I say it, people will know what I’m feeling; if I articulate it, at least I feel better about it.
It sounds like you have a lot of guilt about your success.
Yeah, totally. It’s just this thing I felt this last year. But yeah, definitely I have a huge sense of that.
Why do you feel guilty?
I’m living such a wasteful life. Like, I thought it would be cool if all the words from my show were on the stage. So we spent money on that. But then there’s people out there who can’t eat. It’s just so horrible and wasteful. And [like I say in the song “Art is Dead”] I do think about wanting everyday to be about you and wanting attention all the time and wanting the focus to be on you— most people grow out of that. It’s a thing that kids do. And there are two sides. There’s a line in the song that says my drug is attention and I’m an addict but I get paid to indulge in my habit. And I do think that.
I’m not trying to be emo, like I’m so troubled. I’m kind of trying to make fun of the fact that, ‘oh I’m an artist.’ I hate the word ‘artist’ and I hate the word ‘art.’ And people think that performers are such artists and they’re struggling. No you’re not, you just want attention. You are just like the little kid at the birthday party that’s screaming for attention.
|Bo Burnham – Beauty in the World|
It’s true. Comedians’ personalities off stage – if you had no idea they were comedians – you would probably just rank them as narcissistic and immature. But when that comedian has those attributes in the context of their profession, it’s just that they’re eccentric or interesting.
Right and just because comedians have talent on top of all those things doesn’t mean they’re any better you know. Just because they’re an obnoxious, arrogant person that happens to have talent and can articulate it well doesn’t make any of those feelings any better.
I wanted to ask you about your relationship with Shakespeare. The title of your DVD and album is extracted from Hamlet. But you it seems like you take the piss out of him during your performance– like you have this love hate relationship.
I actually worship him. Some people don’t understand and they think I hate him. I think he’s brilliant; I’ve always loved him. I do that sonnet [in Words Words Words] and then that beat poem I do after— that’s me kind of trying to embody the people that don’t understand Shakespeare, but not in a pretentious way. It’s just about people who think he stole from the Lion King. It do make fun of Shakespeare for being a little too Freudian, and just going too far with everything. But it is just about people who won’t understand him and think all he says is ‘doth’ and ‘thy’ and that it doesn’t make any sense.
And I just wanted to approach it like a 20-year-old dumb kid—like I’m confused by it; like I have a really good grip on it but I’m just missing the point. I just this it is kind of funny to be an arrogant little kid that thinks he knows everything and dismiss the greatest writer of all time.
And that part of Hamlet [where Hamlet tells Polonius he’s just reading ‘words, words, words’]; I love that line. In that one sentence he all forms of writing, explaining that that all we’re basically saying is words, words, words. Just drivel. And I think my show is sort of like drivel in the sense that it’s all over the place. I didn’t want to put too much meaning into it; there’s a big sense of nihilism in the show. I thought that ‘words, words, words’ was the best to describe it, because the whole show is a bit of a cluster fuck.
I thought kind of the opposite about your show. It’s way more cohesive and flows better than your standard new hour of comedy you’d see on Comedy Central or HBO.
I wanted that nihilism to be the cohesive aspect– like the fact that I nevers believe in anything at every single point is a through line. And I did want this to feel like show. At the end of the day I’m not trying to tackle any of these subjects.
But you do come off as pretty anti-religion throughout the special. That’s tackling a subject, no?
Yeah, but it’s more like an anti-belief in anything. Like there are five minutes where I talk about anti-belief in god and there are other moments where I dedicate myself to the anti-belief in the meaning of a joke. I take stances on things. But I’m always tearing things down, not building them up.
I met up with Paul Provenza – he contacted me a while ago – and he’s really nice to me. He was talking to me about how I should explore a different range of perspective. Because even though my material its all over the place, and I try not to set any rules or boundaries for what I do, I still limit myself on how I present it— like in this dark way which is very common now. Zach Galifianakis pioneered it in my mind. But now it seems like everyone is doing it to be like the angry comic.
It would be cool if I could do a show with similar material and the style range is is all my perspective but maybe sometimes I’m happy. Because nihilism doesn’t always have to be angry and snarky; it can also be like Bugs Bunny. Bugs Bunny is the perfect nihilist and he’s completely goofy and silly. I want to try and explore the lighter side of it rather than dark and snarky. Because I think it can be tiring— like, ‘alright, dude, get over yourself.’
|Bo Burnham – DVD Exclusive – Oh, Bo|
I don’t see you as snarky at all. But maybe its because I’m not as level headed as the rest of America.
I can see myself becoming too much like that and I don’t want to become the angry anti-comic. I just think it’s been done a million times. Like Steve Martin was an anti-comic but such a goofy happy anti-comedy and there’s not much of that these days. All these post modern hipsters — its always dark and snarky — I just don’t want to fall into that, where it just becomes endlessly sarcastic.
You got your start and your big break with Comedy Central from you uploading your songs your songs to YouTube. How difficult has it been to be accepted as a real comic, and not just a kid on YouTube? Seeing as you have the support of someone like Provenza, it sounds like the transition is going well.
I was always really worried about that. But, I always thought I don’t care to capitalize on this thing. I’ve always been a huge student of stand-up comedy. I decided I’m going to do my new hour in a way that I could progress as good a stand-up and not worrying about how I could capitalize on kids liking my dirty songs on YouTube. I was just hoping like if I do this special right, even if other comedians don’t like it, they’ll know that I’m really making the effort to become a better comic. And I’m really aware that I skipped the grind of the stand-up world.
And now, I cant be too confident just because I have a little bit of success. I can’t think that I’m a comic that only had one year to find his voice. I still have to treat myself like a kid that has no idea what he’s doing.
And I think Paul saw that and liked that; I’m hoping other people see it too. Because other comics which is understandable but at least in this hour that people see that I take comedy seriously and stand-up seriously
It sounds like this new hour is not just something for your fans, but also something for the industry and your fellow comedians to look at and realize that you’re not a joke.
I try to never try do stuff for fans or really or the industry. I try to just do things for myself. And I definitely never write things for my fans because I feel the most important thing to do is to write for yourself. The people who liked me— that’s why they liked me in the beginning, because I just did what I wanted to do and what I thought was funny without worrying about other people.
So I think the best service I could do for them is to continue to do that. And I could lose some fans of the earlier stuff but I’m just worried about making myself feel good about what I am doing. And I think a lot about that now. If people want to write me off, I don’t really care. And if I lose some fans because of it, that’s too bad. I’ll never do the old stuff when I don’t feel like doing it. I want to make every hour distinctly different and keep experimenting. I feel like that’s much more rampant in music than in comedy. I’d like do an experimental album a concept albums. Comedians don’t tend to do that as much, but I want to try. Its just fun for me. It may not end up working but, then, whatever.
The straight stand-up you do on Words Words Words is pretty solid—a lot of strong one-liners and quick in-and-out- jokes. Would you ever just do an hour of stand-up?
I like doing regular stand-up and I feel comfortable doing it. I want to develop my voice within that. But I don’t think I would want to ever do a straight stand-up show. I thought at one point that’s what I was going to do— I’d work hard so that I can eventually put down the guitar and put down the piano and pick up stand-up. I was really thinking that stand-up is the good version of musical comedy— that real stand-up comics don’t need the music. But I’m still interested in digging deeper into the music.
My ideal show I’d want to do wouldn’t be a straight stand-up show or a straight music show— it would kind of be this crazy cue-to-cue show where music melts into stand-up which melts into stories, which melts into poems.
Which is basically what you’ve done with the new hour.
Yeah, but I feel like the next show could be even more technically calculated so it becomes very rapid cue to cue; that’s what I’m going to try and work on next. But I think going for a straight stand-up show for me would be putting limits on it. And I don’t have a huge interest in that. Doing 20 minutes of stand-up in an hour show is enough for me right now. And I don’t think I’m good enough at stand-up right now to do that anyway.
I did theater for a long time and I sort of miss that. I think doing a show where there are actual cues would be cool. I’m just trying to embrace the fact that stand-up has absolutely no rules and I want to see how far can we push this. And I might fuck up. But I think I can push this thing a little further before I try to just do just stand-up. That’s a good fucked-up answer for you.
No, I think it makes sense. You’re embracing what you know and what you’re naturally drawn to, which seems to be music and theater.
Yeah, I do think I naturally write jokes lyrically whether its in poems or song. I think I better lyrically and I think the [newer shows] will have a bit of a cadence to it. And it will always be more of a rhythmic show.
You’re 20 years old now. You’ve achieved success so quickly. Do you ever get nervous that you won’t be able to maintain that?
Well, I experienced such a low, moderate, tiny level of fame and I am so satisfied with that. So I have no need or want to be big and famous. I didn’t grow up rich but we were never poor so I’ve never grown up looking to make loads of money or anything. I’m not worried about how the momentum; it probably can’t be kept up. I’m just worried about making cool material and being happy doing what I’m doing. I’m having fun with this. And I really do think it happened too quick and it probably is going to fizzle out and that’s all good with me. I don’t have control over whether people are going to like me; I only have control over my act. So I’m going to just worry about that and if stuff happens, it happens. I’d be cool being a writer or something.
So you know, whatever. Its just all this has happened so quickly and its all so crazy. I’m not even close to being super successful and I’m already very content with this. If it fizzles down from here, its all good. If it fizzles down and I don’t become successful because I tried something different and it fucked up or I tried a weird thing and it didn’t go well, I’d be very happy with that. That’ll be fine. I’ll never regret anything if that’s the way it happens.
You have a good head on your shoulders, Bo.
Yeah well you know, I have my publicist right next to me with cue cards.
It’s important to be fed thoughts through your publicist.
Where are you living these days? Are you still in Massachusetts, are you living in New York, you in LA? I know you spent some time in LA.
I lived in LA for like three months. And then I moved back to Boston where I live in my parent’s house for the summer. I’m living there for now. I’m in New York for a week but I live there. I’m going to go on tour for a month and a half. But I think I’m going to move to New York next year or something. But it’s at a time where I’m going on tour and I would be paying rent at a place where I wouldn’t even be staying. So, right now it made sense to move back with my parents.
|Bo Burnham – Men and Women Song|
Yeah, that makes sense. Your family must be be proud of you, right?
Yeah, they’re awesome. I mean I told everybody that anything I have achieved I have achieved in light of nothing— like I have overcome nothing. I’ve had people patting me on the back since day one telling me I was doing a good job. And that’s another thing with the ‘artist’ thing. Some artists say comes from pain; art does not come from pain. Just to say that is so retarded. Everything comes from pain; like you could say that about anything! Everyone has experienced pain.
But artists just like to talk about themselves so it becomes this whole big thing. Like art comes from pain for some people but to say it’s across the board is ridiculous.
I have been very painless.
That’s refreshing to hear.
Yeah, we’re are all babies.
Bo Burnham is on tour now; check out his tour schedule here. To pick up the DVD and/or CD version of Words Words Words, just click the images below. We highly suggest you get both.