Talking to Bo Burnham About His New Special, the Pursuit of Fame, and Future Plans
Bo Burnham has been busy, and he’s ready for a break. The 23-year-old may have entered the comedy scene in an unconventional way through his YouTube videos, but 2013 has proved that he is a force to be reckoned with. He released his third comedy special, what., yesterday on YouTube and Netflix for free and digitally as an album on iTunes for money. And on top of that, this year also saw the release of Burnham’s book of poems, Egghead, and his own MTV show, Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous.
Burnham took the time to talk with me about his decision to release the special online, his views on pop culture, and both his past and possible future projects.
I’m sure you’re getting this question all the time, but I have to ask, why choose to release your new special on YouTube and Netflix?
I’ve been working on this thing for three years, and it’s taken a lot of my time. It’s a little bit different than what I think I’ve done before. I was touring a bunch so I could make enough money to finance it myself, so it was like, “Why not try it?” There’s no way in five years that I look back and worry I had taken the money but there was a universe where I took the money and I look back in five years like, “Man, I wish I had tried that.”
And how is this special different from your previous specials? Can the audience expect the same mix of songs, standup, and one-liners?
Yeah. It’s still got songs and jokes and poems and stuff. I hope it’s a little more forward, a little bit bigger, and a little more theatrical. That’s kind of the point of this one, with lights and back tracks.
Yeah, those are definitely theme-heavy. The last show was called Words, Words, Words. That’s sort of no pyrotechnics, just wordplay or whatever. This one, I was trying to have some substantial themes. It’s not trying to say anything or preach too much. It’s just funny and more entertaining and more substantial for me when I have some sort of foundation of what the show is talking about. I’m at the age now where I’m just figuring out what my worldview is. It kind of snuck into the comedy.
Your most recent appearance on Conan used props, voiceovers, interacting with audience. Is that the new stuff we can expect to see?
Yeah. That’s basically big difference with this hour, the idea of these backing tracks and light cues. It opens up this whole big world for me where I can now listen to something I’m saying onstage and hear the dialogue onstage. It opens up a lot of things for me. This hour is sort of the product of discovery.
How much of your stage persona is character? Are you that cynical or critical of the media in real life?
I don’t think it’s very cynical to be critical of the media. Being critical of what pop stars and celebrities say seems obvious to me. I hope it’s levelheaded. I find pop culture and celebrity to be very cynical. When I’m being critical about it, I hope I’m not being too cynical about it. Realistic, I think, or hopefully, just showing things that people swallow without thinking about it just because they have real jobs where I have this silly job where I think about it all the time. I’m definitely not a crazy performer. I feel like I’m a very reserved, introverted person in real life. My stage persona is certainly just a persona I adopt to make the material work like I want it to work.
You’ve also become somewhat of a Vine celebrity. Is that a part of getting in touch with the millennial generation, that younger demographic that is all about pop culture?
I’m not too worried about that. I worked with MTV on a show, so I heard a lot about the millennial generation and getting in touch with it, what appeals to them, and I think there’s a lot of misconceptions about it. And Vine is terrifying. It very quickly got taken over by users that are just doing sponsored videos and vaguely racist things all the time. And I think the Vine audience might be like 12. Since I feel like part of the millennial generation, I feel a knee-jerkness to being put into a demographic so easily. We are so often treated as viewers, as an audience and a market to play to. So I try to make material without thinking about those things. I just try to make it feel real to me and honest to me. There’s way too much material — not too much in comedy, but, in general, I see way too much material that’s geared toward this demographic or whatever, and that feels so cold and empty, like engineered to appeal to you rather than it being a personal product of someone that you enjoy because you’re having a connection with what this other person thought. That’s what I have an interest in.
You mentioned your MTV show, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. How much was that reflecting your experience of starting out as a “YouTube celebrity.” Was everyone telling you to college like the characters in the show were telling Zach to go to college?
For me, it really came out as an anti-story. People thought that I was this crazy kid who wanted to be famous so badly. And that just seemed insane when I heard it. But it also seemed like, ‘Oh, that seems like a really interesting character, a kid who just wanted to be famous no matter what.’ I guess it was like an alternate reality of my life, in a way. It’s also just a comment on what it means to feel like you’re addicted to attention. And Zach was much more blind to things. I think I’m very self-conscious and self-critical usually, and he didn’t really have any of those muscles inside of him. He just kind of blindly dreamed and did, which I would like to a little more. But at a certain point it stopped being about me very early on in the writing process and became about this kid.
The somewhat ambiguous ending of the show. Was that always planned for?
Yeah, I mean, people are wondering why she looks sad at the end. But to me, that’s the whole thing of the show — that this isn’t good, what he wants. The idea that at the very end, he’d like to think he’s free of it and he kind of gets another chance. It’s all sort of evil and weird and strange. Basically, the idea of pursuing fame or anything, it’s really about being selfish versus caring about the people around you. I think just fame and the pursuit of fame is one particular type or iteration of selfishness.
At the beginning of “Repeat Stuff” you quote “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and you released Egghead, a book of poetry. Was poetry something you learned in high school or on your own later?
Not really, no. I learned a little bit in high school, but I was annoyed by it, all these teachers telling me all their intentions that I definitely didn’t think were true. Like, just because he said the word sneakers doesn’t mean he wanted the “s” to sound like sneakers on the floor. But in writing jokes, I found my jokes were very lyrical, and then all of the sudden, I was writing poetry in the act. It sort of spiraled out of control. I sort of discovered poetry on my own and came to enjoy it. When I was working with MTV and having to write for a network and get notes constantly, it was nice to retreat for a few hours and let my mind wander to whatever I wanted to do. And then all of the sudden, I had 500 poems. I was like, ‘I can cut these down and rewrite them, and it’ll be something that’s worth other people’s time.’
Your songs “Repeat Stuff” and “Art is Dead” have pretty bleak messages. But in a way, isn’t all art just recycling? And you can’t really believe that art is dead, I hope.
No, of course not. That song’s more about, for me, parodying the idea of being so bitchy about everything. It was more about talking about the fact that this is all a little strange. It’s much more about the need for attention. And “Repeat Stuff” too, it’s much more about the intersection of art and business. Of course, stuff builds on each other and nothing is perfectly original. But for me, with “Repeat Stuff,” so much of the pop songs have absolutely no artistic function and only function to sell something to little girls. That particular genre in my opinion targets very precarious things about little girls: their own insecurity and self-esteem issues. That to me is a little bit predatory and a little bit evil. I’m fine with things not being original. I want hardcore content to be the product of someone’s beliefs and for them to make something that connects with people as opposed to making something that is meant to sort of trick people and just sell them something, to have your way with them and then leave them.
Speaking of kids with insecurities, you’ve acted as a voice for bullied kids. Do you see yourself continuing with that image?
I have no real interest in that. I had one little song that I worked on that sort of said that. It was more just a reaction to anti-bullying songs, like on Glee and stuff. And anti-bullying songs seemed to always be about, like, “It doesn’t matter if you’re bullied, because one day the bully’s going to be pumping your gas.” That’s a little mean, we’re just fighting the idea of bullying, but don’t worry, we’ll grow up. For me, it was a song that expressed the anger that young kids feel without necessarily making a statement one way or the other. It was more just about the mind of the character. I don’t have any particular interest about taking a stand or anything like that. I do have an interest in presenting what’s true to me and what feels real to me. That was just one thing at that moment. I don’t really have any ideas I want to advance as much as I like to get lost in certain ideas and pursue them, and that was one of them.
Earlier this week, your screenplay, Gay Kid and Fat Chick, made The Black List. Can you tell us anything about that?
Yeah, it’s something I wrote for Paramount. That is a story that actually is a little bit about bullying, but for me it was just a story about two young people I really wanted to write about. I have no idea what’s going to happen with it. But it was a cool thing to write. I like to write something that puts you in a whole different mode. I think working on one area of writing always helps the other areas of writing, which helps performing. It’s all working on the same skill set for me, at least.
Do you prefer doing live shows to movies or TV?
No, I don’t prefer anything. Right now, I feel a little bit live show-ed out. I said I’m going to take a year off from performing. I don’t know if it’s true or not. That’s what I feel like right now. Right now, I feel like I need to get away for a little bit, but I’m sure I’ll want to do it again soon.
So other than a break from touring, what’s next for you? Zach Stone had such a unique format, and it was often funniest when you saw the camera crew or when Zach would say, “Edit this out later.” Do you think you’d be interested in doing a more traditional TV show?
I don’t know. If the idea’s right for me. I’m not sure. This is the time where I have to stare into the abyss for two months and figure out what I want to do next. I have to question if I’m doing the right job or if I want to quit everything. But I’m at that point right now where I’m just staring at a wall questioning everything.
Do you think you’d ever consider going back to school?
I’d love to take some classes. I don’t think I’d go back to school full-time. I’d love to take some literature classes or something at some point. I think that would be nice.
So no projects that you’re currently working on?
No, just no. There’s that script, but I don’t know what’s going to happen with that script. That’s already done, so it either must go or die in the waiting process.
In terms of future career goals, or projects that you would want to do, is there a desire for you to portray yourself as older and not as this wunderkind comic anymore?
I’m not worried about that. I don’t feel like I portray myself as that. I’m not too worried about how other people want to portray me or label me. I try to just portray what I feel like, and what. feels like what I’m feeling right now, so hopefully I’ll just keep doing that.
Emma Soren is a writer from Chicago living in Philadelphia.