- October 23, 2013
A YouTube sensation at 16, Comedy Central special at 18 and an MTV series at 23 – Bo Burnham talks with Victoria Nangle
You’re still touring at the moment. How did it go up in Edinburgh?
“It was great. I couldn’t believe I got to play that room and people actually came to it. It was something that I knew, immediately when I left, was going to not feel real. I was back a week and couldn’t believe I had been there.”
Did it feel very different to be home after the ten dates in Edinburgh you did?
“Yeah, which is insane. I was performing the show at 11.15pm every night in this big black room – not recognisably anything – with haze and smoke and lights. When I was there, I was like, ‘Well, this is clearly an extended fever I’m not really going to remember’.”
It did seem really tightly choreographed. How hard did you have to rehearse that?
“The show has been almost three years in the making. It took a lot of work and it was years of sticking with it and pushing it and seeing how far we could orchestrate this thing. A year ago I almost decided to record it and then I thought, well let’s see what happens when I sit with it for another year, do another draft on all these backing tracks and try to squeeze even more material in-between. And I’m glad it happened.”
How would you describe it?
“It’s hard to describe because it’s life. The show called ‘What?!’ is born out of not knowing, showing you that what you think comedy and theatre might be isn’t exactly that. I’m hoping this show does just show a little bit of humanity at the centre of it. I’m part of the generation that’s quite jaded and ironic and can’t feel anything, and that’s probably true for the most part. I think we’re conditioned to feel that way. The mechanisms of our life and the internet and everything are so overwhelming and so stimulating that you need to block yourself to some emotions or you just go crazy. And I think I’m trying to articulate that. I feel we deserve an articulation of that in some way other than some 50-year-old guy talking about buzz words, social networking and the millennial generation.”
You’re stepping away from all of that with your book of poetry – back to paper and away from social networking and the demand of the immediate; considered words over flippant words…
“That’s a great point. Also, though, you can see the connection between poetry and Twitter. And the idea that I do think this is poetry accessible to young people, for the reason that it’s spoken in their language. I felt that it was a natural progression from the way we speak into poetry, things feel truncated and rhythmic.
“I know that this is the time in my life when I think I’ll have answers and I won’t. And I’ll be wrong about everything. That’s kind of interesting. I feel like being alive now as a young person, you’ve seen your life played out for you in movies and television. You’re so familiar with the archetype of what you are. So you’re like a 20-year-old ****head or whatever you like; you’re a 23-year-old know-it-all, because you’ve seen those people in a million movies. So, it’s this weird thing of being yourself and being outside yourself at once. It’s all that meta post-modern stuff that really affects how you feel.”
But haven’t you broken that expectation, in terms of not meeting the expectations of being a teenager? You were a YouTube sensation at 16 and recorded your first Comedy Central special four days after your 18th birthday. It’s not what you would expect…
“I had a pretty risk-free time of it though. Because I didn’t go to college but I was able to defer for a year. So it was literally, like, just try comedy for a year and if it doesn’t work college was waiting for me. I’ve had such an incredibly lucky and easy run of it. It’s scary in a certain sense of the word, maybe a little intimidating. The second I would look at other people around me who were being much more courageous than I was in their life, or much more challenged, I felt just a little bit of mental stress. An ivory tower pressure is fine, I can take that.”
How hard do you have to work for people to realise you’re grown up now, after such a high profile as a teenager?
“You know, that was so important for me at a certain point, and I’m trying to not make that an important point for me. There’s isn’t a really good endgame if I’m constantly measuring my own worth by how other people see me. Then I’m not a grown up until everybody realises I’m a grown up. When everyone remembers me as the dirty kid singing little songs I am the dirty little kid. My work is trying to at least define myself on my own terms, and then if other people enjoy things that’s a lovely addition. I work really hard on the shows and I think the shows speak for themselves. I don’t want to construct the show to prove something. I feel like I was doing that with ‘Words, Words, Words’, back in 2010. That was a little bit like that was born out of insecurity. I’d rather have it be born out of a passion for something, rather than a need to prove that I’m not a certain way.”
‘What?!’ felt very playful…
“That’s the hope. It’s joyous in a certain way. Even if it’s joyous in being a little dark at some times, or a little bit contemplative – it’s coming out of a real want to portray this, for itself though.”
On Wikipedia you’ve been compared to Andrew Dice Clay, which I found a bit bizarre…
“The strange thing with Wikipedia is that the first article that ever gets written about you will define your Wikipedia page forever. Literally like, a local newspaper had a list of three comedians who that guy had heard of. So that was really just the first guy’s description of my first videos ever. And it stands completely solid. You look at Wikipeida and it’s like – Andrew Dice Clay. I’m like – Andrew Dice Clay? I guess my earliest stuff could be considered close to his dirty little rhymey stuff. I’ve never been that attracted to Andrew Dice Clay comedy in any sense though.”
But you do play with taboos. Do you believe there are any taboos in comedy?
“No, I don’t. The classic comedian says there’s nothing that’s taboo; if you laugh at one thing you’ve got to laugh at everything, that comedy is taking people to dark areas and showing them the light. It’s sort of like a worshipping of comedy that I don’t really agree with anymore. If you can think of all the times in your life, some of the happiest times were probably when you were laughing. And some of the worst times in your life you were being laughed at. There’s this song in ‘What?!’ that’s about all these sad things that I see and it’s making fun of the idea of comedy about the offensive things as good and altruistic.
“I’m interested in taboos for certain reasons. They can dramatise things and they’re scary, and they’re important to think about. I’m also wary about the fact that if you don’t proceed with caution and understand what you’re doing, you understand these things are realities that you’re dealing with, they’re real things. They can sometimes in comedy feel unreal in a way that maybe isn’t healthy. It’s not an open and shut case for me. For some comedians it feels so cool for it to be like: ‘I’ll say anything, man!’. I’m not quite there yet.”
Bo Burnham – What?!, The Old Market, Wednesday 6 November 2013, 8pm, £16, 01273 201800, www.theoldmarket.com
Egghead or You Can’t Survive On Ideas Alone by Bo Burnham is in all good bookshops now.