Oh Bo Part 1: Beginnings
Updated: Aug 27, 2020
YouTube, Words Words Words, and the Birth of An Artist
“Quotes are for dumb people who can’t think of something intelligent to say on their own.” — Bo Burnham
It begins in a small suburban bedroom on an otherwise normal December day. A young boy walks away from the camera he’s set up in front of his piano. Nerves start to creep up on him, “Am I really doing this?” He looks back at the piano, doubts emerge, “Will people find this funny?”
He takes a deep breath and hits record. He pops into frame, makes a joke, then throws caution to the wind. He sits at his piano and looks at the camera, that red blinking light watching. After this moment, it will never stop watching him. He takes a breath and shrugs it off, launching into his song. “After all,” he thinks, “Who else is going to see this?”
Bo Burnham grew from a YouTube sensation to stand-up comedian to an award-winning screenwriter and director in the span of twelve years. His success was due partly to being in the right place at the right time when viral videos were the latest fad, but it is primarily due to his brilliance as an artist. He is part of the maligned Millennial generation that is constantly striving to be successful even if it means increasing their anxiety to do so.
Burnham understands the plight he and his fellow Millennials have suffered and aims to reflect his experiences through his work. The anxiety that comes from feeling you are being recorded all the time. The burden of expectations that we put on ourselves and others around us. The fear that despite the fact you were raised being told you were special, you realize you might not be. Burnham knows their pain because he feels it himself and seeks to discuss the dirty truths through the guise of humor in order to make a change, making him the preeminent artist of the Millennial Generation.
Bo Burnham had a simple, suburban upbringing in Hamilton, Massachusetts. At an early age, Burnham showed a penchant for the spotlight, performing shows for his family. He began to write silly songs and in 2006 decided to upload one of those songs to a new site called YouTube. He just wanted to show it to his older brother in college. He never expected anyone else to see it, let alone have it explode the way it did.
That video, “My Whole Family,” became a viral sensation. After the link was shared to Break.com, the video’s views skyrocketed. Burnham then released several more videos, all from his own bedroom about a wide variety of topics. The quality of these videos is downright charming by today’s standards, very indicative of the pre-HD cameras of the mid-2000’s. The songs on the other hand rely more on shock comedy about things such as a “Klan Cookout” or Helen Keller being “The Perfect Woman.” You know, things sixteen-year olds joke about.
These songs don’t hold up as well as they used to. They have good jokes in them, but they lack a through line to give them the proper impact. Burnham himself disowns them, saying that they make him cringe. However cringey they may be (and certain ones definitely are), they did reveal Burnham’s talent, natural awkward charisma, and way with words. His jokes were well thought out with lines like “And I said let’s rob an Asian kitchen or stroll down the block. Either way girl, we’re takin’ a wok” or “You can spell and smell my stink. B-O lingers and it makes you think.” It’s an artist taking his first steps towards finding his voice during a time that brought all eyes on the artistic process.
This was fueled by many people in his generation growing up right as the internet was becoming more widely available to them. Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains argues that no development since the book has created such a massive worldwide cultural shift as the internet. Though it was filled with a wealth of information, it also was shaping “shallower thinkers” that were spending less time reading and comprehending and more time jumping from site to site. As such, the internet bred “a culture of immediacy” that many feared would result in a “dumbing down of culture.” Almost in reaction against that, websites started popping up where users could create their own content, adding even more dirt to the never ending pile.
Burnham’s career was boosted by the advent of YouTube and fostered the growth of a new artform in the viral video. After launching in 2005, YouTube quickly became a sensation amongst a generation of kids growing up with the internet. It was a democratic platform in which anyone could upload whatever they pleased and its appeal was immediate to this generation. The platform saw the rise of “a new breed of celebrity:” normal people who could earn “six figure salaries” by sharing themselves online. From “Leave Britney Alone” to “Nooma Nooma,” these short, oftentimes absurd and simplistic videos became iconic to this new generation of kids.
YouTube took ordinary people and made them celebrities overnight, with their own ardent fanbase. This led to a change in the entertainment industry in how stars were built. Now it was a lot easier for corporations to enlist artists as they had done all the hard work for them. “Artists are now expected to arrive with a market ready brand and audience, saving their corporate overlords the makeover expense.” Now responsibility on building your audience and voice is placed entirely on you.
It wasn’t long before show business came to snatch up this hot, young talent. Burnham signed a four-record deal with Comedy Central Records and released an EP and two albums in the course of three years. He also became the youngest comedian to have a Comedy Central Presents, which elevated his already massively growing audience.
Bo’ Fo’ Sho’ and Bo Burnham mostly consist of the songs from the YouTube videos. Bo’ Fo’ Sho’ consists of studio versions of the more popular songs, including “My Whole Family.” Bo Burnham has a studio version of “I’m Bo Yo,” a live performance of the songs that made him famous along with two new songs, one of which became the harbinger of Burnham’s later work: “Welcome to YouTube.”
“Welcome to YouTube” was first performed live for a YouTube event. In it Burnham makes several reference to his fellow YouTube sensations such as “Charlie the Unicorn” and “Chocolate Rain.” Though a light-hearted song for the most part, Burnham shows shade of biting the hand that feeds him and exploring how quickly his world has changed. He makes a dig at the potential that YouTube had as a platform and predicted its downfall in influence. “Cause YouTube is a place for people to share their ideas. If by people you mean 13-year-old girls and by ideas you mean how they love the Jonas Brothers.”
He also warns of the dangers of a world in which everything is recorded. “I find videos of babies laughing a bit intrusive.” If this becomes the new norm, our semblances of privacy will break down. There are certain things that should not be shared and to think about what should be posted and what shouldn’t. “Upload a video you got nothing to lose. Except all of your friends.” Burnham recognizes how the desire for attention could lead to failure as quickly and easily as it could lead to success.
Burnham avoided the pitfalls of his fellow YouTube sensations who have since faded into obscurity because he recognized the unhealthy aspects of YouTube’s future and avoided them. Burnham at first praised YouTube, seeing the potential democratization of art as a good thing. “I thought there were going to be Academy Award winning movies on YouTube.” However, like all good things, YouTube became commodified and the YouTube of today is vastly different from the YouTube of 2006.
Burnham rose to fame in an era in which technology evolved at such a rate it was impossible to keep up. The advancements of smartphones, computers, and social media changed the fabric of our society and culture. The result is what Douglas Rushkoff defined as “present shock.” Thanks to having access to seemingly unlimited information in our pockets, we live in a constant present, albeit a distracted one. Constant stimulation has caused people to make more impulsive decisions in the moment with little regard for how it was influenced by the past or how it might affect the future. “Young people raised in this environment,” Rushkoff states, “are among the first casualties of its many distractions and discontinuities.” The Millennials were indeed the first to be shaped by the new immediacy of culture and how it’s led to a shift in their creative and emotional processes.
Burnham noticed that platforms like YouTube were killing creativity, comparing it to “throwing out seeds in the ground without bothering to water them.” Rushkof made a similar warning, “There is no time for an artist or scene to develop,” thanks to immediacy of the culture. Burnham’s approach was to go against the grain and instead take the time to develop and grow his comedy shows. He saw the trends and behaviors his generation was developing and worked on material that would satirize and hope to correct it.
Burnham used the momentum his career had taken and toured the country with his comedy instead of going to college. Though his audience and stage presence grew, his social life and mental health began to waiver. Even as he was seeing the country and staking his claim as successful and serious comedian, Burnham still felt anxious about being thrust into the spotlight. The responsibility and acclaim he was receiving was overwhelming and he channeled those feelings into his next special.
Words, Words, Words was Burnham’s first hour-long stand up special and second full length album. In it Burnham mixes haiku, sonnets, and poetic language along with his signature songs to create a more well-rounded experience. The songs were reminiscent of the ones that originally made him popular while showcasing a more developed sense of wordplay and self-reflection. He performed it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the largest theatre festival in the world and took home the Panel Prize which is “the show or act who has captured the comedy spirit of the Fringe.” Captured it indeed as Words, Words, Words is Burnham’s first step into a more experimental and theatrical experience.
Burnham clues the audience into what they are in for with “What’s Funny,” where he explains how the evening will play out. He warns that his show is “a little bit silly and a little bit pretentious.” He then muses how “humor is often linked to shared experience like ‘Have you ever noticed that public restrooms have really inefficient hand dryers?’” and how we use comedy as a means of escape from our own insecurities and problems like “my wife divorced me which has consciously forced me to lose all sense of self.” He then keeps asking the question of the night which is, naturally, “What’s Funny?”
It’s the entire hour in a microcosm: clever and funny jokes here and there followed by deeper moments of insecurity and introspection. It’s embodied down to the set itself, which has the entire show’s script printed out for all to see, “so if anyone wishes to read ahead, they can.” It is Burnham’s first attempts at transparency between himself and the audience. By being so open with the audience, Burnham is able to experiment and provide the audience with a more unique experience than they would usually have at an American stand-up show.
Burnham’s persona is that of a pretentious, cocksure know-it-all. In Words, Words, Words, he says “People call me a ‘young comedian,’ I hate that term ‘young comedian.’ I prefer ‘prodigy.’” Though Burnham’s persona is brimming with ego, he subverts himself by revealing flashes of insecurity Burnham’s persona is awkward, but with fame it became “still awkward, with a layer of arrogance, to make the awkwardness that much more jarring.” This is seen off the first track of Bo Burnham “I’m Bo Yo” where he boasts “I’m a real G-Shorty who can really find your G-Spot” before admitting “What the fuck’s a G-Spot?” and in “High School Party (Girl).” Here Burnham recounts a story where he sleeps with a girl during a high school party, but reveals at the end of the song that “none of that happened because I wasn’t invited.”
Burnham’s persona demonstrates an absurd take on the Millennial generation itself. The rise of social media has taught children that “instead of teaching the rewards of vulnerability, it suggest that you put on your best face.” Burnham takes this to the extreme, burying his insecurity with a self-aggrandized persona. However, those insecurities cannot help but burst to the surface during moments that are inopportune and embarrassing. Through a fictionalized version of himself, Burnham shows how the internet and social media is stunting our emotional development and is detrimental to our own wellbeing.
Burnham’s on-stage persona helps inform the themes that would become major in his next two specials: the purpose of comedy and art, the relationship between audience and performer, and devolution of society and culture. Burnham just begins to explore these themes in Words, Words, Words saying that what makes him an artist is that he dares to ask the questions no one asks like:
Burnham builds himself up to be a great thinker only to pull it back with an absurd joke. He is poking at the self-importance artists have in the things they say only to reveal that they’re vacuous and ridiculous. Burnham gives the audience a peek behind the curtain and shows that the genius behind artists is much simpler than they ever imagined and in case they didn’t get it, Burnham makes it clear in “Art is Dead.”
Performed near the end of Words, Words, Words, Burnham prefaces the song with this warning: “This next song, honestly is not funny at all, but it helps me sleep at night.” What follows is two and a half minutes of Burnham bearing his soul to the audience. He grapples with the pressures of the spotlight and the moral quandaries that come with that. “The show has got a budget and all the poor people way more deserving of the money won’t budge it. Cause I wanted my name in lights. When I could’ve fed a family of four for forty fucking fortnights.”
Burnham makes several digs at the dark nature of comedians and boils it down to something easy, comparing all comedians and actors are just overgrown children wanting attention. He goes on to say that his drug is attention and is “an addict, but I get paid to indulge in my habits.” Here he suggests the relationship between himself and his career is unhealthy. A deeply co-dependent relationship that is abused and exploited by the industry at large, “So people think you’re funny, how do we get those people’s money?” Burnham rails against the industry that he’s discovered is more shallow than he would’ve hoped when he posted those videos years ago.
Burnham begs the audience to “please don’t revere me… please don’t respect me,” and that they should not idolize performers because that perpetuates the social hierarchy he is tormented by and fighting against. He’s not an artist, but instead “just a kid,” scared of what he might be becoming with all this praise and adulation. However, he offers a ray of hope saying “and maybe I’ll grow out of it,” suggesting that he will one day evolve enough as an artist to earn that respect.
There’s nary a laugh in the house throughout the whole thing until the very end where the audience erupts in applause. It’s a serious moment in the show that for the most part has been very silly. Burnham wins the crowd back with a simple joke and ends his set with the more standard “Oh Bo.” Though a blip in the grand scheme of the hour as a whole, “Art is Dead” makes the biggest splash. It represents a seismic shift in Burnham’s evolution as an artist. It maintains a ripple effect that will affect the work that follows.
Critics of Words, Words, Words felt that Burnham was simply retreading the same material without making “any significant advances,” from his first album. However, Burnham begins to play with themes that will have greater impact on his work going forward: the state of comedy, the effects of exposure, and the anxieties of performance. From “What’s Funny” to “Art is Dead,” Burnham grapples with bigger ideas. After Words, Words, Words, he spent the next three years honing his next special. Before that, Burnham decides to move into a new medium and attempts to impart what he’s learned on the audience many would deem part of the problem.
Next time: Bo Burnham is Gonna Be Famous when he makes the move to television by poking fun at the MTV crowd on MTV.