Oh Bo, Part 3: what.
Burnham Sets A New Comedy Special Standard With what.
“When I get onstage, I want to do this show, I want to serve this show, and I want to serve this higher idea of theatre.” — Bo Burnham on what.
It begins with an old video of that young boy, even younger than in 2006. He’s a child. His back is to the camera. An unseen voice calls his name. He turns and lights up the moment he sees the camera. He sings a song. Little does he know that performing will become a major part of his life. That exposure will heighten his anxieties and that thing that once brought him joy will either make him whole again or tear him apart.
Bo Burnham had an incredible output in 2013. He had just wrapped up his own television series, released a New York Times bestselling book of poetry, and still found the time to develop a new hour of comedy to cap the year off. Burnham spent three years honing and perfecting his new material, finally releasing it for free on YouTube using his own money in order to make this new, weird, and innovative special accessible to everyone.
what. is a giant leap forward in Burnham’s comedy and content. Burnham took his usual sharp-songwriting style and energetic wordplay and added pantomime, advanced lighting cues, and a wide variety of hilarious backing tracks. Burnham missed his days in theatre and “feeling like I’m within something when I’m onstage,” and sought to make a more theatrical experience for the audience. The result is one of the most revolutionary stand-up specials of the 21st century. Burnham sees theatre as a way to work outside of himself and what. is his attempt to reconcile the thoughts within himself.
It begins with Burnham on a stool with a domineering spotlight on him. An ominous voice tells us that “This is Bo Burnham,” and that “He has isolated himself for the last 5 years in pursuit of comedy and in doing so, has lost touch with reality,” noting the disconnect fame has brought him from those around him. The music kicks in and Bo starts dancing, another voice, this one closer to Burnham’s own states “You used to do comedy when you felt like being funny, but now you’re contractually obligated, so dance you fucking monkey. DANCE, MONKEY, DANCE!” Right out of the gate Burnham constructs the war inside his own head. That his art used to bring him joy, but now he’s not sure what the purpose of it is anymore.
This line is what. in a nutshell. Burnham pulls the curtain back and expose the artifice of performance. He stated in an interview that throughout what. “I’m making fun of the fact that you can be genuine and lying.” However, he also wishes to sort out his own place in the world of performance and grappling with the nature of comedy. Burnham questions if comedy can help him emotionally by asking, “Why is stand up the way it is? What is it doing? Is it a way for us to progress emotionally?” what. is a major step in Burnham’s evolution as an artist by exploring what it means to be one.
The first song following the intro is called “A World On Fire…”
The next song is a little longer than that, “Sad.” Burnham goes on to list a variety of sad things he’s seen, such as “a homeless man named ‘Rich,’” and “a giraffe who had a short neck, that was sad or a deer” and struggles to cope with them. He posits the question to the audience. How do they deal with all the tragedies in the world? That’s when he notices their laughter and concludes that the best way of coping with the world’s problems is to laugh at them.
Of course, Burnham takes this one step too far by stating that by that logic, everything is funny. “Tragedy must be exclusively joked about because my empathy is bumming me out.” Burnham comments on the supposed lack of empathy that our digital society has placed on his generation. Douglas Rushkoff writes how Millennials that use social media “have difficulty reading human emotions” and thus makes it easy to deflect tragedy with humor. However, as Rushkoff states, “empathy isn’t just studying and understanding. It’s not something one learns, but a way of feeling and experiencing others.” By shutting ourselves out of our empathy, we become unable to connect with those around us.
Burnham sees this and prods at it by also acknowledging his role and perpetuating it. He calls himself out, by stating how “being a comedian isn’t being an insensitive prick capitalizing on the most animalistic impulses of the public,” but immediately brushes off that very honest assessment of comedians and instead labels himself “a hero.” He then claims that he understands the humor in the world, but by seeing everything as funny he proudly proclaims, “I’m a sociopath!” “Sad” is an early indication of the war in Burnham’s head in what. and how his cold, sterile reasoning is at war with his empathy and emotions. It’s a hard battle and Burnham aims to explore what could possibly bring these two diametrically opposed pieces together.
“Left Brain/Right Brain” is the first song in what. where Burnham begins to resolve the warring thoughts in his head. Logical Left Brain keeps him focused and working, but Emotional Right Brain notes that all this work and success isn’t making Burnham happy. However, once they find that healthy middle, Burnham is whole again and able to continue to work on himself through his work. It’s the first instance in what. where Burnham shows the solution to the conflict in his head. That “comedy is the way to fix me… it is therapy for me in a way as a resolution for a split in my mind.” Comedy serves as Burnham’s way to take his hopes and fears and channel them into his work.
Burnham’s generation grew up in an era where expectations were thrust upon them. From their parents, to their education, to their careers, Millennials were raised to never settle for less than perfection. As a result, it created a determined, capable, and intelligent generation that was nonetheless egotistical, anxious, and self-critical. When things went poorly they fled to a digital world where they could present the best parts of themselves.
Millennials took to social media like pigeons to crumbs. Here, they put on their best faces, here they were important, here “you were representing yourself and talking about your own life. That’s why people friend you. They want to know what you are doing and thinking.” Broadcasting simple thoughts is a lot easier to Millennials than self-reflection. Millennials used Facebook or Twitter to state whatever came to mind in order to gain the approval of their peers and give off the illusion of wisdom.
Burnham recognized his generation’s impulse to spout whatever they were thinking and centered “#Deep” around it. Throughout the song, Burnham spouts a slew of meaningful albeit bent inspirational quotes in an effort to sound wise and “deep.” He starts with “have you ever stopped to see a bluebird drop from a tree and take to the air? Me neither.” Burnham leaps right into a beautiful image of nature and immediately undercuts it, showing how we are missing out on the beauties of the world because we are so tethered to technology.
Burnham satirizes his generation’s tendency to post simple and often vapid statements in an attempt to sound profound. By saying these ridiculous statements, Burnham shows that the most complicated thoughts in life cannot be boiled down to simple tweets or statuses. Our culture has created a world in which “responses are filled with people who type faster than they think and who post something simply because they know they will never have the time to find the discussion again.” In today’s interconnected world, we speak before we think in order to show how we are connected to the internet’s culture of immediacy.
Burnham postulates more absurd thoughts like “If Jesus can walk on water, can he swim on land?” However, his true fears and insecurities begin to bubble to the surface. He says “if life is an ocean, then I am and tall and handsome fish,” building himself up, but immediately knocking himself down with “a fish that’s drowning.” He talks of how he was raised to believe that “the world is my oyster” and when faced with the harsh realities of life, he concludes “then I must have an allergy to shellfish.” It is a song of contradictions, as what starts as confidence quickly turns into insecurity.
what. was released when Burnham was 23. At that time the majority of his generation was either already out in the real world or about to be. This generation was bred to believe that their views mattered and soon realized that their eagerness to please led them to be exploited and “don’t know how to separate our own interests from a boss’s or company’s.” The result is a hyper competitive environment where success is the gold standard, leading to significant spikes in stress and anxiety among Millennials. Life is indeed an ocean and despite us thinking we’re all dark and handsome fishes, we are all drowning.
Late in the special Burnham breaks down the artifice of the relationship between himself and the audience. “They don’t understand that the way I act onstage is just that, it’s an act,” and tries to shatter the feeling of comradery his fellow comedians create with their fans. That comedians conjure this illusion of truth that bonds them to their audiences when in actuality the truth is much darker. Burnham then exemplifies that by acting like a cliched stand-up comedian trying to relate his audience and as a result defines not only comedy, but art to its basest terms.
I’m like you guys, once a week I like to slip into a deep existential depression where I lose all sense of oneness and self-worth. And what I like to in order to assure myself that I’m unique and I’m not just one of many small, white indistinguishable perfectly cylindrical checker pieces in Jesus and Satan’s backgammon game, is I will say a group of words that I think no one has ever said in that order so that when I say it I feel like “Look at me, participating in this new moment no one’s ever been a part of.” So I’ll say something random like “peanut butter tribadism” or “I’m your father and I loved your comedy show.”
Burnham continues to explore the relationship between himself and his fans. He reveals to them that even though they may adore him and feel like they understand him, they do not have a personal relationship. On the CD version of what., an audience member screams “I love you!” to Burnham. He responds with, “You love the idea of me. You don’t know me. It’s called a parasocial relationship it goes one way and is ultimately destructive, but please, keep buying my shit forever.” Burnham tries to get through to the audience that the adoration between artist and performer will never be reciprocated and instead exploited.
It is the perfect intro into the penultimate number of what. “Repeat Stuff.” Much like “Welcome to YouTube,” “Repeat Stuff” features Burnham biting the proverbial hand that feeds him, this time being the music industry at large. He lampoons how popular music’s constant assembly line of generic love songs have ruined the concept of love, the record labels that exploit the fans, and the fans that are so enamored with their favorite artists, they refuse to see the parasitic relationship they have with them.
These points are further reinforced in the music video for “Repeat Stuff.” Here, Burnham tries to surround himself with diverse friends where he is the center of attention, though it’s clear he doesn’t belong. He also goes through bouts of possession by an unnamed demonic force that craves attention and status. Towards the end of the video, Burnham breaks into a house and makes his way into a young fan’s bedroom. She awakens and is surprised and ecstatic to see the artist she idolizes so much. That’s when Burnham smothers her, shoves his hand into her chest, rips out her heart, and eats it. It’s a visceral image that warns that the dependency we have on celebrities creates a toxic and deadly relationship.
Following “Repeat Stuff,” Burnham awkwardly tries to bring the show to a conclusion when he is interrupted by an unseen voice. It’s someone he knew in high school, though they never hung out. But this person acts like they’ve known each other for years. Soon another voice appears, that of a talent agent looking to represent Burnham. However, it quickly devolves into the agent attempting to convince Burnham to appeal to the masses and commodify his art instead of “this, y’know, introspective material that challenges the form.” Finally, some bro’s voice appears to criticize Burnham, calling him pretentious and “you think you’re cool just because you’re tall?” All three voices claim that they know Burnham better than he knows himself.
Burnham faces the three voices in his head that he battles with constantly. That of his past, his business, and his critics. Throughout all three monologues, Burnham does not respond, he just stands there, growing uncomfortable. Once it’s over, Burnham takes control back. He replays all of these conversations again, but picks out certain sections. The first phrases are how each voice identified him: “Bo,” “Mr. Burnham,” and “Fag.” One is a shallow attempt to be personal, one too professional, and the other just flat out mean. He then loops them and layers them on top of one another, creating a discordant noise that almost become unbearable.
That’s when Burnham fights back. He lashes out, punching the air at the agent and his critic. They respond with “Ow” and “Hey!” The girl from his past is not harmed, but nonetheless hurt: “You’re not gonna hit the girl? That’s sexist.” They keep talking over each other, until Burnham brings them together as a unified voice saying one phrase: “We think we know you.” Burnham then adds more and more layers, making the words into something more poignant. He adds what got him all this attention in the first place: his music.
The sound of the keyboards, the keyboards that he started with, that brought him fame come in. Then more and more instruments get layered over that. It becomes this beautiful melody and Burnham goes from shying away, to fighting, to finally dancing along. All those anxieties, those fears, that criticism, all fade away. Burnham has turned the voices in his head around into music. He has discovered how to cope with the voices that haunt him every day. Once he comes to terms with that, the show can finally end.
Early in his career Burnham used to be embarrassed by how easily he found a fanbase of young kids saying “I thought to other comics this seemed like the most illegitimate thing,” but then realized “you could bring this weird, progressive comedy to kids.” Burnham takes that ball and runs with in what., taking the traditional stand-up special and turning it into something more theatrical and leaving the audience with an experience. Burnham stated around what.’s release “The best thing you can do onstage is take a risk.” Burnham does that with what. in spades by presenting one of the most groundbreaking comedy specials of all time.
what. mainly concerns itself with Burnham’s role and responsibility as a performer. He is grappling with his own anxieties throughout the special and concludes that the best way for him to manage himself is to channel it into his art. He recognizes that he has talent, a gift as a performer. He comes to terms with being a performer. He’s almost ready to hang up his hat, but he has some last words to impart before he does.
Next time: Burnham takes the production values and themes of what. and takes them even further, (maybe?) hanging up his hat as a performer in the process.