The many faces of Bo Burnham
Aged just 23, the Edinburgh Festival sensation has enjoyed a prolific comedy career. As he begins a UK tour tonight, the American prodigy tells Alice Jones about his writing and movie-making ambitions
He is just 23 years old but Bo Burnham has already crammed more into his career than comedians twice his age. In his first stand-up show, which he wrote when he was 17, he had a joke about it. "I'm a 'young comedian'. I hate that term," he would sulk. "I prefer prodigy."
The funny thing is, prodigy is the right word for Burnham. He was 16 years old when he posted his first video to YouTube. A song titled "My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay", it was meant as an amusing message to his big brother who had just gone away to college, but it ended up going viral. Soon, Burnham was getting a million hits a day and was being called the Justin Bieber of comedy – a comparison which had much to do with his looks (fresh faced, floppy blond hair, hoodies) and nothing to do with his lyrics (the KKK, Noam Chomsky, clown rape).
Aged 18, he became the youngest comic to have his own special on Comedy Central. Hollywood's king of comedy, Judd Apatow, called him up and they began writing an anti-High School Musical together. Aged 19, he took his debut show, Words Words Words, to the Edinburgh Fringe and won the Comedy Awards Panel Prize. He has released three albums in as many years. So far in 2013, he has starred in his own sitcom, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, for MTV, toured America with a new live show, What., and published a book of poems, Egghead, which comes with approval from Apatow – "hilarious" – on the cover.
It is no exaggeration, then, to call Burnham the future of comedy. He looks more like an overgrown teenager. A lanky, stoopy 6ft 5in tall – in his poem, "Gangly", he describes his attempts to dance as "a tornado of elbow" – he has a shock of blond hair and owlish, wire-rimmed glasses, which make him look permanently quizzical. We meet in Patchogue, New York, last stop on the American tour of What. When he took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe for a brief run in August, he left with a cluster of five-star reviews. A UK tour starts tonight. "And then it will be over. Live stuff really does put a lot on my heart," he says. "Literally. A lot of the day is just slight chest pains and worrying."
What. is dazzling, combining the rapid-fire jokes and silliness of a Tim Vine set with the lighting and effects of a Jay Z gig. There are raps, poems and one-liners, dance routines, voiceovers and lasers. It is self-consciously epic. "People say I'm too full of myself," muses Burnham at his piano. "Whatever. Here's a song in the voice of God."
It is a step up from his 2010 outing Words Words Words, which was a similarly dazzling hour of politically incorrect gags ("What do you call a kid with no arms and an eyepatch? Names.") and lyrically dextrous songs – delivered by the twisted love child of Ben Folds Five and Eminem, or Tim Minchin on speed.
"A lot of the time I'm propelled into the next thing by a discomfort or a distaste for the thing before," he says. "Words… I found a little bit 'Look how clever I am'. I've given up just doing puns or raps. It got old for me. It seemed like I was just pleasuring myself with semantics".
He set out to make What. more theatrical, something that he would pay to see. "I've watched the most brilliant comedians in the world do an hour-and-a-half set and after, like, an hour, looking at a stage with just a guy talking, I'm just a little uncomfortable." He has never been a fan of the one-man and-a-mic set-up, nor of the "homogenising" club circuit, preferring to hone his material alone in his bedroom or the studio. He is at home performing on webcam as he is on stage. When this tour ends, he will give a recording of it away for free on YouTube and Netflix.
He could well be the quintessential comedian for a generation growing up online. His stand-up is deeply self-aware, a little ADHD and obsessed with the mechanics of fame. It is also driven by a love-hate relationship with the internet. "I learned very quickly that I would rather have 500 people laugh than have 10,000 people type 'Ha ha ha'," he says of his early YouTube hits. "As a young comic, I spent so much of my time trying to be older than I was, but then I realised my strongest feature was my age. In my generation, our lives are immediately reflected back at us. You take a picture, post it and it's immediately commented upon. You're nostalgic a second after something happens. We're living in very strange, self-conscious times."
While he has wowed critics and comedy aficionados alike, Burnham has been most enthusiastically embraced as the voice of a generation by teenage girls. They sit and squeal on the front row, Instagramming his shows even as he sings at them about the emptiness of fandom. "I try to emphasise, 'I am nothing but my content to you'. I'm not very self-hating about it and I'm definitely not hating them for it. I was young once, and enthusiastic, and didn't get things. I'm not going to roll my eyes and wish that I had a bunch of 30-year-old comedy whizzes that get all my references. That seems like preaching to the choir." He is thrilled by the idea that his subversive shtick might be the first experience some teens have of live stand-up. "But there's also a sick little desire to have them leave and be disappointed by everything they've seen."
Burnham was born in Hamilton, Massachusetts. His mother is a nurse, his father owns a construction company and he has an older brother and sister who both work in construction. His cynicism does not stem from an unhappy childhood. "If anything I maybe had too much confidence instilled in me when I was young. I had to unlearn that. I don't think I was severely arrogant but there was just a blind confidence. From when I was little I would perform and they would cheer," he says. At school, he loved to act and was set to study theatre at New York University before he went viral. It was a surprising turn of events. "Virality wasn't even a thing back then," he points out. "I thought at most it would spread around my school." When he got his first million hits, he was so excited he printed out all of the comments underneath his video.
This year, he had his first taste of failure when Zach Stone, his mockumentary about an 18-year-old who hires a camera crew to follow him and make him famous, was cancelled by MTV after one series. "It got manhandled publicly. We were not promoted. It was dead on arrival… Before arrival." Funnily enough, he didn't mind. "I was very, very worried, thinking I'd had everything just handed to me. It made me a little relieved. You know, thank God that my happiness and wellbeing isn't in other people's hands, isn't Nielsen ratings, or album sales. I need to be OK if all of this goes away. Because it very much can – and it probably will."
Not if he continues at his current, prolific rate, it won't. He now wants to concentrate on writing, "to hone the skills that have nothing to do with my stupid face". He started writing his poems in a café near his house in LA, where he lives with his girlfriend. They are a typical mix of the puerile ("I put a chameleon on a red dildo/ He blushed") and the profound. Some are even romantic, hinting at a more heartfelt direction in his work. "I shouldn't just include the most cynical, rude part of my mind, the part that looks the coolest to people. I think sincerity is the edgiest thing you can do now. I mean, I don't want to be Taylor Swift sincere..."
He would like to write a show like Matilda, and finish his high school movie. In the meantime, he might even find time to enjoy being 23 and the future of comedy. "I feel it's just such a gross profession at the end of the day. Every day, every show is a party for me. I don't deserve all of this," he sighs. "I've been trying very hard to put good stuff out there. And it does feel like I'm doing something good when I see people laughing for good reasons. It feels great."
Bo Burnham tours the UK to 18 November (boburnham.com); 'Egghead' is published by Orion (£14.99)
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