Bo Burnham: 'I'm a complete hypocrite'

His comic songs are an internet sensation, garnering 90 million YouTube hits. His stand-up show has had critics in raptures on both sides of the Atlantic. And now Hollywood is knocking at his door. Not bad for a 20-year-old ...
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The Independent Online

The American comedian Bo Burnham is writing and starring in a new mockumentary for MTV. "It's about a kid who hires a crew to film his own life," he says, "because he wants to be famous." Burnham turned the camera on himself too, when he was 16 – and his recordings of comic songs, performed in his bedroom and beamed to the world, remain among the biggest YouTube hits of all time (88 million views and counting). "So I'm a complete hypocrite," he says, "making fun of someone trying to be famous and get attention. Because that was me."

A teenager who got famous by filming his own life, making a fiction disguised as fact about a teenager seeking fame by filming his own life? Welcome to the work of Bo Burnham, postmodern chronicler of the identity-melting intersection of adolescence and fame. Oh, and the most exciting young comedian in the world.

British audiences can discover that for themselves next month, when Burnham, now a precocious 20, embarks on his first UK tour. His show, Words Words Words, was the sensation of last year's Edinburgh Fringe, confounding those (myself included) who doubted YouTube as a training ground for live stand-up.

The "pubescent musical comedy" (his words) that first brought Burnham to the world's attention traded on the clash between cherubic appearance and cynical material. His breakout tune, "My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay" – first posted online to amuse his older brother Pete, who'd just left home – was also the mildest. When that track went viral, this self-styled "Aryan librarian at the word Smithsonian" followed it up with Eminem-style ditties about the Ku Klux Klan and inappropriate Sunday-school teachers. The lyrics were dazzling and densely punned, even as the joke remained much the same.

Burnham has come a long way in the short time since uploading those songs from his Boston family home. His face is less fresh, and now hidden behind a defensive fringe. In conversation, he is fiercely articulate, over-analytical about himself and his comedy ("I'm very left-brain," he says), and he hides his passion behind effortful diffidence.

Reflecting on his early work, Burnham is (not for the last time) contradictory. On the one hand, he dismisses it as "cheap and shocking. And I don't like shock humour," he says. "The rule should be, it needs to be funnier than it is offensive. A Holocaust joke needs to be as funny as the Holocaust was tragic." Which is setting the bar pretty high. But Burnham also says of his signature song that "'My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay' [came from] my deepest, darkest thoughts. For a kid, your parents thinking that you're gay can be traumatic." Even at 16, the lines in Burnham's work were blurred between self-expression, artifice and cheap effect. They would get more so.

I first interviewed Burnham, by phone, four years ago, when he was still a kid, and first met him last summer, in the eye of his Edinburgh storm. The festival had gone crazy for him, and he was in a funk about the high expectations audiences were now bringing to his show. He went on to win the Panel Prize (although, criminally, not the main prize) at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards; the British comedy industry was at his feet. "It was awesome," says Burnham, looking back – but the US brought him earthwards with a bump. "I came home and it was like, no one knows anything. Because they're American, and they have their high walls."

Not that he is without honour in his native land. After his YouTube success, Burnham was snapped up by Comedy Central Records, for whom his debut EP, "Bo' Fo' Sho'", topped the iTunes chart. Shelving plans to study at NYU, where he had been accepted to study theatre, he signed up with Hollywood agent Douglas Edley, whose clients included comedy megastar Dave Chapelle. At the time, Edley said of Burnham, "He's the youngest comedian I've worked with, but the quality of his writing is amazing."

Within a year, Burnham became the youngest comic to have his own TV special on the Comedy Central channel – four days after his 18th birthday. He was soon developing – he still is – an "anti-High School Musical" movie with Tinseltown's king of comedy, the prolific writer/director/producer Judd Apatow, whose films have included Anchorman, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and many more.

Given that TV and cinema heat, it is surprising that Burnham pitched up at Edinburgh at all. Who needs a four-star review in The Scotsman when Judd Apatow is on speed dial? But Words Words Words left few in doubt that the stage is Burnham's natural habitat. It was a dizzyingly proficient solo comedy show – and all the more impressive coming from a 19-year-old. Songs provided its spine: recent numbers, including one about homosexuality and the Catholic church, and another, devastatingly, about egomaniac artists. But singing Bo was only one of the multiple personae on offer. There was also stand-up Bo, dispatching nerdy one-liners ("the average person has one fallopian tube"), poet Bo, playwright Bo (performing scenes from his non-existent one-man shows Whiplashed and The Inappropriate Musician) and thespian Bo, reciting soliloquies from Hamlet.

From the outset, it was clear that this wasn't just comedy, it was a deconstruction of comedy, with a fast-moving host bent on making us feel as uncertain as possible. Burnham describes the style as "misdirection by means of paradigm switches. I like to make my comedy disorienting," he says. "So you don't know what's coming next." He succeeds – and by doing so casts a harsh light on the tired conventions of mainstream stand-up. "Comedy is the one performance where it's meant to look casual," says Burnham with distaste. "A lot of comedians aspire to look like they're doing it for the first time; like they're getting up at a party and just talking. I aspire to the opposite. I want to create a show that feels different and strange and weird. And well-rehearsed. I want it to be a glimpse into something more theatrical than [a man going], 'Hey, what's up?' I've never been interested in that."

By creating such a show, of course, Burnham can hide his real self. "What I am on stage isn't me," he says, categorically. "I want to usurp the whole idea of a stage persona." Indeed, on stage, Burnham flits between attitudes and postures so fleetingly that he can't be pinned down; off stage, he insists that that's an aesthetic choice. But it's clearly also a function of his youth. For Words Words Words is, among other things, 21st-century adolescence as performance. It tries on personalities for size. It cares, but it knows that caring is uncool. It oozes moral outrage, but knows that teen rebellion is a cliché. (That is partly what it's outraged about.) Burnham's show is a peek-a-boo game of self-revelation and pugnacious self-concealment; a hall of mirrors in which you glimpse who Burnham is, and what he cares about, only glancingly, through infinite eye-catching distortions.

Interviewing Burnham is an extension of this act by other means. Not deliberately; he's thoughtful and sincere. But the contradictions come thick and fast, as Burnham wrestles with what it means to get on stage and share yourself with the world. On the one hand, his show is void of meaning, he tells me. "I definitely like nihilism," he says. And "My show is rebellious, but it's such a dishonest rebellion."

When I challenge that, he changes tack. "I want to do comedy that is from the heart. I think you can not mean anything," he insists, "and still be from the heart." That's a tough circle to square, but Burnham makes a decent fist of it. His mission, he says, is to find the soulfulness in meta-comedy. "I'm pursuing the idea of postmodernism as a form of introspection. Meta-comedy can seem distant and cold, but if you turn it in on yourself, then its infinite analysis becomes self-analysis." Deconstructing comedy thus becomes a way of deconstructing the self. "I'm trying to pursue the humanity of what can seem like a cold, postmodern world."

Michael McIntyre, in other words, he ain't. But Burnham is just what comedy needs, as the McIntyre-inspired stand-up gold rush drags comics further into the middle of the road. Burnham cares about the art form's history – he is a disciple of the "holy trinity" (as he calls them), George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin – but sports a punk irreverence and a huge student-age fanbase. Just listen to his song about egotistical artists, which is terrifyingly close to the bone ("My drug's attention/ I am an addict/ But I get paid to indulge in my habit"). Justifying it in conversation, he's even more vicious. "Its point is that all these comedians get up on stage and start self-deprecating: 'I can't get women, I need to work-out, I'm fat.' And I'm like, 'How about you do some real self-deprecation for once, and admit that you're a bad person, cos that's what you are?' If you want real self-deprecation, here's a depressing song about the reality of what we do."

How long Burnham's teen spirit can stay pungent remains to be seen – as does his staying power as a stand-up. In Edinburgh last August, he promised – typical teen – that, "I'll stop when I think I'm not doing good stuff. I'll never exploit something just because people like it." At any rate, we're unlikely to lose him to Hollywood, where his Judd Apatow project is going nowhere fast. But doesn't everything Apatow touches get made, I ask? "Yeah," he replies, wryly. "But not everything I touch. And I've probably touched it a bit more." The MTV series, entitled Zach Stone is Gonna be Famous, is more pressing. But Burnham knows where his priorities lie. "I have no real want or need to be a movie star. The real stuff is my comedy.

"I just want to expose the absolute silliness," he goes on, "of 800 people sitting watching a guy tell them a story that he's already told 800 times. It's like, 'Tell me a funny story, friend' as you sit there among 800 people." Burnham can barely contain his disgust. "Is this what we've become?" He's frustrated, because those 800 people, and the rest of us, are missing out on how surprising, and how unphoney, comedy can be. "There's only one rule in stand-up, which is that you have to be funny. Yet 99 per cent of comics look and talk exactly the same.

"I really think comedy could be something incredible, if these stupid lines and barriers people put up..." Burnham tails off, stops, realises he's given too much of himself away. Time to change tack, get back in control. "It's not like I want to be at the front of the charge with a sword on a horse," he says, just in case I thought he cared too much. "But it's fun to explore those things, and that's the reason I want to do it. I know I seem to have a cold, analytical perspective. But at the base of it, I'm just in it for the fun."

Bo Burnham plays the CatLaughs Comedy Festival in Kilkenny, Ireland, from Thursday (056 776 3837) before beginning his UK tour at Komedia in Bath (0845 293 8480) on 6 June; for details of the rest of the tour: