Bo Burnham: "I'm an authority on confusion"

YouTube's first comedy megastar stormed the 2010 Fringe, so what can we expect this time?

Feature by Bernard O'Leary | 02 Aug 2013

Comedy has a pretty well-defined route to success. Do some open spots, get a name, start getting booked to do paid gigs, headline a few club nights, lose a fortune at the Fringe, and if you’re lucky you might get a spot on Mock The Week. 

Unless you’re Bo Burnham. If you’re Bo Burnham, you dick around on YouTube a bit until one day you discover that, completely by accident, you have become Earth’s most famous young comedian. From the kid who made videos addressed to “Internet pedophiles” to global superstar in a few short years; when did he realise that something was really happening for him?

“In the beginning it was really abstract,” he says. “My day-to-day life wasn’t changing at all, but I could see these large numbers of views, and a large number of comments that I mainly wasn’t reading. I don’t quite remember, honestly. To me, hindsight is not 20/20. Instead of rose-tinted glasses, I have shit-tinted glasses.” 

Burnham turns 23 during this year’s Fringe, and has already has a record that would put most old pros to shame. A world tour, an HBO special, and a 2010 Panel Prize from the Fosters Comedy Awards. Despite all of this, he sounds like a pretty ordinary young guy: humble, excited, a little baffled by his success and very excited about appearing on stage. Even the whole YouTube thing, he admits, was just a way of killing time. 

“It was just about doing these silly songs so I had something to do while I prepared to go to college and do theatre. I did theatre all my life, so even though people were watching I didn’t feel like anything was real until I did my first show. It was only 200 people showing up but it was amazing, and those 200 people laughing felt ten times better than 100,000 people typing ‘ha ha ha.’”

The 2010 Fringe is where Burnham graduated from being an Internet novelty to a bona fide comic voice. His show that year, Words Words Words, was a word-of-mouth smash hit and ended up catching the eye of the award judges, who fudged things slightly by giving him the Panel Prize rather than Best Act. Although he’s quite happy with that: “If I’d won the main award, that’d be just like asking for the backlash. I think it was the best-case scenario.”

There was a slight backlash though, from more established comedians who weren’t too happy about some kid off the internet stealing their thunder. “Yeaaah…” he says sounding uncomfortable, “Stewart Lee hates me.”

Why’s that then? “When I was last in Edinburgh, the show was taking off and I was doing a lot of interviews. Basically, in one of them I said something like, ‘Stewart Lee is doing this amazing thing, this self-referential, post-modern comedy which I feel like I haven’t seen as much in Europe since Andy Kaufman did it.’ I was trying to say is that he’s really great, but I think it came off sounding like he’s doing something people did in the United States years ago.

“I think Stewart Lee is a genius. But I heard he talked for 10 minutes in his show about me and he was like, I’m just a 20-year old and must be singing about Facebook or something. He wrote a whole article on me. But, you know, I was 19 years old and I was on the umpteenth interview of that day and I just mixed up my words a little.”

Technology changes fast. It’s three years on, and most career comics are as concerned about their Twitter follower count as they are ticket sales for their gigs. So do people now hit up Burnham (750k+ followers) for advice on being funny in a digital age? “No,” he says firmly.

Really? Why not? “I’m pretty isolated. The Fringe was so amazing and had such an impact for me, but then I came back to the United States and it was like nothing had changed for me. Over there, I felt people were really getting what I was trying to say with the show, but I still felt like I was just the YouTube kid on the this side of the pond. I’ve been trying to keep to myself and build a good show and… yeah, I have no advice to give. I just got super, super lucky.”

Burnham has forged a new path for comedians, but he has no idea how he got there. He doesn’t even really know what comedy is, or what his new show is meant to be, which is why he’s named it What? “I’m making it up and I don’t really know what it all means. Especially when I’m trying to vaguely blur the lines between theatre and comedy. I’m trying to figure out at what point pouring your heart out emotionally becomes funny, and why is it funny. But I have no idea.

“I do know what it can do to people, and I try to work with that, I try to do something positive. I’m much more value giving people a laugh or confusing them or making them wonder for a while. Rather than like, you know, shoving social issues at them or trying to be edgy. I just don’t think I’m an authority on those things. I think I’m an authority on confusion.”

Does he at least have an opinion on the traditional stand up scene? “I don’t think all comedy should be born from a male-heavy brick building. I don’t think all comedy should be able to withstand a drunk audience. Even though that is great. Some of my favourite comedians like Jim Jeffries, who do this stripped-down art that’s violent and territorial, and I love that. But I think there’s comedy that’s gentle, or poetic, or crazy, or gay or straight or whatever.”

Are comedy clubs dying?  “No, I don’t think clubs are dying. I personally don’t work in the clubs simply because the hour I’m doing doesn’t make sense in a club. But I have no interest in things dying. I’d prefer to see new things thriving and co-existing."