Bo Burnham and the Changing Face of Internet Comedy

As Bo Burnham's debut feature film Eighth Grade hits cinemas, we look at how Burnham's comedy has evolved alongside changes in web comedy and the ways in which we interact with the internet

Feature by Iana Murray | 21 Feb 2019
  • Bo Burnham

A pre-teen cringe comedy about an introverted young girl may not have been the most obvious choice for the directorial debut of Bo Burnham – but Eighth Grade is perfectly suited to the comedian-turned-filmmaker’s distinctive brand of insightful humour. Over 13 years, Burnham has cultivated a career out of articulating the anxieties of the first generation to grow up on the internet. There are no sweeping statements that vilify the teenagers whose eyes are glued to their phones, as Burnham is all too aware of how much more complex a life lived online can be. His projects don’t come from an outsider perspective, but represent a first-hand account of what it’s like to navigate a realm that encourages kids to advertise their perfect, curated selves.

Time is warped on the internet, and by its standards Bo Burnham is ancient. At 16, the comedian got his first dose of fame in 2006, with a series of viral videos featuring his signature brand of comedy songs. He’s exemplary of what a YouTube celebrity looked like before the idea really existed – shot in grainy standard definition, Burnham spits out lightning fast wordplay about his awkward adolescence from behind an electric keyboard. His comedy is the self-deprecating kind, though as juvenile as you’d expect for a teenage boy – look no further than the self-explanatory My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay.

Crass absurdity would be the primary source for laughs in the beginning, but his YouTube videos formed the foundation of what would become his perceptive observations of the internet generation. Underneath his stacks of puns, Burnham demystifies the online celebrity who has it all by smashing the facade with a devastating blow. In High School Party, he sings about a drunken sex-filled night with a “hottie” only to close with, “none of that happened ‘cause I wasn’t invited.”

He wouldn’t stick to YouTube for long, as is also the case when he became one of the most popular creators on the microvideo-sharing platform Vine. His six-second videos combine clever editing and dad joke-level wordplay into bite-sized chunks of sardonic wit. He abandoned Vine long before everyone else did, but in the app’s dying days, he returned to sign off in style: “I just want to say sincerely that this app was fun for three months and then it sucked dick. Have fun in hell!” The internet trafficks in passing fads with a short shelf life, exemplified in Burnham whose career is comprised of constant shifts between mediums.

His YouTube channel provided the gateway to his equally impressive stand-up career of three tours and two Netflix specials. Here, his sharp but thoughtful commentary is given its rightful spotlight on stage. Forlorn introspection suffuses his routines which verge more toward theatrical performance than stand-up. Between songs about religion or the hypocrisy of country music, Burnham ruminates on the “cult of self-expression” he was raised in that thrives on personal falsehoods – a culture that he has profited from. Art is Dead laments the state of the entertainment industry and the commercialisation of creativity, singing about being paid to indulge in his addiction to attention. It’s relatively easy to connect the dots to the internet culture that preaches that anyone can be famous.

The Bo Burnham presented on stage is nothing more than a persona, as he often makes clear. It’s a divergence from the current brand of comedy founded on authenticity. But in his stand-up, Burnham finds a brief moment to be completely candid. In Can’t Handle This, he gives a Kanye West-style auto-tuned monologue about the size of Pringles cans and messy burritos before confessing he feels like a fraud for making people laugh when his own mental health is on the decline. Towards the end of his final Netflix special Make Happy, he turns the lights back on the audience, highlighting that no matter how true to himself he may appear, this is still a performance.

His move to television provided his most cynical take on the internet generation yet, with the short-lived but criminally underrated MTV series Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. Burnham stars as a high school graduate desperate to become a global superstar, despite having no discernible talents to speak of. Zach spends his life savings on a camera crew to follow his misadventures, and with every episode he tests a new avenue through which he can find fame: acting, faking a disappearance, leaking a sex tape. Burnham cleverly skewers the shallow reality shows populated by people who are famous for being famous (many of which air on MTV, ironically). But the show finds depth when Zach thinks the cameras aren’t rolling. It’s only behind closed doors where we can see Zach be his true authentic self: on the precipice of adulthood, his biggest fear is fading into obscurity.

Looking back on Burnham’s career so far, Eighth Grade seems like the inevitable product of over a decade of analysing the internet. Its lead character Kayla (Elsie Fisher) is the antithesis of Zach Stone. She’s shy and introverted, and uses social media to project the version of herself she wishes to be. On YouTube, she posts self-help videos to her tens of viewers about being yourself and being confident, though she’s unable to use her own advice offline. The film isn’t a pessimistic take on the internet – it’s Kayla’s escape from the hell of middle school, her place for creative expression. This is the portrait of childhood in the 21st century.

Teen angst has moved from the school hallways to the scrolling feeds of Instagram and Twitter. Eighth Grade is wholly sympathetic to the plight of its intended audience, understanding that the kids of Gen Z have the same problems as those of generations past – the difference is that social media has made those problems visible. Bo Burnham knows the internet isn’t the monster it’s portrayed as, it merely provides another outlet for people who only wish to be heard.

Eighth Grade screens at Glasgow Film Festival – 28 Feb, 6.30pm; 1 Mar, 3.45pm, both screenings at Glasgow Film Theatre