No one foresaw the meteoric rise of musical comedian Bo Burnham. In 2008, at age 18, he was posting YouTube videos of satirical songs he'd composed on a keyboard in his room. By 2010, Burnham had attracted millions of followers, garnering him attention from Comedy Central Records, which produced his records Bo Fo Sho, Bo Burnham, and Words, Words, Words. He has also appeared on Comedy Central Presents, and he is currently working on the MTV series Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous.
More than just another YouTube sensation, Burnham, 22, has cultivated a live show that draws from the classic wordplay of comedians like George Carlin, as well as theater, music and textbook-inspired knowledge. He is as likely to perform hilarious, piano-backed lamentations on the death of art as he is to "pause" his show and recite haiku.
Burnham proves comedians don't have to work their way up through the circuit. Sometimes they are simply blessed with natural talent and a good Internet connection.
The Daily Page: What is the first musical you remember seeing?
Bo Burnham: It might have been Newsies. The first live musical I probably saw was a musical version of A Christmas Carol at the North Shore Music Theatre, where I'm from, in Massachusetts.
How old were you?
Do you think those experiences sparked your interest in performance?
Well it's strange, because ever since I was 2 or 3 years old I'd do little "Bo Shows," where I'd gather everybody around in my family and sing or dance for them. Then I relapsed into a sports thing for most of middle school, and then started getting back into theater. I always had known in the back of my mind that I loved theater and should be doing it, but it wasn't until middle school that I actually started doing it.
Do you use music to inspire you while you're writing?
Yeah, a lot of musicians inspire me, even comically. Things like the Beatles or Radiohead inspire me to challenge my work or to not be afraid to experiment. You can see those things in my show when it gets a little weirder and more variety-esque.
Social media has played a big role in your career trajectory. But do you ever use social media against itself? Do you ever post negative comments about your own videos under a pseudonym or spread false information about yourself?
Yeah, I've done that. There are some sites that I'll comment on if I ever see something written about me. That's the best way to use it.
I don't like it when people use the Internet as this promotional business model. I did it sort of accidentally, and yes, it can get you promotion and get your name out there. But at its base the Internet is just chaotic and pretty ironic, aggressive, silly and anti-establishment. So I'm all for whatever 'Fuck the Establishment' use people get out of the Internet, and I love the way the Internet does it.
These days, it seems that once you've established yourself, social media is required. Everyone has websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook. Do you think such easy access to an audience can sometimes be detrimental to artists' work if they become too engrossed in it?
I definitely do. I have a Twitter [@boburnham], and all I do is tweet jokes or ridiculous things that may seem like personal updates but clearly aren't. It's a real poisonous thing happening, these relationships people have with artists. It's a way to connect you to fans, yeah, but I feel it ends up being more of a way to connect consumers to you personally and not your art.
The "me" people think they know is constructed for the purpose of being on stage. I don't like talking about my personal life. I don't think it's relevant. It's a huge, huge, huge enemy to art right now. That's what has happened with a lot of celebrities. People want to be famous for just being themselves, and that's such a silly idea.
I'm working on a show right now for MTV about that, about selling your person and having no content. The show looks at what that does to the person and what that does to the audience. It does terrible things to both of them. For the audience, it gives them an unrealistic view of who the person is. And for the performer, they end up having this crazy, fractured view of themselves that's unrealistic.
Even looking at people's comments about your work could be destructive. If you look at 5,000 opinions about what you're trying to do, it could sway you from the track you were originally trying to take.
Of course. The valuable thing about performing for me isn't having something where I can respond to user feedback. It's about reflecting yourself without care for that, and hoping that it's magnetic and something people enjoy. The way I started online, I never thought anyone was going to see it, so I started performing for people to just please myself. I try very hard to maintain that.
When you get an audience, you have this initial idea that you need to give them what they want or that you owe them something. I need to remind myself that what they wanted from the beginning is for me to follow what my heart or what my mind is telling me. You hear artists say things like, "Oh I have the best fans! I love my fans!" It's like, of course you fucking love your fans. They give you money. But I think the most valuable thing I can do is explore my own interests and express myself honestly without thinking too much about an audience.
Bo Burhnam performs at the Barrymore Theatre on Monday, April 30.