Celebrity isn’t so much a foreign concept to Bo Burnham, now close to a decade since YouTube thrust him and his musically comedic skills into the limelight and our broader public consciousness.
But how the famous interact with the rest of us continues to intrigue and puzzle Burnham, and in his third (and final?) stand-up comedy special, Make Happy on Netflix, the 25-year-old explores and pokes holes in the very nature of modern-day celebrity behavior. Read my review on Decider for my full take on Burnham’s “Make Happy,” which came out on Friday.
It’s not new territory for Burnham, who also created and starred in the self-aware MTV series, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous in 2013.
Now it’s mid-2016, and the comedian hopped on the phone with me over the weekend during a break in filming (he’s got a supporting role in Kumail Nanjiani’s movie, The Big Sick, currently in production in Brooklyn) to talk about his special and what it all means.
I noted in my review that Burnham’s “Make Happy” debuted the same day as The Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping movie, which also deconstructs the notion of celebrity in the form of a musical pop star who’s trying to please his audience and make them and himself happy. Burnham told me he hadn’t had a chance yet to see Popstar.
“It’s certainly a coincidence,” Burnham told me. “I like all those guys. I really think The Lonely Island makes great musical comedy. I love their songs.” Plus: “MacGruber (directed and co-written by the trio’s Jorma Taccone) is my favorite thing in the world.”
That said, Burnham acknowledged that it’s tricky to mock celebrities while also courting them. “I haven’t seen anything, but I don’t know how you can deconstruct and make fun of celebrates while also having as many celebrity cameos as you can. That’s not just on them. That’s everybody.”
“The Jimmy Fallon shit? Where Charlize Theron gets up and throws darts at balloons with her face on it, and isn’t she human?” he continued.
“It’s hard to deconstruct celebrity when you are a celebrity. I’m really not one,” Burnham maintained. “I am one with a niche audience. I still feel like a little bit of an outsider.”
Speaking of which, Burnham’s joke in Make Happy about hating Celebrity Lip Sync (the bit from The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon that has spawned a popular spin-off series on SPIKE) fell on deaf ears with the audience. In the special and on his tour over the winter and spring, Burnham called it “the end of culture” and asked: “How is this entertainment?” It’s the one spot in his hour, outside of his prolonged monologue asking what his own special is all about, where the crowd goes eerily quiet.
And it happened throughout the tour.
“Yeah, always,” Burnham acknowledged. “I can make fun of anything. I can fun of our most sacred things. I make fun of Jesus, of kids burning, but I can’t make fun of celebrity lip synching.”
Why does he suppose that is?
“Maybe it’s not an obvious enemy,” Burnham wondered. “Some people would think I would like that.” And in fact: “I was offered to be in the SPIKE version of it.” Burnham declined. “It’s the furthest version of when I think of celebrities providing a service to people and instead they’re just jerking off in the audience’s faces.”
“They think they’re being funny. ‘Look at me, I’m mouthing along to a Diana Ross song and I’m a white guy.’ It’s seventh-grade humor, and it’s full on hittable” as a target for mockery. “This is something your uncle does drunk in front of your family,” he said, and just because that uncle is replaced by a celebrity doesn’t make it any more enjoyable suddenly.
“It’s a weird game that I don’t like. and I just think it’s funny to make fun of them for it,” Burnham said.
Burnham was born in 1990, when Andrew “Dice” Clay was at the height of his popularity and atop the stand-up comedy pyramid, warping nursery rhymes into raunchy punchlines. A generation later, Burnham has taken those same nursery rhymes but delivered them straight, albeit alongside some sick hip-hop beats.
“I never even thought of the Andrew Dice Clay connection,” Burnham told me. “For me, it was just…I like a lot of these hip-hop songs, where the lyrics don’t really matter. It’s just a placeholder for where the beats are.” He tried one nursery rhyme, and then another, and realized that many mashed up quite well. “I think I even did a third verse of ‘Itsy Bitsy Spider’ and realized it was increasingly diminshed returns. The real punchline was the Teapot Dance,” he said. Hence his joke about it afterward on Make Happy: “A lesser comedian would have milked that for four verses. And a better comedian wouldn’t have done it at all. I’m right in the sweet spot.”
Burnham also takes aim at country music in the special, although he’s quick to point out that he only meant to take on the pandering type of country. He cited Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash among country musicians that he liked and respected.
He said he similarly didn’t want to deliver the conventional-wisdom jokes about country music representing “Jesus and beer.” “That’s not what makes shitty country music shitty,” Burnham told me. “For me, what I hate about country is it feels like rich spoiled fucks pretending to be working-class boys to appeal to regular people.”
Same goes for any kind of entertainer in his book.
“When I’m making fun of other songs and other entertainers, it’s a dishonest premise that they’re starting with,” he said. “It’s not in the good way. It’s not in the fun way. It’s like advertising. They’re manipulating you. It might be a cynical approach. But it’s my view of their cynicism. I also just think it’s funny.”
And in Burnham’s special, he enters the stage to declarations to that effect, and then doubles down at the end of his hour by parodying the rants he heard when attending a Kanye West concert.
Isn’t 25 a bit young for cynicism to take root so strongly?
“As the great Tom Jones said…no, I don’t know,” Burnham joked to me, before adding: “I don’t think I’m that cynical. I don’t think it’s that. My generation tends to have a real anger toward culture and pop culture, rightfully so. It expresses itself as cynicism. Sometimes it’s not pointed toward the right people. But I get why we’re angry. I think stuff sucks. Celebrities suck. Everyone’s in our face humblebragging. And I’m cynical about the tiniest thing. I’m not cynical about people. People doing actual jobs are real people. I’m cynical about asshole people like me who want to be entertainers. Arrogant, un self-aware…manipulative selfish weirdos.”
Which reminds me. I took Burnham’s initial joking suggestion and watched Make Happy with the sound off. Looks nice but comes across quite differently that way!
@thecomicscomic play on mute.
— Bo Burnham (@boburnham) May 12, 2016
“I can vouch for it on mute,” Burnham said. “I’m truly very happy with how it looks. I had a very specific feel for how I wanted it to look…dark and moody, the audience is a black mass, and you can feel the texture in the air.” He didn’t want it to look like many traditional stand-up comedy specials that he said resemble a late-night TV set. “As far as the sound goes, what I actually said? I take no responsibility.”
And yet, he sounds quite responsible indeed.