Bo Burnham grew up in front of the world, thanks to YouTube.
Burnham now has translated that experience to 2018 and to everyone else, with his wonderful new movie, Eighth Grade. It premiered at Sundance in January, and goes nationwide this weekend. I enjoyed the opportunity to sit down with Bo for my podcast, Last Things First, in between screenings this March at SXSW.
Burnham also took questions from fans on Reddit yesterday. Here are the highlights, condensed and edited.
Decooker11: Hey Bo! First off, I have to say that you are truly an inspiration to me for a multitude of reasons. So thank you for pouring yourself into your craft and for not conforming to anyone’s style. Eighth Grade is truly revolutionary and Its easy to tell, once again, that you have really drawn from your own personal feelings to help send it along. And the fire scene in the backyard got the waterworks flowing, knowing I have often asked myself those same questions and not gotten resolution to them. That was excellent, as was the entirety of Elsie’s performance.
A concept you breached with a throwaway line on the what. CD was the idea of Parasocial relationships, the whole idea that consumers feel like they know a performer or that they’re friends with them when in reality they will probably never interact. It almost seemed as if Kayla was trapped in some sort of paradox where she was subjected to a parasocial relationship with the people she actually interacted with on an everyday basis. That could be baseless but it’s something I chewed on after the first viewing. PSI is such an interesting concept as a fan, but how do you deal with it? Maybe not just PSI but just fandom in general. Do you ever feel constrained, especially now as your fame grows?
boburnhamAMA: Wow thank you for the kind words, truly. I think you make a great point about Kayla treating the people in her life parasocially. That was a sort of huge realization for me when I made MAKE HAPPY (my last netflix special). I had thought for a long time that my anxieties and issues were completely connected to my specific circumstance in life – being a young comedian literally performing for a literal audience. But as I talked about what I was going through on stage, I would talk to people after the show who said they felt like I did. Even though they didn’t have an audience and weren’t literally performing. And I realized that the sort of shitty, meta problems I was having as a D-list celebrity had been democratized and given to an entire generation. Now EVERYONE gets to feel like their own publicists with their own brands, navigating the world with the sort of Proper Noun version of their own name. And that realization directly lead to the movie. Me realizing that my problems and worries were NOT my own. And that a 13 year old girl was honestly going through something just as deep and interesting as I was. If I was being honest with myself, I didn’t want to believe my problems were shared. I wanted my anxiety to be unrelatable. But it wasn’t. I was not unique. Which was a bummer. But I also wasn’t alone — which saved me and helped me immensely. So I feel constrained and weirded out in the way I’m sure anyone does who feels similarly to me. But speaking it out loud helps.
Dchox: Hey Bo! Was there ever a single point in your career that you thought “I’ve made it” as an actor/comedian? Was it before or after you decided to turn down Harvard to pursue your dream?
boburnhamAMA: You know, that was a problem for me for a long time. Believing that I hadn’t MADE it yet or I wasn’t a REAL COMEDIAN. I think its especially prevalent for people that makes things online. That making youtube videos isn’t REAL. It took me a long time to realize that I’d been real the whole time, and the thing that I am pursuing was the thing I was pursuing doing theater in sixth grade. Do you write? You’re a writer. Do you act? You’re an actor. I’d say don’t wait to get some arbitrary version of success or attention for you to believe that you are doing the thing. You really can start enjoying it right away. You don’t have to wait to be good. The process of doing it is the process of becoming better not being good. I am now looking at your question and realizing you never asked for advice. Am I psychotic? Perhaps!
dft_ba: How has your opinion of kids/teens changed during the process of making this movie (from before you started writing to after doing research online to working with them in person)? Did anything surprise you?
boburnhamAMA: I found out what I had hoped which is that young people are a lot more self-aware and sort of in on the joke of themselves than people think. Like when you’re 13, you know that you’re a mess, and you’re joking around about the fact that you’re a mess. A lot of people warned me that working with kids would be impossible but I really found it to be a total joy. It makes sense that a generation of kids that self-documents is actually pretty comfortable on camera. And kids are ready to act naturally and be themselves if you give them permission to just be and don’t freak them out by making them feel like they have to be in a movie. Hope that answers your question.
YellowFlickerBeat: How applicable do you feel that the themes of Eighth Grade will be going forward? I’ve seen you describe it as kind of a “snapshot” of being in Eighth Grade right now, but do you think it will stay relevant for years to come?
boburnhamAMA: I hope so. A lot of people don’t want to portray the internet on screen because they think it ages like milk, which is true. But hopefully if you portray it honestly it won’t matter. If in ten years no one knows what snapchat is, they will still know what she’s doing on it. It’s not about the specific reference, it’s about the emotions tied up in it. We can still watch Barry Lyndon write a letter by candlelight and feel something even though we don’t do that anymore. Who knows though!
zomofo: How do you know exactly what it’s like to be a 13 year old girl?!? Saw the movie and loved it, congrats. I cried. A lot!
boburnhamAMA: The good thing about this generation is they are posting everything about themselves online. So if there’s any truth in the movie, it’s authored by actual kids living it. I wanted to make a movie about being young that wasn’t nostalgic and wasn’t a memory. So i had to just humble myself and do my research and try to walk eighth grade with her for the first time. And also the truth is really provided moment to moment by elsie. My job was just to support her and create a safe environment where she could be free and expressive.
burnerxxxburner: is there anything you regret about starting your stand up career as a teenager?
boburnhamAMA: No. I believe in the butterfly effect and I worry that if I changed anything I would not be here today and I’m very grateful for where I am. Some of it (most of it) is embarrassing but I think it’s nice to have my growth as a writer documented. But please don’t fire me for my old shit, I disavow everything I did before last Tuesday.