Bo Burnham, “what.” (REVIEW)

The best things in life are free. The best things in life are free to those who don’t place monetary value on things, or to those who wait, or to those who just know how to find them at the right place and the right time. Wait. What? what.


Specifically and emphatically, “what.” by Bo Burnham is one of the best stand-up performances of 2013, and it’s available for viewing in full, for free, on Burnham’s YouTube channel. You also can watch it via Netflix if you’re already feeding that online machine, or feed Burnham’s family and unborn children by buying the CD version of “what.”


So you can buy “what.” right now via iTunes:
Or “Egghead” here:

What began in his attic bedroom seven years ago almost as a lark and a testimonial to his family has now become something much bigger, something theatrical, something searching for a deeper meaning in Burnham’s third Comedy Central Records release. The audio recording (18 tracks: 13 live from a show in Madison, five in studio to give you five more reasons to buy the CD/MP3 version), and the video (live from San Francisco) both open with seven-minute set-piece as Burnham mimes, lip-synches and interacts with one audience member to pre-recorded bits. Burnham has grown up around the musical comedy wonderment of older peers such as Tim Minchin and Reggie Watts and that delightfully shows here. The addition of sound cues and bellowing voices adds another layer to his meta madness. As if Todd Glass had a bastard child who blossomed into a musical comedy prodigy.

In young adulthood — Burnham still is only 23, mind you — the artist as a young man continues to find himself in a constant battle with his own self. It’s exemplified most precisely in “Left Brain, Right Brain.” But it has become a running theme in his works, analyzing his own jokes whilst also commenting on the form of stand-up comedy and on art in general, hoping he’s on the right side of the line between comedian and sociopath. He’s at that age where he’s idealistic and egotistic enough to think he could know it all or does already, but entrenched in his art so deeply as a comedian that he already knows he doesn’t. And he’s preoccupied with sex. With people wondering about his sexual preferences. With his own desire for women on a most superficial level. He’s deep, but only “#deep.” He’ll devote a sequence to miming masturbation, just for the double entendre of the title he gave it. He suggests a truce between his left and right brains, his internal and external emotions, by following the path of George Carlin and Steve Martin. And yet, no juggling. Everything but, perhaps. But no. No juggling.

It is a bit of a high-wire act Burnham is executing here.

As profane, as juvenile, as stupidly silly as any joke of his may be, he’s also attempting to subvert the audience’s thought process by making them think about what they’re laughing at and why.

Take this song, for example, which is “From God’s Perspective.”

Later, after a bit of poetry from his aforementioned book, he sits back down to tell the story with similes about a frog named Andy. At the end, Burnham declares: “The moral of that story is irrelevant because we’re humans. Why would that apply to us?” I mean, obviously. Are we human or are we dancer?

As a comedian who we’ve watched grow up behind the keyboard, it’s perhaps most accessible to everyone to find Burnham comment in song upon those young heartthrobs, teen idols and pop stars who write those silly little love songs you love so much. This is “Repeat Stuff.”

With more than 584,000 YouTube subscribers — despite not releasing any new videos in three years before now — and more than 121 million YouTube viewings, his fans have repeated his stuff over and over to their ears’ and hearts’ content.

Which means that his fame continues to increase (whether or not you watched him in MTV’s Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous or will see his newly Black Listed screenplay “Gay Kid and Fat Chick” come to fruition) and has changed how everyone else relates to him. Which brings him once more into introspection. And the voices in his head, amplified and remixed into his closer, “We Think We Know You.”

Bo Burnham’s act may seem paradoxical, then, revealing all of his thoughts and emotions to us, while insisting that we don’t see the real him. If that’s the case, I, for one, cannot wait to see what he has up his sleeves next. Even if he’s only wearing a T-shirt.

Please enjoy Bo Burnham, “what.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

View all posts by Sean L. McCarthy →

19 thoughts on “Bo Burnham, “what.” (REVIEW)

  1. This performance was absolutely terrible. It seems like the type of performance one puts on before a major meltdown. Clearly “Mr. Burnham” has let critics, fans, and others get to him in a really negative way, and he attempted to confront it comedically in an artistic manner. That being said, I must disagree that it was the best comedic performance of 2013. I found it to be among the worst. As someone who spends a great deal of my time watching comedies and live comics, I have to say, without a doubt, this was one of the worst I have ever seen. The best part was the ending, but all through the rest, I simply felt uncomfortable. I laughed all of three times (I am being generous). I don’t know what this dude is going through, but I hope he gets it together soon.


    1. Part funny but mostly sucked. Not comedy. More theater than stand up. I truly didn’t laugh much. I was mildly entertained but once again I didn’t laugh much. I get the jokes but they aren’t funny. More random sputters of a thought process from a madman. His piano playing was really good while his voice was nasally and hard to listen to at times. I stopped watching after the frog storybook reading. Maybe it gets better but after investing about 40 minutes of time to the performance already. I didn’t see it getting any better from there so I will just have to take your word for it Logan. I never made it to the end.

  2. LOGAN, I don’t get how you didn’t enjoy it, I thought it was one of the funniest
    comedic performances I’ve ever seen. It was definitely the most entertaining
    and he does an incredible job of blending that creative entertainment with
    his insightful jokes. Most stand-ups are so one dimensional, and this performance
    is an original masterpiece with so much more depth…#deep. His perspective is hilarious and accurate, and
    he does his entrenching material justice with his stage persona and takes the next step by really planning the show out in a concise and clever way. I don’t know whats going on with your sense of humor and entertainment, but I hope you get it together soon.

    1. I think he has a great sense of timing, and great energy, which he uses creating those emotional bait-and-switches during his shows and specials that work very well. That’s the good.

      Having seen videos and specials I think the problem I have with his comedy is that he is so smug about his material. He often comes off as ungrateful and annoying, like the know-it-all theater kid he probably was. It all makes for a performer who’s condescending to his audience. You’re a fucking comic, you’re supposed to be the fall-guy! Of course, youtube fame doesn’t afford its stars such awareness. Especially when it happens to rich kids.

      He’s not saying anything new when he clearly thinks he is. But with a song like “repeat stuff” he’s basically arguing a point that most people who don’t listen to shitty music already know… except he clearly thinks he’s great at it.

      He’s just another white kid who didn’t need a job and thus, could sit and critique shit all day from mommy and daddy’s basement with the piano and lessons they bought him.

      When comedians have instruments, its comes off as a gimmick no mater how “#Deep” (hashtag? really dude???) the lyrics seem. And please don’t confuse depth with simply choosing provocative subject matter. God, religion, gays etc. Comics have said so much about those things to great effect without the need for a catchy melody (they had something called personal experience). I’d like to see this kid perform stand-up outside of the context of “guy at piano”, poetry, or youtube. Would he be able to do it?

      1. I am surprised that anyone dislikes bo’s special. After reading some of the comments, I wonder if it is a generational thing..? I have never experienced comedy that I related to so fully. Maybe that is because Bo is the same age as me. Or maybe sarcasm is not your thing? Comedians don’t always have to be the fall guy, just look at Tosh. No one is the same on and off stage. I’m not the same after work as I am during work. To think that he has a shitty smug personality irl is ridiculous. He has obviously worked very hard and poured his heart into this special. To get where he is at his age is definitely not the result of being a lazy stuck up asshole. Also.. the Lonely Island is only music and they are hilarious. So I think there is a lot of room for different kinds of comedy.

  3. Jimmy Jams and Logan–

    I couldn’t disagree more. Bo is genius — I thought this was his best act yet.

  4. I realized half way through that it wasn’t a comedy show, but instead a social commentary on many subjects that are often overlooked or over analyzed within our society. Ideas that you dense motherf***ers are unable to comprehend because you believe you already know the everything about the world and how it should be. As for all of your assumptions about him being a know-it-all theatre kid who never had to get a job and just played piano all day, well that only reiterates what he was trying to say in the last song. You “think” you know him, but you don’t know shit about his personal life. He even states multiple times throughout the show that his stage character isn’t like his real self, but again, you fail to acknowledge it because your too arrogant to consider possibilities outside of your own shitty opinions. Yes, he may be experiencing some sort of internal struggle, but that doesn’t at all mean that this performance isn’t brilliant and insightful. It’s a prefect example of why people like you really need to start thinking more critically about the world and stop taking everything for face-value.

    1. I completely agree with you. I thought Bo Burnham’s performance was positive adjective; after watching “What.” I saw him as an artist. I think he was able to find himself and use comedy/performance as a way to share himself with others, which I felt “Left Brain,Right Brain” showed really well. His show was smart, beautify timed, funny, and had me thinking throughout. I thought this performance was inspiring; it makes me want to find how I can express myself to other’s and communicate with the world.

  5. I think this show was great. I too watch a lot of comedy and stand up. And while yes, there are stand up comics that go up and their material is very organic and flexible, it’s great to see this left brain structured right brain comedy. And to those of you who say he’s “saying stuff people have said before” That’s all you do. You walk through life repeating things. And unless you’re making some ridiculous headway in some area of research on a disease no one has yet, everything you’re doing has been done before. Especially if its sit on your couch all night and critique other peoples performances.

    Bo, I applaud you. I found it refreshing and exciting to watch you on stage. Whether you are actually struggling or the piece is a satire on people struggling, struggling. Struggling just lost all meaning. Weird word. You should incorporate juggling into your act. I liked it. Immensely.

    Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Sometimes things need to be repeated to stay fresh in our minds.

  6. If you don’t like it, you don’t get it. I think he’s remarkable, and doing what very few artists are brave enough to tackle. Keep going, Bo. We love you.

    1. Wow the Bo Burnham fans (fags) on this comment thread are pathetic. Maybe once you reach age 18 you’ll realize how unfunny this douchebag is.

  7. what is a good title for whatever this is. I watched it because a friend of mine mentioned he is funny. I don’t know what this is, but it is not funny. The whole time I was just thinking WHAT is this shit. Fail.

  8. Why does it have to mean that someone sucks or doesn’t get it or is less intelligent, hip, or enlightened when they do not find a comedian funny? I’ve been a professional for years and there are different types of humor. Bo Burham seems like a very nice dude. Every time I see him in interviews I think, “Well, at least it is all happening to a nice dude.” That said, He does not make me laugh. I do get it. I get the irreverence, insightful commentary, irony and more. I got all of those things with George Carlin and in addition to that, I laughed. Some of these comments on the board remind me of the vitriolic spew I had to endure a decade ago when I said I didn’t get Dane Cook. Maybe I am just not hip. Maybe I am out of touch. Maybe time will tell. Regardless, what does it hurt to be honest about one’s sense of humor. Would you rather people fake it just to agree with you?

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