The 24-year-old wunderkind comedian aspired for more theatrical, high-stakes comedy than ever before.
"Nothing I'm doing is exaggerated or false."
Living in Bo Burnham's mind must be a frustrating place to be. The comedian's talent, intelligence, and charisma is staggering. At only 24 years old, he already has a devoted fan base, critical acclaim, and sold-out theater tours. He has hit all the touchstones of comedian's career: a book, multiple comedy specials, and a failed TV show. Burnham has achieved the level of acclaim that most comedians dream about, and he did it in half the time. He has been handed the keys to the kingdom, and he seems deeply bored by it.
Burnham plays out a mid-career, existential crisis with a theatrical meta-narrative on his current Make Happy Tour. While his set is highly scripted and sleek, there remains an element of raw messiness thematically and in his stage banter. Burnham kept breaking down into laughs at one point; at another, he got off-track while setting up a bit, remarking, "Wow, I usually say that and then 10 seconds later, I've started the song. But here we are."
Burnham entered the stage to strobe lights, lasers, and smoke, and audience members wouldn't have been remiss to think that it was the start of a hip-hop show. An automated voice intoned, "You should not laugh; the world is not funny."
This pessimistic, socially conscious narrative framed the rest of the show, which played out with short stand-up bits, musical parodies, and pre-recorded monologues. The Make Happy Tour is concerned with two problems that have consumed Burnham: the performance of comedy and its inadequacy to address wider social issues. It's a brave move to center an entire set around these issues, especially because Burnham does it with such directness. One song, "Straight White Male," satirized white male privilege as he sang, "Can't you just leave us alone, and also, no to the things you asked for / We used to have all the money and land. We still do but it's not as fun now."
Burnham wants to throw big punches, and he's blunt about it. What better way to talk about white male privilege than titling a song "Straight White Male"? Throw in an aggressively zealous fog machine, red strobe lights, and dubstep, and the message should be crystal-clear. There's no need for oblique allusions in his set: Burnham forces the audience to take part in his crisis, and his ambition is pretty satisfying.
On the other hand, Burnham can be suffocating. He covered so much ground that the audience barely has time to catch its breath. He parodied hip-hop self-aggrandizement with a Kanye Yeezus-style song, bemoaning the size of Pringle cans. He made fun of entertainment industry waste, pointing out that each special effect in his show cost $50, which could have gone to orphans. He made fun of religious fanaticism, and the scale of his show was commendable. It reflected contemporary society's overwhelming unrest right now, but I often found myself wishing that he would focus his material. He covered too many topics to say anything particularly perceptive or profound.
I also wished he would have cut back his smothering meta-narrative. He conversed with a pre-recorded track throughout the show, and he called attention to every piece of his show's construction. When one audience member reacted aloud to his satire, refusing to believe he was telling the straight truth, he deadpanned, "It's like she's catching on to the fictionality. It's called theater, bitch. Go take it up with the Greeks."
In another instance, audience members heckled him as he set up a bit. "I wrote a fucking bit and now I'm reciting it onstage," Burnham interjected. "You paid me to do it. I don't want to side with the rich people, but they've been very quiet," he said, pointing out the audience members sitting in the side balconies.
His extreme awareness was satisfying and funny, but the show felt like too much, too often, like he was hammering the message into my skull. His set was too broad and repetitive, but by some miracle it sustained the entire set. Despite my dissatisfaction with the material, Burnham's personality and intelligence carried the show. He's deeply likable, and his slight discomfort with his lanky, outrageously tall body (he's 6'5") was endearing. One can't help but be impressed by his immense talent and confidence: He can write catchy melodies and play keyboard. His singing is effortless. He hits all his cues. He sets up his comedy on a grand scale and holds himself to his own high standards. He won't settle for retreading previous territory, and he is willing to experiment with the comedy genre itself.
You can see Burnham wrestling with his success onstage, frustrated with where to go next. In his last song, he said, "My success literally is your success figuratively." Burnham's success in ticket sales, acclaim, and straight-up entertainment value is something he's willing to gamble with; and even when his scattered comedy disappoints, it dazzles with its sheer ambition. The audience's satisfaction will move out of the figurative and into the concrete, however, when his set material settles, takes sharp aim, and hits all the way home.