Bo Burnham is an American comedian, singer-songwriter, and musician best known for his series of YouTube videos, Vine videos, as well as his bestselling comedy album Words, Words, Words. He’ll be performing his new special What at L’Astral July 25th and 26th as part of the Just For Laughs festival. We recently caught up with Bo to talk about everything from MTV to self-deprecation.
The question on many peoples’ minds, and I know it’s probably an annoying one, though it does necessitate an updated answer: Do you think you’ll revisit your YouTube channel any time soon?
[Laughs] Yeah, I do have plans to, in sort-of a different way later in the year. I’m not sure how exactly, but I’m carefully trying to get my new special onto my YouTube channel one way or another.
Do you think it’ll be released in the same vein as your first one, Words, Words, Words?
I wanted to wait until it’s all ready, but basically I’m trying to get it so I can release the special on my YouTube channel as a whole, but I don’t know if that’s gonna happen. The last thing I want to do is pretend I’m still the little kid recording in my bedroom, I mean, I moved out four years ago so you know, it’s going to be different.
Some of your bits, namely, “Men and Women” and “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay”, draw in part on self-deprecation as a comedic tool. Do you feel there’s a certain sacrifice of “cool” in being a comedian?
I don’t really know, I think that might be the thought, but I think that through self-depreciation, they gain cool in a way. I mean, you’re up on stage in front of six hundred people, so how depreciated are you? Sometimes I feel it’s your way of trying to humble yourself a little bit because you’re essentially acting like a dictator. I think it’s a good thing because it’s what makes comedy connect with people– so many other forms of entertainment are just about deifying yourself. The fact that comedians can come out and present themselves as “lower” than the audience is actually really interesting, I think, and a good thing for, uh, society. [Laughs]
That said, do you think it’s a comedian’s role to be “The Underdog”?
I don’t know what a comedian’s “role” is… I don’t even know what “comedy” is really, like this new hour that I’m doing, that I’ll be performing in Montreal, is a lot about how confused I am about just the idea of comedy. It seems to have so many purposes and so many uses; people say it’s “to make people forget”, but is it? Or they say it’s like, “to lead people to a dark place so they can feel safe there.” But I don’t know, I don’t really buy that either.
So it can change?
It can change, but basically I don’t think it’s right to define what a comedian should do or can do or even what they’re supposed to do. A doctor’s supposed to save people’s lives, right? So I don’t know what a comedian’s supposed to do.
Make people laugh?
I guess make people laugh, yeah, sure, but that seems pretty weird and arbitrary [laughs]. It’s probably true, but again, it’s just so weird and arbitrary. There’s this group of people that are harvesting this guttural response from people, it’s so strange. You can go into a room full of racists and make them laugh pretty hard and it won’t seem very constructive.
Going back to what you were saying about “taking people to dark places” or maybe, “places they might not be used to”, per se: Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous, your recently cancelled show on MTV did that, in a sense.
Yeah, that’s it. It’s taking people to the dark place they don’t go to… MTV.
You’re might get in trouble for that!
What are they gonna do, cancel my DVD? [Laughs]
Fair enough! But the show does stand in contrast to the usual MTV line-up.
I think the question of “What do kids want?” is asked much more than “What do they need?” and some people don’t see the difference between the two. When I was thirteen, I wanted sex, and dirty shit, candy and bright, vibrant colours and sounds. But what I probably needed was someone telling me “Slow down, take a breath, it’s not that important”, and “Cherish what’s around you”. A lot of kids these days shouldn’t focus so much on what people who don’t know them think of them, but instead, on those they interact with in real life: family and friends. There’s a 99.9% chance they are going to be with you for the rest of your life, and not this “faceless public” everyone’s trying to impress. Now, I’m trying to “impress” by making a television show, so I’m completely aware that I’m a hypocrite in saying all of this; but I think, in being a hypocrite, I have insight into it.
You’ve seen both sides, a little.
Yeah. I know people who’ve gotten success, just say to “work hard” and it’s true in a way that you should work hard and you should be passionate, but for me, so much of my success has been dumb luck. I got unbelievably lucky in whatever circumstance it was, so I could never tell kids to drop everything and bet on yourself to impress a million people whom, who the fuck knows what they might think of you. They might just think you’ve got a big nose and write you off immediately. I guess I’m trying to bring up some conflicts and conflicted feelings to a crowd that has sort of gotten to seeing things a little bit in black-and-white. I think kids are a little more attuned to subtlety than people give them credit for being.
Who do you feel have been your biggest influences creatively?
Oh, so many. There’s many for different things– for my live show, there’s Australian comedian Tim Minchin, English comedian Bill Bailey, Steve Martin, George Carlin… there’s a lot.
What would you like to say about your upcoming Just For Laughs appearance?
Just that it’s gonna be my whole new show called What, which I’ve been working on for about two and half years, and it’s happening in two weeks.