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Interview: Bo Burnham on his maturing musical comedy

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A YouTube sensation at the tender age of 16 , Bo Burnham has been honing his musical comedy into a more mature show. Interview by Jay Richardson

RETURNING to the Fringe for the first time since his debut won ecstatic reviews and a Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Award nomination, Bo Burnham is promising something “a little weirder, a little bit larger, a little bit louder”.

Three years ago, Words, Words, Words experimented with “different forms”, a departure from the compilation of YouTube songs that propelled this 16-year-old prodigy from Massachusetts to fame.

Now 22, and a fan of bands like Radiohead and Animal Collective who change their sound with each new record, Burnham reckons his current show, What, “is just as different again”. Despite touring the US incessantly, he says he’s been writing ever since he left Edinburgh. “Words, Words, Words was very headstrong and self-assured about certain things. This one, I hope, is a little more strangely, aggressively humble.”

Easygoing, likeable but thoughtful and even obsessive about his work, Burnham has been feeling very unsure about it lately, especially, he says, “what kind of effect it has on people”.

“In my last hour, I was very sure about the kind of comedy I didn’t want to do and that’s what a lot of that hour was, a silhouette of things I don’t enjoy. Hopefully, you could see my comedy as the empty space.”

Hack stand-up and cliché were unquestionably favourite targets. But he’s more or less finished with them. “I don’t want to do a three-minute bit pretending to be a shitty comic,” he says. “I’ve carved out what I don’t want to be, now it’s my job to make something I do want. I feel like my last hour was a series of negatives, so hopefully this is me coming out of the dark room with developed pictures.”

What, he ventures, is “more soulful and less mechanical”. Words, Words, Words might have seemed more “meticulous”, with its barbed one-liners carefully interspersed with pithy haikus, twisted, surprising songs followed by silly mini-playlets, all delivered with an aloof, dismissive arrogance that undermined its own casualness and superiority. It was, though, he suggests, like a “model train set with so much time spent on the mountains and the townspeople, that when I showed it to people they could be like ‘oh look, I see how much time you took here!’”

Burnham remains a perpetually deconstructing, “micro-managing” perfectionist. But with What, he says, he is grasping for “something more thematic, more ‘feely’, I want you to feel it a little bit more!”
“The challenge for this show has always been how can I lose myself emotionally in something that I know forwards and backwards and have crawled through a thousand times. How can this feel fresh and in the moment? I’m hoping to tear open the idea of what it means to perform, with the curtain ripped, revealing the line between what’s rehearsed and what’s happening in the moment.”

Appreciative of the talent that celebrated comedy-musicians such as Tim Minchin and Bill Bailey have for synthesising the silly and the meaningful in a single tune, Burnham says he has been striving to make his songs more “emotive”, more than “carousel one-liners, loosely wrapped in a theme”, while retaining his phenomenally high gag rate. Yet what he calls the “revelation and sort of what makes the backbone of this show” is his use of backing tracks, affording him a chance to listen and respond to the audience. “Sometimes I’m singing with a backing track and other times I’m just miming,” he explains. “There’s a little bit of Andy Kaufman and Rowan Atkinson in it.”

Competing voices underpin most stand-up, that contest between the egotistical and distancing “look at me!” and the communal, compelling plea of “relate to me”. Yet for Burnham, there’s always been a binary distinction between head and heart, logic and feelings too.

“I’ve always felt slightly out of place, coming from a stranger angle with the comedy, because I’ve always been more left-brain than right-brain,” he suggests. “I was a maths kid growing up, into science, my brain naturally worked more in patterns than emotions. Even when I approached music, I didn’t approach it with a great ear as much as I did a decent eye for patterns. So going into a profession that is mostly very right brain and emotive was always a struggle.

“I do feel like a very emotional person, though, because hopefully, I get a lot of empathy from my mother. It’s always been a competing thing for me, the impulse to feel and the impulse to think, as it is for everybody. But it just feels like my job to look inward and then let other people relate to it.” He laughs. “I try not to calculate it too much but by virtue of us all being human, we should all find something in [the show]”.

His relationship with his fans is similarly complex. After all, it was they who discovered him as a 16-year-old “YouTube sensation” performing politically incorrect songs for his brother at college. And though it’s impossible to envisage a rise such as his on YouTube today, the meme market having been flooded, he continues to engage with them enthusiastically on social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and best of all Vine, where he posts funny little visual gags.

He’s forsaken hip-hop as a vehicle for his dense wordplay “because I feel I can still do that in the songs and the stand-up … actual rapping was only useful for criticising rap culture”. But when he records What, as a special in the autumn, he’s “basically going to give it away for free” with an EP’s worth of raps, including Nerds, a message of solidarity from someone dubbed “theatre queer” at school to all the bullied “kids with acne … faggots … spastic fat chicks”.

Still, he remains frustrated that his role as a monstrous “pre-celebrity” in his MTV sitcom, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, has been misunderstood by so many. Aping the shooting style and “abrasive, annoying” lead character of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office – “my favourite show ever … I like stories where people’s eyes and mouths are saying something completely different” – the mockumentary satirised perceptions of him as a fame-ravenous adolescent, a talentless 18-year-old pouring his savings into hiring a camera crew that followed him everywhere – misguidedly starting a band; becoming a celebrity chef; even recording
a sex tape.

“Some people didn’t get that he was bred out of irony,” he sighs. “They just thought, ‘oh well, this is just like every other 18-year-old I see represented on
television’.”

To be fair, the show channelled Burnham’s own impression that he has an extremely “punchable” face. And, he admits, “when I see my stuff online from when I was 16, I’m like, ‘oh Jesus, this is slightly desperate.’”

“I never wanted The Bo Burnham Show or anything where I tried to present a fictionalised, likeable version of myself. It seemed like a slippery slope where I would eventually objectify myself, having no meaning of what’s real and having people walking up and thinking they know me.”

He has disdain, he says, “for people who pander to their fans and those who ignore them”, but continues to meets fans after shows, because “the whole purpose of comedy for me is self-expression but also communicating ideas … that’s all I want from this.”

Post-Fringe, he’s publishing a book of comic poetry, would like to collaborate on a music album and hopes to shoot the high school movie he recently finished writing. MTV cancelled Zach Stone after disappointing ratings just as it was hitting its stride but he confirms he’d like to revisit the character in five years time if the opportunity arose. After his 2010 success, he contemplated moving to London. “I’d still love to do it, have a comedy career in the UK. I love the way your audiences look at it and consume it.” And if he fades into obscurity? “I could fall back on comedy anywhere really, it could just be a local theatre in some town.”

Bo Burnham: What, Pleasance Courtyard, 9-19 August, 11:15pm

Originally published in The Scotsman

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