Bo Burnham is only 25, but he has already starred in four stand-up specials and co-created the MTV series, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous. The comic-turned-actor has since featured in sketch programs like Kroll Show and Key and Peele, cameoed in Judd Apatow’s Funny People, and will star in Apatow and director Michael Showalter’s The Big Sick in 2017. For a 25-year-old entertainer who can bring an audience to tears with a song like “A World On Fire,” that’s impressive.
The same can be said for Burnham’s Make Happy, his fourth comedy special and his second with Netflix, which debuts today, June 3, on the streaming platform. As Burnham told us, this new hour marks the “end of something” in his career. Yet this shouldn’t be cause for alarm, for Burnham also told us that — while he’s not entirely sure what he wants to do next — he’s definitely going to do something that’s just as entertaining as his previous work. All he needs to do is what he did for Make Happy, which was to say yes to whatever Nick Offerman asks and say no to clowns.
What inspired the opening segment’s clown bit?
A lot of the posters for the tour included the clown, and for me it was a chance to show what it felt like to be on the road. When I’m alone on the road. I’m definitely aware that the clown thing has been overdone, and we actually cut stuff from it that I thought was a little too much. But once I saw it, I thought, “This is what it sort of feels like.” Are you scared of clowns?
Let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of Stephen King’s It.
No one ever really likes clowns. It wasn’t a great decision. [Laughs.] Even when I released the poster for the tour, people were like, “Why are you doing this?” But to me, it’s what it feels like waking up in a hotel in a weird town that you aren’t from and walking around all sadly. It’s just a really weird experience.
Your material involves more preparation than most comics. Do you think it’s harder for you to prepare a new hour?
By the time I usually get to the recording, just about everything is staying in. I’ve crowd-tested the material so much with an audience that I can finally be confident in it. My material takes a long time for me to write, so I can never have more than I wanted to. When I did the Comedy Central hour — and those only air 42 minutes of material — I at first just wanted to perform only 43 minutes. [Laughs.] The idea of stuff hitting the cutting room floor is killer for me, but there were some ideas in this that I was hoping would play better in the special. In the live show, when I was touring, there were moments where I thought, “Yeah this isn’t really working but hopefully it works a little better when the cameras are rolling.”
Right, because so much of your stand-up involves prerecorded bits, songs and other gags.
There’s a horrible thing that happens when I’m testing… I can’t really do the thing that other comedians do, like casually bringing up a bit. I went and made a three-minute track, certain it would work, and when I tried it out I knew in the first five seconds I thought, “Oh fuck this isn’t going to work at all!” But I have two minutes and 55 seconds left of the thing. The problem with my act and trying it out is it is trying. I can’t really pass it off as, “Yeah that didn’t work.” I at least have the cushion that when it’s not working, at least the music is filling the lack of laughter.
I assume that comes up with things like the country song, which is hilarious. Did that work in the South?
The thing is, after the joke I make about Alabama, I say the state’s actually nice and tell the audience they’re all elitist. I actually find the truth to be, strangely, the exact opposite. Luckily I have my own audience that comes to see me, so it’s in places like Alabama where they’re so excited to finally hear somebody that thinks like them that jokes like the country song do well. As opposed to times when I go to a really cool city, and the audience is like, “Oh this is the third coolest thing we’ve seen this week.” I think the places that people think might be a little hostile to the material are actually so excited for it.
That makes sense.
With that country song, I didn’t want to do the typical country parody in which the singer say, “I fuck my cousin and I drink beer.” I think country music is great, but there are a bunch of rich assholes pretending to be working class people in order to appeal to you. So for me, a true country fan would appreciate the song I do in the special.
I’m originally from Texas. Not the biggest fan of country, but I grew up with it and appreciate it. And you’re right about all the posing.
It’s gotten crazy in the last five years. It used to be something honest, but now it just feels like mad libs. Pop music has turned out the same way. I think a lot of popular genres have, actually.
Speaking of country music, that bit reminded me of your cameo in the Parks and Recreation episode “Flu Season 2.”
Yeah, Chipp McCapp. He sang about the troops and moms. He liked to sing about troops and his mother. [Laughs.]
Whether or not that was intended, I loved it.
I had so much fun doing that. When I was first playing around with it, I realized I like singing in a country voice.
Didn’t you do a show with Nick Offerman in St. Louis recently?
Yeah, it was this show. Or a 40-minute version of Make Happy.
Was that a reunion for you two, or was your part filmed separately from his on Parks and Recreation?
He directed that episode, and we’ve become friends since. I’ve done little sets with him at venues in Los Angeles. He’s a great guy. After I released my last special, I was ready to take a break for a while. That’s when he asked me if I would do a spot on one of his shows at Largo. I said sure even though I didn’t have any material, so I sat down and wrote the “Straight White Male” song, which is the first thing from this hour. Then I performed for the show for the last time with him in St. Louis, so it was a weird thing — this show beginning and ending with Nick Offerman. [Laughs.]
As a straight white male, I must tell you that I love the “Straight White Male” song. It’s either going to make a lot of people happy or piss off many who won’t get the joke.
If you don’t get the joke, then I’m really confused. The only people who should be offended, I guess, are straight white guys maybe. [Laughs.] But even at the end of the bit, I tell everyone that it’s ironic.
You’re trying to beat us bloggers to it. I get it.
I know. But I think it’s funny to talk about the fact that no one’s getting jokes. I think it’s equally the fault of the comedians for being so sensitive when one blog is written. It’s like, who cares? I get up there and I talk for an hour, and I talk and I talk and I talk and I demand that everyone listens to me. So if someone wants to say something back, of course! Whatever.
On that note, your material has always been very meta. So much so that newcomers don’t always know what your shows are about. Hence the song you sing near the end explaining everything, but not…
You mean the Kanye one?
Yes, the one about the lettuce.
That’s the bit I’m probably… “Proud” is a weird word, but that’s the bit I’m most happy with. It does what I’ve been trying to do as clearly as I’ve tried. I think what I try to do is undercut, make fun of and expose everything that entertainment tries to do — while also pulling it off. Basically saying, “This is all fake and I’m lying to you and none of this is real and I’m trying to manipulate you.” Then after telling you, still manipulating you while hopefully making you feel something.
You got such an early start with the YouTube fame and now you’re 25. Do you ever think you might get tired of it and, 20 years from now, decide to trick everyone by doing a traditional stand-up show?
I definitely feel like this was the end of something. I don’t know what it is, but I definitely feel this is closing a chapter. I finally said in Make Happy what I’ve been trying to say in the rest of them. So I don’t know what it is going forward. I have no idea what I’m going to do. I’m not someone who says, “I want to do stand-up for the rest of my life.” I have no idea what I want to do in 20 years. Basically, I cringe at everything I’ve done in the past, and I’m sure I’ll cringe at this in two years or so, but for now I’m happy. That’s all I need right now, but if you ask me again in three years, I’ll probably tell you how awful this was.
Bo Burnham: Make Happy will be available to stream Friday, June 3 on Netflix. Until then, here’s a preview…