Interview | ‘Words Words Words’ with Bo Burnham, guest at Tufts last Saturday
Published: Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, October 17, 2012 08:10
Since he began posting videos to YouTube in 2006, Bo Burnham has become a YouTube celebrity with millions of views to his name.
The 22-year-old has released two comedy albums, was voted number one in Comedy Central’s Stand-up Showdown and won the “Panel Prize” at the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. A Boston local, Burnham returned home on Saturday night as part of a small national comedy tour. The Daily chatted with Burnham after his performance.
The Tufts Daily: So, you’ve been making videos online for years now. What was your transition like, going from basically an online format to doing stand-up live?
Bo Burnham: Well, I started doing the videos in 2006, but I haven’t posted one in a long time. And even when I was making videos at first, it’s a wonderful format but I always wanted to do it live. I would do the videos in one take. There was no editing in my videos. So it was, I think, easily translatable once I could actually get the courage up to actually get on stage because I wasn’t relying on editing. I was just performing them like I would on stage. But I just had to kind of stick my neck out and do it. I would rather have, like, 500 people laugh than 5,000 people type, “Haha.”
TD: What sort of reaction did you expect when you first started posting videos? Were you aiming for fame, or did it just sort of happen?
BB: I don’t remember. I tell the story a bunch. Sometimes I say it was for my brother. I forget. I remember when I posted the videos, I thought I’d put the guitar down, and put the piano down and I’d be a real comedian, because I thought it was a crutch. It sort of was a crutch in my earlier videos. And then I dug into other comedians and saw that musical comedy is actually its own form that’s legitimate and actually way more conducive to the things that I would want to do in comedy.
TD: Very cool. You also do a lot of personal songs and random ones that have some research to them like “New Math.” What was the hardest song that you’ve ever written, whether for personal reasons, or for research, or just coming up with lines?
BB: I don’t know, they’re all hard in different ways. You know, the ones that are more pun-ridden would just be like, I would throw a line to that song like, every once in a while, and then I’d have a list of like, 50 lines that I could assemble into a song. I always try to make the song I’m working on be the hardest song, because I like trying to challenge myself. Even doing more serious stuff’s a challenge in a different way than trying to do more densely funny stuff is. So they’re all different.
TD: Musical comedians like yourself, like Stephen Lynch, really seem to capture the best of both worlds — like, the theatrical stand-up and also musicality. And you do a great job melding that yourself. If you had to pick between doing strictly music and doing straight stand-up, would you ever be able to pick one?
BB: I don’t know. I’m able to do a combination of both. I think if I could choose one thing, it would be theater because I think that’s what I think my show is a bit like — a bit like a one-man show rather than a stand up show, because I get a little bored up there. That’s why it’s a little all over the place sometimes. But yeah, if I chose one it would actually be theater, because I think there are theatrical elements of comedy.
TD: Where is your music heading, do you think?
BB: I don’t know. Every hour I’ve tried to revamp as my third hour, and this feels like a big change from the last one, which was a big change from the first one. And I don’t know, once I finish this hour, then you have this feeling like, then I have nothing. I need to make something better than last time and that’s when I’ll find that out. Right now I’m focusing on polishing this hour.
TD: Where do you look for inspiration? Your songs and material are simultaneously about everything and about nothing in particular.
BB: Well, that’s a good way of saying it. A lot of it’s pretty meta and has to do with making fun of the idea that I’m even doing this in the first place. But nowadays, I’ll just take the idea of, like, what if I thought I was really deep? And then I wrote a song about how stupid that would be. Or, like, what if I wanted to be really sappy and intimate? So a lot of it’s, like, finding the conceit.
TD: Because you came from YouTube and you’re young, who do you think your fan base is? I think it’s different than a lot of comedians’ fan bases.
BB: Yeah, for sure. I think a decent amount of them are very young, like, young girls. And I love that before seeing me they haven’t seen comedy before. They don’t have a judgment of what comedy should be. So it’s not like I feel like I’m coming in here being like, “Oh, I’m tearing down walls.” They’re so open to that, and I like that. And I think they’re the most valuable people to speak to and say something to, as opposed to preaching to a choir. But I hope there’s an older audience. I think there’s an older audience with it. Because I just look at the comedians I like, the comedians I’m influenced by and they have older crowds. But I think in being particularly young compared to other comedians, I attract a younger crowd. I don’t think my act is specifically about being a kid, but it’s all very silly and fun for kids, I think.
TD: What’s your relationship like with most of the comedic community? Some comedians don’t think you’re “legitimately” famous because of your YouTube roots. Do you often encounter this sentiment?