Bo Burnham: Resonating with Your Audience

Image retrieved from Netflix

There is one specific piece by Bo Burnham which has interested me since I first saw it a couple of years ago.

He ends his final standup special, Make Happy, with a song about Chipotle burritos, of all things. But I’m not exaggerating when I say this song is one of the most special and moving performances I have ever seen from an artist. After spending an entire show satirizing the modern day comedy and celebrity landscape, Burnham turns completely serious metaphor to bring to light his struggles with mental health.

From all three of his specials, it is obvious he is conflicted with his celebrity status. It’s something which is often viewed as an avenue to happiness. When you don’t have to worry about money, then you’re likely to be free to explore your true passions, which in turn will bring you happiness. But Burnham is a rare breath of fresh air from someone who has achieved such a level of success. He doesn’t hide his anxieties and fears – instead, he finds clever ways to express them.

With a burrito as his metaphor, he moves to explain how difficult it is to have everything in life. If you attempt to put every ingredient into your burrito, it’s going to overflow and you’ll be left with a mess. Such is the way with life. If you attempt to have fame, fortune, happiness, fulfillment, love, family, friends, and everything else we yearn for as humans, you’re not going to find it. You’ll be left with a mess, much like Burnham’s burrito.

This song seems like a perfect mixture of a cry for help and someone working through their demons. He’s wrestling with the implications of his fame – he’s always being asked to do something bigger, but that will compromise his artistic integrity. And compromising his artistic integrity will alienate his fans. But his fans are the reason that he performs his shows, but they’re also a huge source of his anxieties. It’s a never-ending cycle which all stems from him being a performer.

In the same special, Burnham discusses his worries whether his jokes and satire on performing will even resonate with an audience of non-performers, but goes on to explain his realization that these days, we are all performers. The internet, and social media specifically, has created a whole new landscape where we are all constantly attempting to perform a show for our “followers” and “friends.” It’s an impossible situation which we are not built for, yet we live in it anyway.

But what makes the whole performance so freaking heart-wrenching is the line, “come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily-declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.” It’s a complete gut punch. And when I first saw it, I felt bad for Bo and got a new understanding of people with a celebrity status, but I didn’t know how I could apply it to myself.

Now, a couple years later, I’ve realized that I did (subconsciously) apply the lesson he is giving to my own life. I’ve been trending away from social media usage. Of course, I still tweet and post on Instagram about movies, but that’s just because it’s fun to share my passion with like-minded people. I have completely moved away from posting anything personal because it was just becoming too much for me to do so in that format. I much prefer getting personal in a long-form style (like this) because first, I can fully articulate my ideas, and second, I’m not counting likes, comments, and retweets. The little good feelings from getting those notifications, I realized, were completely messing with my head, so I was able to move away from posts about my personal life.

Looking back, this was happening around the time I was first watching Bo Burnham and Make Happy specifically. It was half conscious and half subconscious, but I’m so happy I made the decision. Burnham set out to make a show that would resonate with audiences while simultaneously help him find some sort of inner peace. Just judging by the comments on the YouTube video of that performance as well as my own experience, I can be quite certain that he was able to resonate with his audiences. And as for finding peace, it seems like he’s done that as well. He walks out into the light at the end of Make Happy in a The Searchers-esque scene, which heavily implies he’s in a better mental place. Plus, even though he said he’d love to get back to the stage, Words Words Words, What., and Make Happy are the perfect trilogy of someone’s maturation of self and ideas. And he’s pretty good at making movies, too.

I’m glad I found Bo Burnham when I did. It helped me work through some things which he was also working through at the same time and I’m a happier person for it. Just like Bo hoped.

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