American musical comic Bo Burnham brings his much-heralded new stage show to The Glee Club in Birmingham this Wednesday (June 8). After taking the internet followed by Edinburgh by story, he’s ready to do the same to audiences around the country. We caught up with him ahead of the show. Interview by David Vincent.
Bo Burnham is an internet sensation. Yes, another one. But not like that fat kid with the light sabre or those pre-teen girls dancing to Japanese pop songs, he’s the real deal – a genuinely talented wunderkind whose online excursions and gazillion page views have actually turned him into a respected, widely acclaimed act with an upward career trajectory that’s peppered with five-star reviews and Hollywood pals.
Bo’s story from ‘internet sensation’ to legit’ star-in-waiting begins – predictably – with the bedroom dabblings of a teenage boy. Back in 2006, Bo uploaded an amusing ode, My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay, to YouTube. Other cheeky musical explorations of teen angst followed (including tiny ‘weiner’ moan My ‘Little’ Secret and acoustic gangsta rap 3.14 Apple Pi) and three years later, the Massachusetts multi-instrumentalist found himself with a number one US comedy album.
“I was 15 when I did those videos so I couldn’t imagine what would happen,” says the comedy veteran of those formative days with guitar, keyboard and camera. “I can hardly remember now….but I do remember one day when it all blew up. I remember seeing I’d notched up a million YouTube views in a day, but that was quite abstract, they’re just numbers on a screen, it didn’t affect my daily life.”
Musing on the notion of being labelled an overnight phenomenon, he says: “I guess it was quick, it was fast … but it was also gradual steps not a sudden overnight success … more like a series of overnight steps.”
One of those overnight steps was last year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which saw 6ft 5ins Bo – unknown in the UK – rack up a consistent run of five-star reviews as well as earn a Best Show Award nomination (the youngest person to do so in 30 years), a Spirit Of The Fringe Award, and the less serious but certainly predictive Act Most Likely To Make A Million Quid title.
With quirky raps, brisk tunes and parodies that move beyond growing pains and sex to reference pop culture, literature, philosophy and art, coupled with some tight gags, it’s not a performance you’d expect from your average American comedy act.
“I had thought that one day I’d put down the music and just be a regular stand-up as musical comedy is not valued in the US. But seeing other guys do it, I realised it was just as worthy, that I could have my cake and eat it, I could do whatever I wanted,” he says, adding that those ‘other guys’ are all based this side of the Atlantic, giving his brand of comedy a distinctive edge.
“A lot of my favourite comedians are UK [based] comedians – that influence has been creeping into my act, which is pretty European in its perspective … well I’d say European. I really love Tim Minchin, Bill Bailey and David O’Doherty, and I’m very lucky to say Tim and David have become friends.
“They’re all very different, they have a different light and perspective … in the US, musical comedy is a crazy guy with a guitar singing dirty songs, but in the UK, there’s this huge, huge theatricality, like Tim does, and these incredible, intimate, discreet songs David does.”
Extending that Edinburgh hit – Words Words Words – for his first UK tour, Bo sees the show as being about more than just witty, catchy, joke-filled tunes and sharp observations.
“It’s more about changing forms – songs, stand-up poetry,” reckons Bo, who cites Eminem, Rodgers and Hammerstein, TS Eliot and Thom Yorke as musical and lyrical influences. “My perspective is constantly changing too. But words are at the centre of it. It’s a bit … nihilistic. The through line is the continual way it loses itself, it’s a bit disarming, self-aware, constantly stating its aims and then contradicting itself. It’s not ‘my childhood…’, it’s not ‘my wife…’, it’s the young antithesis to all of that. It’s silly anti-comedy almost, but it’s also comedy.”
Once his British dates are over, Bo – who has collaborated on a yet to be filmed script with Hollywood comedy godhead Judd (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People) Apatow – will begin writing a completely new show for Edinburgh 2012 and crack on with his MTV sitcom pilot, Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.
“I had this idea for a show, a mockumentary about a kid who hires a camera crew to film his life so he can become famous. He’s directing his own life, but he has a normal, happy life, which isn’t interesting. So he’s constantly directing drama into it as any good reality TV show has to be filled with drama. You have to make your life horrible if you want to be watched, so he makes out his dad is an alcoholic, and it’s full of vapid women, as women have to be vapid in reality TV shows. He’s directing his own life into a corner.”
So does that mean Bo’s going to follow the long established route from live comedy, to TV to Hollywood A-lister like Jim Carey, Will Ferrell and co?
“I don’t have a five year plan, I don’t want to be a movie star, I want to just have time to do stuff that’s cool and challenging,” he protests.
“I have little ideas about what I want to do but I’m really just happy doing cool stuff and to keep changing. As long as I feel challenged … that’s what I want. If I feel challenged I feel happy. Maybe further down the road I’ll do a one-man show in a theatre. For a show like that, in one theatre, I could incorporate more tech’, more production, as I wouldn’t be touring. There are guys who do that stuff off-Broadway, do one show that lasts for months, and that really interests me.”
Reflecting on his six year career, the 20-year-old comedy veteran says: “I feel like I’ve changed a lot and been through a lot in finding a voice, but I still feel like I’m in the early stages of what [my career] will be.”
Watch one of Bo’s first internet smashes, My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay:
And check out the new, improved production values with a more recent addition, Words, Words, Words: