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Nottingham Castle

Bo Burnham

9 June 11 words: James Walker
'I once had sex with a fat woman in a lift. It was wrong on so many levels...'
Will the real Bo Burnham, please stand up, please stand up...

If video killed the radio star then the internet has taken a hatchet to all other media and smashed them to smithereens.  Bo Burnham is the latest product of this most democratic of mediums. The formula is simple: said teenager does what all teenagers do – sit in bedroom spouting out angst about the cruel and insensitive world into a video cam and then upload it to YouTube. Now sit back and wait for the technological void to talk back via tweets, facebook and page views. Voila, a star is born. For these reasons I went to the Playhouse fully expecting to find an annoying over-opinionated wannabe, desperate for attention, who’d probably been clicking on his own hyperlinks to inflate his comedic currency. How completely wrong I was.

Burnham is a complex, funny, geeky, and at times, unnerving, enigma of comedic genius. He thrives on taboos, delights in being politically incorrect, is juvenile, coarse, bawdy and then the most sensitive insightful person on the planet. One moment he’s joking about fisting (‘I like to think of it as upper cunting’) the next he’s rewriting Shakespearian sonnets, exposing their pretentions and structural flaws. Impressive for a man who deferred his place at NYU.

Burnham is the personification of the MTV generation, but not in a negative sense. Whereas the constant flicking from channel to channel has led to accusations of a low attention span, his restlessness, perhaps even comedic schizophrenia, is like an attempt to redefine the genre. Consequently he draws on a wide range of styles that is a bit like a one-and-a- half hour jivebunny track that mixes together the entire history of comedy. One minute he’s pure vaudeville with Jim Carey faces and crazy walks, the next delivering killer one-liners that wouldn’t be amiss from a seventies comedy circuit, ‘I had sex with a fat girl in a lift. It was wrong on so many levels.’ He is impossible to pin down and to complicate matters further, uses guitars, keyboards and Haikus during his performance.  

Most comedians wouldn’t get away with this nowadays but Burnham does because it’s almost as if he’s laughing at the kind of people that tell such jokes, rather than the punch line itself. This knowingness, this self-referential, ironic, post modern humour makes him Monty Python 2.0. Whereas Cleese et al were the first generation to grow up with television and spent their entire career exposing the smoke and mirrors of broadcasting, Burnham is the bastard child of the internet generation. He’s been raised on downloads and five minute snippets of all the greats and manages to blend them all together in a similarly damning critique of his profession. Woody Allen once said of comedy ‘if it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks, it isn’t.’ Burnham pushes this metaphor to the limit and manages to pull it off by the skin of his teeth. 

He is certainly more than the sum of his parts, a person who doesn’t do himself justice in short internet clips- which is ironic given that this is what bought him his fame. The reason he is able to get away with puerile humour on stage is it is instantly offset against something more complex and unpredictable, enabling him to bend the genre to breaking point. For example, when it was time for the interval he did a kind of DJ mix of things that people had said about him, looping phrases together to recreate new sentences like a technological surrealist. It was the perfect finale to the interval. But instead of exiting to adulation he remained seated, explaining that in America they don’t have breaks and so he wasn’t sure what he was meant to do for the next twenty minutes.

I’m amazed that Burnham is only twenty-years old because he has a maturity well beyond his years. He exudes confidence but never in a smug way. He’s as comfortable exposing the folly of a Malcolm Macintyre routine as he is a heckler in the crowd. My only criticism would be that on occasion it’s hard to hear what he’s saying because he sings at such a frenetic pace, with such an incredibly complex word play, that he lost me on more than one occasion. His language will not be to everybody’s liking either, neither will his overuse of certain derogatory adolescent phrases (‘faggot’).

This has been a criticism levied at Eminem who Burnham seems to be directly influenced by. Other similarities include imaginary conversations with an agent only interested in capitalising in on your fame, through the satirising of popular culture, and in his posturing. He’s not averse to slouching the shoulders, bending the knees, shouting into the mic hip-hop stylee. Or perhaps he’s just mimicking this most cliche of adolescent identities and it’s just another layer to his act. After all, he constantly reminds us that this is all lies and even the book he’s reading his lyrics from is just a prop. Perhaps we’ll have to wait a few more years until the real Bo Burnham will please stand up, please stand up... 

Bo Burnham appeared at the Nottingham Playhouse as part of the NEAT festival, for more information please see the NEAT website.
Bo Burnham’s website
James Walker’s website


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