Prolonged Eye Contact: Thoughts On Bo Burnham’s “What.”

Funny story: Bo Burnham made me quit comedy for forty five minutes.

While living in western Pennsylvania on a short-lived attempt at a PhD, I spent an evening working on my set list for the next night’s stand up endeavors, drinking Franzia like it was a blitzkrieged juice box whose beaches had been stormed by the opposing forces of Hi-C and Boone’s Farm.  It was the premiere night of Bo’s special “Words, Words, Words”, and I put it on, reasoning that I might enjoy the comedy experience of someone nearly ten years my junior (Bo was 19 at the time).  The resulting explosion of cleverness and rhyme caused me to drunkenly throw my notebook across the sparsely decorated tree house I called my apartment, deciding in my inebriated state that I had started into the world of comedy far too late–that this young man’s natural gift for the spoken word spoke to that fact.

Now, several years later, Bo Burnham still inspires a notebook-throwing admiration in me.  His latest special, “what.”, is a further evolution of Bo’s unique blend of spoken word, music, and comedy–equal parts wordplay, profanity, and introspection.  As per usual, his songs cover both the amusing and the sad, from the lonely climax of “I Fuck Sluts” to the divine frustration of “From God’s Perspective”.  Bo also continues his fed-up-edness with the music industry, tearing apart the standard conventions of pop music with “Repeat Stuff”.

While his poems and songs are the heavy contenders here, you walk away from this special musing on his uniquely bizarre pre-recorded pieces: sort-of interactive, theatrical pieces of one-man show.  Some of them work better than others.  The intro to “what.” is exactly that: an introduction to Bo Burnham, allowing the audience to get a look at the clever and sometimes heavily random humor that they will be enjoying for the rest of their evening.  “We Think We Know You”, on the other hand, is a disappointingly ordinary expression of youthful angst–a response to the presumptive bullying that Bo has received over the years from classmates, audiences and critics alike.  It’s not that it’s horrible–it just feels like an overly dramatic piece that is somewhat beneath him.  It certainly doesn’t hold up to the rest of the special.  However, I’m of the opinion that Bo gets a pass on this one.  Because regardless of his talent and ability, he’s still a very young man (as of this review, he’s 23), and young men are prone to anger and angst on a level that tidal waves the emotions of anyone older.  That’s just part of being that age.  If he’s still trying to pull that shit in his thirties, however, we might have a problem.

But the truth is, I have no idea what Bo Burnham will be doing by the time he reaches his thirties.  He’s clearly still shifting and evolving his voice, let alone his subject matter and style.  With the increasing level of timing and showmanship involved in Bo’s creations, my only question is this: How long before he drops the comedy pretense and just goes into full on performance art?

Bo Burnham’s what. was released on December 17th, 2013 and is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix. 

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