Oh Bo, Part Four: Make Happy

Burnham Tops Perfection and Steps Out of the Comedy Game with Make Happy

“Performing in life is awful and freedom and love is the act of dropping your performance.” — Bo Burnham

Welcome back to my five-part series examining the work of Bo Burnham! You can read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 here.

It begins with that young boy, now fully grown. He wakes up in a strange bed in a strange town. He opens the window and looks at the barren landscape. His face is covered in clown makeup, but he pays it no mind. After all, it’s who he is. But he’s sick of it all. The world that was once funny to him now only depresses him. He wants to tell the world that he’s had enough. So he packs up his bag and heads out into the world to spread the word.

Touring what. became anxiety inducing for Bo Burnham. The pressures of performing became harder and harder to deal with to the point where he had panic attacks onstage. Instead of fleeing the public eye, Burnham channeled these anxieties and fears into his next special. He made a deal with Netflix, which was quickly becoming the new hotspot for stand-up comedy specials. It was a fitting place for Burnham to release what may be his last special: Make Happy.

Unlike what. where the sound and lighting cues were added later in the process, Burnham started crafting Make Happy with those elements in mind. He spent three years on the special, touring extensively with a lighting and sound designer, the first time he had ever done so. Make Happy took all the elements that made what. such a success and went even further. The lighting and sound cues are bigger, the structure is tighter, and, most importantly, Burnham dives deeper what he’s learned about performance after a decade of being in the spotlight.

Right at the top, Burnham does a call and response with the audience asking them specific questions ranging from “If you feel me say ‘hell yeah,’” to “Virgins, if you’ve never felt a person say ‘Hell yeah.’” The audience answers blindly until Burnham tosses in a curveball “If you can divide by zero say ‘Hell yeah,’” to which the audience does and Burnham retorts with “No you can’t. It’s mathematically impossible.” From the very beginning Burnham is begging the audience to think for themselves and not blindly follow him.

Burnham constantly rattles the audience’s cage, reminding them that his performance is all an illusion, he is in control, and he refuses to give it away. “You are not ahead of me,” he sneers at one point when they think he’s going to play the piano only to walk away from it, flipping them off as he does so. He even feigns performing an improvisational song with an audience member, only to play a clearly prerecorded track in which he simply inserts the audience member’s name.

Here Burnham truly deconstructs the artifice of comedy. “You want an honest comedian? Go see the rest of them,” he chides them. He scoffs at the audience’s willingness to depend on a single person for their happiness. He tells them over and over that it’s all a lie. “I’m not honest for a second up here. Honesty’s for the birds, baby.” Burnham doesn’t want the audience to ever feel like they have a moment to relax and lose themselves in what he sees as a parasocial relationship.

Burnham once again explores the parasitic relationship between artist and fan with “Kill Yourself.” Burnham prefaces the song by telling the audience that he doesn’t love his fans. He insists that they “don’t want that.” That he doesn’t want blind devotion because they’re his fans. “If I stop entertaining you, throw me to the curb. I’m in the service industry, I’m just overpaid.” Burnham continues to plead to the audience to think for themselves, showing how he would rather fade into obscurity if it meant that his followers would develop their own sense of self. He doesn’t want their dependency and with that he launches into “Kill Yourself.”

The song is structured like that of an inspirational anthem like Katy Perry’s “Roar” or Sara Bareilles’s “Brave.” He asks the audience if they’ve ever felt misunderstood and are looking for a way out. He leads them on what seems to be an inspirational platitude that they can carry with them, but instead he simply suggests that they should just kill themselves. Burnham deceives the audience with a lighter melody, lulling them into a false sense of security as he backhands them across the face.

Of course, once he sings that, he acknowledges how extreme he sounds. He then says that “life’s toughest problems don’t have simple answers,” and that the audience shouldn’t depend solely on an artist’s words to pick themselves up. They need to take the time to work on themselves, which one song cannot do. However, the relationship between artist and listener is not the place to fully grapple with your feelings. Burnham insists to the audience that if things are truly tough, seek professional help, but “if you search for moral wisdom in Katy Perry’s lyrics, then kill yourself.” Burnham sees his generation’s anxiety and with “Kill Yourself,” he begs the audience to not seek the first thing that gives them comfort.

Burnham wishes to break free of all of constraints his generation has put on themselves. Near the end of the show, Burnham devotes the endgame of the special to revealing what Make Happy is about. His answer is simple at first “Me. MEEEEE,” but then he gets serious. He talks about how he has tried to make his shows about something other than performing, but he cannot because “all I’ve known is performing,” so he feels that it is the only thing he is qualified to talk about. For years, Burnham thought that he was alone in his struggle, but throughout the years he saw that many of his fans felt exactly the same way. Once he realized that, he developed his art as a means to give his audience an experience that left them thinking as well as laughing.

Burnham keeps poking at the audience as a means of ensuring that he will have their attention when it’s time to talk about the heavier topics. In an interview Burnham said he discovered that “the more you disorient people…the more desperate they are to cling onto the next thing you say,” and thus he crafted an experience in which the audience never truly gets its footing. However by challenging the traditional structure of a comedy show and confessing the artifice of the whole endeavor, Burnham is pulling an old storytelling trick, “the higher into tension we have gone, the more dependent we are on the storyteller for a way out. That’s why he can plug in whatever value, idea, or moral he chooses.” Burnham is playing in tradition in order to help the audience comprehend his methods and make a change.

I was raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression. And I was taught express myself and have things to say and everyone will care about them. And I think everyone was taught that and most of us found out no one gives a shit what we think.

Here Burnham is speaking truth to power of the plight of his generation. That the narcissism was encouraged and fostered by the previous generation only to be immediately rescinded once we got out into the real world. He also lambastes how social media was a way to give Millennials a platform to perform and as a result, “your own being becomes commodified.” Burnham is trying to shave the wool off of everyone’s eyes so they can be their own people instead of sheep being sold to.

Burnham continues on, saying that even though he has developed under scrutiny and fame, that his audience doesn’t have to live their lives that way. That the success and exposure will not bring you happiness. Burnham puts it better than anyone:

Burnham is imparting what he’s learned to his audience. Laying himself bare to them, revealing how he and his generation have been conditioned by media and society that performing at all times is beneficial when it couldn’t be more detrimental. He concludes his rant with “If they can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” Here Burnham gives a rare cut to the audience.

Burnham puts us directly in his shoes, to see how it looks from his perspective to see all those eyes gazing at you. Their heat bears down on you as they wait for something, anything to bring them joy. Burnham wanted to light them differently from the “always smiling and well lit” audiences you typically see in a comedy special and instead show them how he sees them: “To me, they’re a mob, a faceless black entity.” It’s haunting and you instantly feel how anxiety inducing it must be for Burnham.

Following his confessional Burnham moves into the finale of Make Happy. He talks about how he saw Kanye West’s Yeezus tour and was struck by the confessional rant he went on. Burnham decides to do the same by using an organ backing track to “say my shiiiiit” to the audience, claiming “I got lots of shit to say.” However, the first two things he mentions are his inability to fit his hand inside a Pringle can and getting a messy burrito. When you think that “Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant)” will just be Burnham listing “first world problems,” he breaks down his biggest issue: the audience themselves. Here Burnham tells his audience the hard truth: that all he wants is to make them happy.

I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out you deserve, but I wanna say what I think and not care what you think about it. Part of me loves you. Part of me hates you. Part of me needs you. Part of me fears you.

Burnham goes from addressing the audience to talking to himself. He admits that he “just puts on a silly show” and “should probably just shut up” and entertain these people. The lights focus on Burnham, creating a stark silhouette, darkness about to consume him. However, he knows that he can impart a final lesson to anyone who will listen “as long as you make it funny, make it rhyme and if they still don’t understand it then you run it one more time.” That’s when the lights flash all over, the thoughts in Burham’s head out of control as he says over and over that he can’t handle it. It is only until the song ends, that the lights come back down to one light on Burnham, and he lets out his final and exhausted words:

Burnham walks offstage and all the sudden, we are somewhere else. Somewhere foreign. His home office. It looks very much like the bedroom he started in, but it’s hard to tell as the only light source is from the top of the piano. The rest of the room is dark and isolating. Burnham sits down and addresses the viewer at home for the first time: “Now it’s just us.” He then plays Make Happy’s coda: “Are You Happy?”

Burnham says that he hoped the audience enjoyed themselves and had “something resembling fun.” He also addresses the critics saying that “if you hated it that’s fair,” but regardless wants to know one thing: “Are you happy?” He tells the audience that once this song is over “you’re on your own” and that it is up to them to take or leave Burnham’s words with them once the special ends. He wants to remind the audience that after everything he’s said, he can only do so much of the work for them.

It’s a beautiful song that brings Burnham’s stand up career full circle. It ends as it began, where he is once again in a room alone performing just for us. He’s seen what the platforms that brought him success have turned his generation into, the anxiety and fear it’s created. He grapples with if it was all worth it, “you’re everything you hated, are you happy?” He’s not the awkward kid looking at the camera, he keeps his eyes down, focused on the one thing that gave him everything: his art. He hammers away on the keys, knowing that it could be the last song he ever sings. He ends it with “look ma, I made it, are you happy?” showing that he did it to service and move others and hopes that he succeeded.

However bleak it may seem at first, Burnham offers a glimmer of hope in the final moments. He plays the closing notes and sits for a moment once it’s over. He stands and opens the door next to him. Light enveloping the dark. The world outside looks bright and full of opportunity. He walks into the light and is greeted by those he loves: his girlfriend and dog. He goes with them as he leaves the piano behind. His job complete, he is finally free.

Burnham has spent his entire career at war with the concept of truth in comedy. Burnham grew up at a time in which stand-up comedy was in the midst of shift in more “authentic” material. This saw the rise of comedians who were talking about their personal lives and their own foibles in a deeply confessional way. When asked about being honest about the relationship between himself and his audience Burnham stated. “I’m not your friend and the friendliest thing to do is concede that.” He aims to be truthful in a way that’s different from “talking about the saddest time you masturbated.”

As a result, Burnham started in an industry that valued pain and truth above all else. Burnham worried that at such a young age, that he didn’t have “a legitimate relationship to comedy.” He also hoped that he would someday abandon the songs, as most comedians saw the concept of music a crutch. However, Burnham saw the power of music to “make something more theatrical” and “using shortcuts to give” the audience more impactful and thought-provoking ideas through his jokes and songs. Burnham realized that stand-up comedy had devolved into what Jesse David Fox called a “fetishism of truth,” and that “there are only two rules in stand-up comedy: be onstage and be funny” and that several little rules had placed restrictions on what could and could not be done.

Here his comedy is honest in the sense that it is stripping away deceit between himself and his fans in order to get to the deeper truths plaguing himself and his generation. “You cannot criticize something without erecting replacement values,” and Make Happy is the culmination of Burnham stripping away the nature of performance his generation has been plagued with and look for approval from ourselves instead of others. All it takes is having the courage to step out into the world and seize those opportunities for happiness and self-fulfillment. Burnham indicates his desire to step away from the comedy world with this look at the mic early in the special:

Burnham states before this that he’s planned everything “to the word, to the gesture,” so it’s worth noting this very quick, but very telling moment. It’s Burnham foreshadowing what he will do by Make Happy’s conclusion: take a step out of the spotlight to pursue other things. It looks so tantalizing, but ultimately he has to let it go. Hopefully his generation will learn by his example.

If Make Happy is indeed Burnham’s final stand-up special, then it is one hell of a note to end on. If what. was Burnham pulling the curtain back, Make Happy is Burnham lighting the curtain on fire and leaving the audience to put something in its place themselves. It is Burnham’s acceptance of his talent, of his voice, ten years since he made that first video and how drastically our society has changed. He’s learned that performance is a dangerous thing for us and we need to learn how to be ourselves. He accepts that what he has to say is important, uses his platform to inform his generation that they can find happiness, not through the internet or pop culture, but within themselves. Once that’s done, he can leave.

From here there is only one place to go: politics. Just kidding!

Next time: Burnham takes all those lessons he developed over the years and passes them along to the next generation.

Part time writer, full time nerd

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