On Saturday, comedian Bo Burnham came to Yale to perform as the headliner for this year’s Fall Show. WEEKEND made a last-ditch effort to seduce him before the show in his dressing room, where he opened up about political correctness, self-promotion, Dickens and dick jokes.
Q. As a black, gay, retarded woman, I find a lot of your songs very offensive. What do you have to say for yourself?
A. Well, mentally handicapped is the correct word. For gay. Just kidding.
The stuff I wrote when I was 16, I can’t really talk to that. You probably have some right to be offended. I think most of it is layered in pretty explicit irony — well, it can’t be that explicit or it wouldn’t be very ironic. I would say the thing to criticize my early stuff about isn’t so much the extent to which it is offensive, but the extent to which it leans on that. But again, I was 16. Like, what do you find funny when you’re 16? You know what I mean? But “Perfect Woman” [Burnham’s song about Helen Keller] — I think that’s repulsive. I haven’t played it in three years because I think it is wrong.
I’m not the guy who’s like, “Nothing’s off-limits.” Well, nothing is off-limits, but there’s some shit that gets easy laughs. Do I want my comedy to be something that inspires people to laugh at deaf people? No, that’s terrible. I want my comedy to be something that makes people think or at least makes people laugh at the people that should be laughed at. Which are, you know, the evil men that are running this world.
So, to answer your question, I completely agree with you, and I am a 21-year-old kid that’s trying to become better. I’m not someone that’s like, “Oh, well, if you’re offended, fuck you.” I’m not like that. I have learned from my mistakes. It’s still edgy stuff, but it’s for a purpose — a purpose of either exposing our preconceived notions of what these words mean or how vilified some subjects are becoming in a really condescending way. “You can make jokes about anything — but don’t make fun of these certain poor people! Don’t dare make fun of them because they’re our ‘cause of the weak’ and they could never take a joke!” They can take a fucking joke. Everyone can take a joke.
I’m taking shots at myself and I take shots at other people because I know that they’re mature and strong enough to handle it, and to treat them like babies that need to be coddled and held is the most insulting thing to me.
Q. You’ve mentioned what your comedy isn’t anymore. What has it become?
A. Well, back then I was drawing on what I saw comedians getting laughs from. Now it’s more just things I care about. And I do care about the surreal and the silly, and I do care about jokes. I like well-packaged jokes and bits.
I’m a very rational person, so I don’t really like superstition. I don’t really like deifying anything. I find it all kind of silly.
I like talking about art — that’s something I totally think people glorify — and I like poking holes in that. I like being a little manic, vaguely anti-establishment in this little clean-cut stand-up world where it’s like, “Women are like this, men are like this, y’know, and can you believe it?” To kind of just get up on stage and scream and yell and go crazy and be insane.
Q. How tired are you of people asking what your mom thinks of your videos?
A. She’s okay with it. She doesn’t really care. I haven’t done videos in a long time. A couple years. My parents are very supportive of everything, and I think they see that I care about it. It keeps me busy, and I do get a lot of joy from it.
Q. In the fairly recent past, you’ve talked about having conflicted feelings about being an entertainer. Do you still have those?
A. Yes, but I also have the conflicted feelings of being someone who talks about my conflicted feelings — “Oh my God, it’s so hard to be an artist.” I was mocking the deconstruction of art, as much as the pursuit of it. It’s just all so self-indulgent. And yes, I still totally feel that. I don’t feel as hurt and self-hating as [my “Art is Dead” song] was portraying. That was a bit of a theatrical version. I’m not brooding. But [I’m aware that] the guy who works at a job is doing it so he can make money. Life tends to be a tad self-serving, and what you hope is that you can channel that self-service into something that gives people something.
I like the relationship of comedy and me. That’s what I’m trying to do in my new shows — explore this thing that’s very real to me. It’s more real to me than anything else. I think there’s as much observational comedy to be found in the interaction with comedy as there is in the normal world, or whatever.
Q. How does it feel not to be in college?
A. I don’t know, man, like I don’t know what it feels like to be in college. But it’s weird, it’s fucking weird. When I come to college I’m like, “Shit, do they really get to do this all the time?” I’ve just been away from people for a very long time. And that’s very strange. But yeah, I miss it, or I miss the idea of it. I miss “huminteraction.” Remember that thing?
Q. Like David Hume? That’s what it makes me think of.
A. Is that what it is? Well, that’s a very educated answer.
Q. It’s a college question.
A. Yeah, that’s a college answer. Dickensian. Kafkaesque.
Q. How do you feel when you look at your older pieces now?
A. I don’t. I don’t look. I couldn’t. Hopefully in five years I’ll look back on this shit and not want to look at it.
Q. What kind of audiences do you generally perform for?
A. I try to get out of my comfort zone as much as possible. “Carve out your audience, and play to them” — I don’t know how that makes you better. That’s the whole fucking problem with this self-promotion machine, like social media. I know it’s ironic for me to say.
I knew when the YouTube stuff was gaining popularity that I had a lot of ground to make up artistically, and I don’t think I’ve made it up yet. If you make good stuff and it speaks for itself, it will sell itself. And if it doesn’t, it’s still good stuff, so who gives a shit? But so much of the energy of comedians nowadays seems to be on promoting yourself, refining your MySpace, and making your Twitter update daily. It’s great in the way that it makes the whole process way more democratic than it has ever been, but I think the best way to promote yourself is to have good things.
Q. Are there any kinds of audiences in particular for whom you prefer to perform?
A. When I look back on it, every audience was good for me. Even the bad audiences were. Every audience is good and gives me a wider perspective on the way people receive things. I don’t like selective P.C.-ness. That’s what I would say. You can get a group of people together that hopefully, if they’re smart enough, will understand irony. Usually what you’re laughing at is the ridiculousness of the fact that these areas are being tackled comically. It’s just basically the formula of King Lear. King Lear is so tragic because a king falls all the way down. So comically it’s always about that distance. And what could be more of a twist than to make Hitler funny? That’s why comics usually go to those dark areas — it’s the most surprising. And you want to hold someone’s hand through all this and say it’s okay. We can laugh at all this. And you want to have a group of people that are gay and straight and white and black and everything in between and you want them taking turns laughing at each other for different reasons or even just laughing at the relationship between each other. You hopefully all leave there being like, “We’re going to get through this. It’s okay.”
Q. What do you do in your free time?
A. Read or play piano, watch TV, go on the Internet. This right now seems like my free time. Hanging around thinking of dick jokes doesn’t ever seem like work.
Q. That’s the life.
A. That’s the life, man.