What is ‘what.’ a conversation with Bo Burnham
Bo Burnham has just released his new special, what., a theatrical comedy piece he spent three years developing. This labor of love is also a labor of self-actualization, an autobiographical piece set at a safe distance. Burnham is sure to create art not for his fans, but for himself. What he is left with is something he is truly proud of, and marks his maturity and ability in the world of theatrical comedy. what. is available digitally via Comedy Central Records as well as YouTube and on Netflix.
Here, Bo talks about the new special, the relationship between theater and comedy, and reconciling his sixteen-year-old self.
So, your new special what. was just released. What was your focus for this piece?
Well, this one was three years in the making. I wanted to try to do a show that was a little more theatrical, a little more like a theater show. I don’t know how to put it. I introduced backing tracks and lighting elements to it. I tried to make a show that feels a little more like a show.
A lot of your stand-up already has been connected to your background in theater. How do you think that way of performing effects and audience differently than a traditional stand-up, or someone who gets up and is really raw on stage, like Marc Maron or someone?
Well, what I think Maron does or Bill Burr does is a form of theater, but it’s a very, very minimal form of theater. It’s so magnetic, because these people seem to almost have stumbled on to stage and just happen to be saying this stuff on stage. And they’re able to captivate an audience without the aid of anything other than their mind and their voice. That’s awesome, but I don’t have that skill. I wish I did. And since I like doing theater, I just wanted to more wilder shows. As far as how that relates to the audience, I’m not sure. I think people are sort of open to theater in comedy, because I think a lot of concerts are very theatrical. This show what. is a lot about the absurdity of performing and an audience watching you, and how that is very strange and weird.
I guess that’s the whole point, Maron has a quote, the one goal is the refrain from asking the question, “Why are these people listening to me?”
And I think that makes sense for someone who is getting up and articulating their life and want sort of really relate to the audience. But for me, in doing theater, a fourth wall has always been a thing that’s understood in theater. This show is sort of about having fun with that very question, and what happens if you kind of tear it down and tell them about it. But it’s funny, Maron did a really funny bit when I saw him in Montreal. He gets up and says he doesn’t prepare for anything, because if you succeed, you’re a genius, but if you fail you didn’t prepare. That is definitely a form of performing. And then I saw the special, and it’s a bit that he repeated, which is sort of like a meta, fun way to go about it.
Well, then it’s like, he certainly prepared that bit.
Yeah, it’s great. I think there’s a lot of that in comedy. Comedy particularly feels a bit like a hall of mirrors. The audience is sort of aware this guy is supposed to be their friend, but they’re kind of aware that this guy isn’t saying this for the first time. It’s all very vague. That’s sort of where the title comes from.
I guess for you it’s different perhaps because instead of exposing this whole version of yourself, you’re only giving the performer you. This isn’t necessarily the person who wrote it, or the regular version of you.
I think the show is very autobiographical, except the person that it’s an autobiography of is the person who made the show, rather than the person performing on stage, if that makes sense. It’s not about, “Oh, now, why would I want to be the person who would say this?”
Something else about this special is that you’re releasing it on YouTube and it’s going up on Netflix. What was the motivation behind that?
There’s a bunch of things that kind of came together that made me want to do it. This thing took three years, and it was a long time coming. It’s sort of about struggling to feel like you’re growing up while also having to sort of sell every epiphany that you come to. It felt like a nice thing to be able to sort of return to the medium, even though I’m trying to distance myself from what I was doing when I was sixteen.
As we all are!
Exactly! So I think I’m at a different stage, literally on a different stage, but it’s able to be a homage to that. I’m also selling the CD, but the show is very visual and there are parts of the CD that you won’t get unless you the special. And I didn’t want to have to make people pay for both of those. If you get the CD, you might be like, “What the fuck was that seven minute opening number? I don’t even know what this is.” And so you can just watch it and understand it. That also made me feel better. And then I kind of just wanted people to see it, so this feels like the best way for people to see it.