Bo Burnham posted his first video on the Internet late in 2006, when a little website called YouTube was still in its infancy. He was 17 years old then — just a high school junior singing a few funny songs on his bed at home.
Burnham is 23 now, and those short videos have long since brought him big fame: an agent, a show on MTV and millions of views on YouTube — including 20 million on one video alone (warning: videos contain profanity, vulgarity and really elaborate puns). As he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep, it all came as something of a shock: "The strange thing was, when I was starting on YouTube, even the paradigm of YouTube and Internet sensation or whatever didn't really exist, so I didn't even know that that was a thing."
Though Burnham may have found fame on the Internet, he's recently turned to old media, publishing a collection of poems in the same vein as Shel Silverstein — but, unlike some of Silverstein's most famous works, Burnham's book is definitely not for children. Burnham speaks with Inskeep about the challenges of writing poetry, and performing comedy for a generation weaned on the Internet.
On creating comedy about, and for, his own generation
It seems like this is the group that's always on their phones and always on Facebook and only want attention and are just constantly broadcasting themselves online. But I do have a very large respect for young people, and I have respect for young people's hunger for information and density, which I think is more than ever, and they demand, "You need to make the material worth it every single second or I'm going to get bored by you." Since the attention span is slightly smaller, you can't really coast for any amount of time or you're going to lose your audience.
On the difference between performing in comedy clubs and on the Internet
I think the comedy clubs tend to homogenize the [comedy] acts a little bit, because they force [the acts] to be palatable in way too many environments. Since I got an audience before I even had a comic voice, my material that really wasn't worthy of an audience somehow got it, slightly unfairly. I think I took advantage of that, but the comedy club environment, unless you're very careful of it, creates a very tough, very — I think — masculine comedian that can be very combative on a 12 p.m. Saturday show and the crowd's getting a little rowdy.
The best thing that those comedy clubs can produce is Louis C.K. — you know, Louis C.K. and Bill Burr and those people. Those people are amazing — they are perfect comedians; they are absolutely wonderful. But that's the peak that that can produce, as opposed to — I think I was able to make this sort of weird, slightly androgynous, theatrical comedy that would have been squashed had I brought it around the clubs.
On how social media has influenced his poetry
I don't try to call myself a poet, but I know that my stuff is pretty literal, in that the themes are pretty simple and on the surface. I think there's sort of a new poetry nowadays too, with the condensed, streamlined language of Twitter and all this. That's been my struggle creatively: Can I mine this new, frenetic mindset? Because I think I'm part of it as much as anyone of my generation. I'm bored way too easily; I'm staring at screens half the day; I need to be overstimulated. How will that express itself artistically?
From Egghead: Or, You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone
Little Ashley hung magazine spreads on her wall,
after picking the magazines out in the mall.
Models and actresses, singers and more,
with cleavage and makeup and glamour galore!
All of her heroes were finally nearer.
Her whole room looked perfect — except for the mirror.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The comedian Bo Burnham has been writing poetry.
BO BURNHAM: (Reading) I have a rabbit's foot and I'm lucky that I have it. But I still know that it must have come from one unlucky rabbit.
INSKEEP: He's put out a book of poems in the style of Shel Silverstein. "Egghead" even includes drawings that mimic those of the famous children's author.
BURNHAM: Incomparable. You're incomparable. Like a...
BURNHAM: This next poem is called...
INSKEEP: Bo Burnham is 23. And his move into books - into old media - comes after years of huge success on the Internet. We sat down to talk with him about making a career out of a start on YouTube. He was a high school junior, way back in the old days, 2007, when he started posting videos of himself playing guitar and singing while sitting on his bed at home.
(SOUNDBITE OF A YOUYUBE VIDEO)
BURNHAM: (Rapping) My name is Bo fo sho. A born Bostonian, an Aryan librarian at the at the word Smithsonian. The rap is scattered, it hides its ingenuity, I gave it this little part to give it continuity...
INSKEEP: Some of his videos have been seen 20 million times.
BURNHAM: The strange thing was, when I was starting on YouTube, even the paradigm of YouTube and Internet sensation - or whatever - that didn't really exist. So I didn't even know that that was a thing.
INSKEEP: So, six years ago? Seven years ago? Something like that.
BURNHAM: Yeah, December 2006.
INSKEEP: Which technologically is a different universe almost in a...
BURNHAM: I know. It's terrifying.
INSKEEP: Something about Bo Burnham's absurdity and charm turned his viewers into fans. He got an agent. He decided against going to college and he's been writing ever since. For a season, he had an MTV show; a mocumentary about the kind of aspiring teenage star he'd once been.
(SOUNDBITE OF AN MTV SHOW)
BURNHAM: (as Zach Stone) Brace yourselves America. You are watching exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of a pre-celebrity. Yesterday, I, Zach Stone, graduated high school. Today is the first day of the rest of my life.
(Singing) Zach Stone is going to be famous. Zach Stone is going to be famous...
In making this show, I sort of set out as like, OK, I'll make the anti-story of me. I'll create the person that I exactly don't want people to perceive me as, you know.
BURNHAM: And that was coming from a very negative and sort of cynical place. But then when I actually had to play the character, I realized that, well, I don't think, necessarily, the want to become famous as a kid is all bad.
INSKEEP: Wait a minute. When you say something you went into very, very cynically, do you mean the television program? Or do you mean your entire career you went into very cynically?
BURNHAM: Oh, no. I guess I just mean the conception of the television show was a bit of like a negative image.
BURNHAM: It almost feels like nowadays that my generation should only be mocked when you're...
BURNHAM: ...when you're expressing it artistically in a way with any sort of integrity. It seems like, well, right - well this is the group that's just always on their phones and always on Facebook, and only want attention and are just constantly like broadcasting themselves online.
But I do have a very large respect for young people, and I have a respect for young people's hunger for information and density, which I think is more than ever, and they demand: You need to make the material worth it every single second or I'm going to get bored by you.
INSKEEP: What did you mean by density?
BURNHAM: Since the attention span is slightly smaller, you can't really coast for any amount of time or you're going to lose your audience.
INSKEEP: You got to pack material in there.
INSKEEP: As it happened, Bo Burnham's MTV show did lose its audience. It was cancelled. But Burnham has gone on to star in a series of vine videos, which anybody can post from a Smartphone, and which can only be six seconds long.
(SOUNDBITE OF VINE VIDEOS)
BURNHAM: Don't you hate it when you call your girlfriend, she's all like: For the last time, I'm not your girlfriend. OK? We met once at a party. How did you get this number?
The vowels are A-E-I-O-U...
WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) And I...
BURNHAM: No, I already said I...
My puns aren't just bad, they are terrible.
INSKEEP: The Internet is a ruthless world. Your joke finds an audience instantly or instantly vanishes. You may never know just why. Yet Bo Burnham believes the sudden growth of his Internet following freed him to be weirder, less polished, more of an individual.
BURNHAM: You know, the fact that I didn't come up through the comedy club scene and I wasn't struggling to make an act that would, you know, kill at any city at any night with any crowd that has any level of intoxication, which I think homogenize like a lot of comedy. I think the comedy clubs tend to homogenize the acts a little bit, because they force them to be palatable in way too many environments.
And since I got an audience before I even had a comic voice, my material that really wasn't worthy of an audience somehow got it, slightly unfairly. But I think I took advantage of that. But the comedy club environment, unless you're very careful of it, it kind of creates a very tough, very - I think - masculine comedian that can be very combative on a, you know, 12 PM Saturday show and the crowd is getting a little rowdy.
The best thing that those comedy clubs can produce is Louis C.K. You know, Louis C.K. and Bill Burr. And those people are amazing. They are perfect comedians, but it's almost like that's the peak that that can produce, as opposed to I think I was able to make this sort of weird, slightly androgynous, theatrical comedy that would have been squashed had I brought it around the clubs.
INSKEEP: He's now put his weirdness into that Shel Silverstein-style book of poetry called "Egghead."
BURNHAM: This poem is called "Ashely."
(Reading) Little Ashley hung magazine spreads on her wall, after picking the magazines out in the mall; models and actresses, singers and more, with cleavage and makeup and glamour galore. All of her heroes were finally nearer. Her whole room looked perfect except for the mirror.
INSKEEP: Ow. That to me has that kind of Shel Silverstein quality of it's kind of silly but it's also kind of dark.
BURNHAM: Yeah, a little dark and it's quite literal in its themes. You know, like I'm a fan of a lot of poets though. You know, I don't try to call myself a poet. But I know that my stuff is pretty literal, in that the themes are pretty simple and on the surface.
But I think there's sort of a new poetry nowadays too, with just the sort of the condensed, sort of streamlined language of, you know, Twitter and all this...
INSKEEP: Any given tweet can be a poem or a haiku, pretty much.
BURNHAM: Yeah, that's sort of been I think a lot my struggle creatively: can I mine this sort of new, frenetic mindset. Because I think I'm part of it as much as anyone of my generation. I'm bored way too easily. I'm staring at screens half the day. I need to be over stimulated. And how will that express itself artistically?
INSKEEP: The new book by Bo Burnham is called "Egghead," or "You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone."
Thanks very much.
BURNHAM: Thanks, Steve.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO YOUTUBE")
BURNHAM: (Singing) Before YouTube, I walked through life and now I frolic. YouTube has been like a father to me, except YouTube is not an alcoholic...
INSKEEP: Bo Burnham performing "Welcome to YouTube," on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.