Bo Burnham, Herbert Marcuse, and the Transcendent Potential of Political Comedy

If some sort of higher power were designing a comedian tailored exactly to me, he/she/it would probably create something that is basically Bo Burnham. Burnham, like me, started doing comedy in high school; and his interest in comedy is paralleled by an interest in the political and social contexts of the act of doing comedy—to wit, the relationship of comedy as an art to the real politics of the world, what makes a joke pathbreaking rather than offensive, and whether all jokes need to follow the “rule of threes.” The main difference is that Bo Burnham is among the most successful comedians of his generation, and I write solipsistic essays a few times per year and post them on my blog that nobody reads for no money.

Burnham originally got famous by singing comedy songs in his suburban bedroom—songs that very much toe the line between funny and offensive, yet also sit firmly on the side of “not punching down.” One of my early favorite songs of his was “New Math,” in which he does “math” problems by reframing them in cultural and political terms. Here’s one lyric, written when he was approximately 15 years old:

And what’s a bag of chips divided by five?
Well that’s a Nike worker’s meal
And Santa Claus multiplied by i
Well I guess that makes him real
And the square root of the NBA
Is Africa in a box
How do you trace a scatter plot?
You give the pencil to Michael J. Fox

Following this, he gives a knowing groan to the camera, acknowledging that he knows that bit is offensive, but he said it anyway. I mean, you definitely could not get away with that today, and probably for good reason, but it’s still brilliant. When I was 15, I wrote a series of Ogden Nash-style poems about foods you would find at a barbecue. I won second place in our high school poetry competition. Advantage: Burnham.

He’s now 30 and he has a new comedy special on Netflix filmed entirely during the pandemic about slowly going crazy while trying to make something create and worthwhile in the pandemic. The first song is perhaps the most directly relevant piece of artistic work aimed at me ever created in history, and it starts off by mentioning all the terrible things in the world: war, drought, protests, climate change, etc. He asks: should I be making jokes when so many terrible things are going on? He wants to do something good for the world, to be helpful, to add value, but all he knows how to do is make jokes—and he doesn’t really want to inconvenience himself. So what’s the solution? He sings:

The world is so fucked up.
Systematic oppression.
Income inequality.
The other stuff.
And there’s only one thing that I can do about it, while… while being paid, and being the center of attention.
Healing the world with comedy
Making a literal difference, metaphorically

I spent my entire college career outside of class performing comedy, thinking about comedy, writing comedy, and for much of my early life I wanted to do comedy professionally. But I also cared fundamentally about making the world a better place and contributing in some way to some kind of systemic change to make the world slightly less fucked up than it is. I have always cared about politics out of proportion with a normal human being, and doing fart jokes felt meaningless. I wanted to find a way to do comedy but also be politically relevant.

But I also found out that doing direct political comedy without it being didactic was really hard, and that basically every attempt in existence was either unpleasant or unfunny. Not to mention, of course, that most “traditional” entertainment was enmeshed in the unforgivably vain and egotistical world of Hollywood, which I did not want to approach with a ten-foot pole. I didn’t have the wholehearted zeal and singularity of purpose to make it work. So now I’m doing a PhD, which is the only choice I could make that would leave me worse-off financially than doing comedy.

What strikes me about Burnham is how he deals with the question of doing comedy in a deeply political world. (I think often of Orwell’s quote: “This is a political age. War, Fascism, concentration camps, rubber truncheons, atomic bombs, etc. are what we daily think about, and therefore to a great extent what we write about, even when we do not name them openly. We cannot help this. When you are on a sinking ship, your thoughts will be about sinking ships.”)

On the one hand, Burnham is satirizing the idea that he has anything to contribute whatsoever. He is a rich white dude, and if he really wanted to help people, maybe he’d go down to a food bank or clean the highways or donate all his money to charity. He is aware of the problem and acknowledges, more or less, that there is nothing of value that he can produce with his comedy. In fact, it may well be the case that there’s nothing he can do to help society at large, no matter what he does, if he wants to be the center of attention. Here’s another verse from that song. 

So I am gonna use my privilege for the good
Very cool, way to go!
American white guys
We’ve had the floor for at least 400 years
So maybe I should just shut the fuck up…

I’m bored.
I don’t wanna do that 
There’s gotta be another way
For me to help out without standing on the sidelines
The wait is over
I’m white and I’m here to save the day

I agree with this sentiment almost entirely, and it is the exact question that I have wrestled with for so long. Burnham is skewering so accurately the competing notions of liberal elites like us: we want to do good, but we don’t want to give up any of the comforts that let us have it good, and so we pretend that we can have it both ways without being hypocritical. 

Burnham’s parody puts himself in this category, even though he is self-aware about it. But then, a few songs later, in a bit where he reacts to a reaction video (making fun of people who post reaction videos), he says:

So here, um, I’m reacting to my own reacting, and I’m criticizing my initial reaction for… for being pretentious, which is… which is honestly, it’s a… it’s a defense mechanism.

I’m… I’m so worried that criticism will be levied against me that I levy it against myself before anyone else can.

And I think that, “Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.” But it… but it doesn’t.

Um, self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.
Am I balding? This is really, really disturbing.

The balding line was a little too close to home for my taste, thank you very much. But that’s not the main point here.

In short: By virtue of privilege, we have nothing to offer with our hoity-toity opinions, and we should probably keep our mouths shut. Thus, the most we can do is be self-aware of our privilege and acknowledge it—yet, despite this, being self-aware is not a solution; it’s a defense mechanism. There is no way out. We are inherently condemned to be socially parasitic unless we render ourselves powerless, which, frankly, feels shitty. Moreover, if self-awareness isn’t even a solution, then there is no point in any attempt to reconcile with privilege, because we are the same, whether we self-flagellate in meaningful ways or pretend to self-flagellate like Jamie Dimon kneeling for BLM in front of a giant bank vault.

Yet, despite all of this, the crushing hopelessness of having a public voice or wanting to form a social opinion, Bo Burnham is…just doing his comedy anyway. He recognizes the fruitlessness of the endeavor, yet here he is, in his own Netflix special, making jokes about the pandemic. The overwhelming internal tension that dogs him wherever he goes still has not stopped him from making stupid comedy in the middle of a fucked-up world at a fucked-up time. 

There is another element here that sticks out to me, which is the emphasis on whiteness. Race is always a part of the story of privilege, but I think I am particularly sensitive to the obsessive focus on race as the main element of contemporary privilege because of the nature of contemporary racialized discourse that dominates liberal institutions. Thus, even though I agree with Burnham’s sentiments, there is something slightly jarring about his emphasis on the whiteness aspect of privilege as the dominant frame. American white guys have had “the floor” for 400 years, but that feels like such a reductive understanding of privilege so as to render it almost unhelpful.

At first, it felt to me that Burnham was parroting the contemporary discursive line echoing white fragility that it veers into self-parody. But after watching the special and re-reading the transcript multiple times, it seems clear to me that one of Burnham’s targets is liberal elites. The white savior complex appears frequently, and when Socko, the anthropomorphic sock who is also an angry leftist, starts spouting revisionist history during a duet about the wonders of life, Burnham gets frustrated to the point where he yet again suggests that liberal elites who claim to want to do good will show their true colors as soon as someone challenges them.

Bo: I’m sorry, Socko. I was just trying to become a better person.

Socko: Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization? This isn’t about you. So either get with it, or get out of the fucking way.

Bo: Watch your mouth, buddy. Remember who’s on whose hand here.

The second half of the special veers into slightly different territory, chronicling Burnham’s increasing disillusionment as the pandemic drags on and he slowly loses his mind. But before that happens, he has one more song about his past misdeeds, namely, writing offensive songs like “New Math.” On first watch, this song confused me. If you take it literally, it is the epitome of the reductive, unforgiving, and mean-spirited nature of contemporary left-wing discourse: he is apologizing for everything he has said that is offensive, and no matter how much he apologizes, it is never enough. He seems sincere enough in his apologies—except for the fact that the entire apology song is done mostly naked and with a hyper-sexualized-Abercrombie-model-meets-Jesus aesthetic. He gets tangled up in whether it is offensive or appropriate to burn an offensive Halloween costume, as he is afraid of further offending something that was already offensive.

It is, without a doubt, mostly satirical. Underneath it, though, it feels more complex than that. I imagine his apology is genuine, as far as it goes; but the fact that even his apologies are not enough and then his whole attempt to apologize descends into twists and turns is both sincere and satirical. It epitomizes the conflicted nature of Burnham’s entire endeavor: the whole show is a mix of mild contrition, deep ambivalence, and worry about the hopelessness of wanting to be a good person in modern society without having a clear idea of what it means to be good.

The ambivalence of this position is ultimately constraining, and Burnham can only really move forward by leaving it unresolved. As a friend suggested to me, Burnham’s comedy in the Netflix special reflects our cultural moment, but ultimately it struggles to transcend it. For most of the show, I couldn’t tell whether he was parroting the dominant discourse or satirizing it; he was both speaking in it and of it at the same time. For as much as his critiques are self-aware (and that he is self-aware about his own self-awareness), they are also so deeply bound up in the snarls of the way people talk about life that it wasn’t clear exactly when he was participating in the culture and when he was moving beyond it. This ambiguity is part of the brilliance of the show, but it does suggest that he is unable to fully wrest himself from the fetters of toxic hate-discourse self-flagellation. Burnham wants to extricate himself from the confines of the toxic online world, but he still struggles to see beyond it except insofar as to merely throw up his hands and say, “Fuck it, I’m going to tell jokes.”

This problem, I think, is best elaborated by the theorist and social critic Herbert Marcuse—the controversial intellectual who became the darling of 1960s radical student movements in America. When it comes to politics, Marcuse is, to put it nicely, absolutely fucking nuts. He not only dabbles in the benefits of authoritarian tutelage, he calls outright for educating the people by force and rejecting everything that people think they believe. Yet there is something intriguing, albeit nihilistic and depressing, about his view of the world, which captures the complexity of the Bo Burnham paradox.

Marcuse believes that it is very difficult to critique society from within society, because the dominant pressures of the world we live in shapes so much of our understanding that it is impossible to accurately see the world. He is particularly focused on technological advancement and consumer culture, but his critique extends further. Modern society creates endless needs for people, which not only makes people unfree but makes it impossible for people to even see or conceive of what it would mean to be free. Life is better in terms of quality and comfort and even equality, but it makes people “one-dimensional” automatons who have lost their human essence. People become slaves to the “objective order of society” that emerge from economic assumptions, markets, technology, governments, etc. Bo Burnham falls into this trap: he cannot extricate himself from the parameters of his own critique, and thus is stuck in a loop in which he sees the inevitable logic of the situation but cannot find a way to fully move beyond it.

Marcuse’s position is a radical attack on all forms of domination, suggesting that both capitalism and authoritarian are equally ‘totalitarian’ insofar as they pervade all aspects of our lives and prevent us from realizing our own humanity. (In this way, he reflects Foucault-inspired arguments about “governmentality”—government is not just the state or the laws but the entirety of the institutions that shape how we behave and try to make people conform to being subjects in certain ways.) When taken to its logical conclusion, however, Marcuse’s destruction of all the pillars of modern society leads him into views that promote and solidify inequality, rather than washing it away. In talking about the democratization of art and literature and sex, he argues that there was something useful about art in a hierarchical society that is lost when it becomes available cheaply to everyone. Once these become open and easily accessible, they are subsumed and ruined by society.

The fact that the transcending truths of fine arts, the aesthetics of life and thought, were accessible only to the few wealthy and educated was the fault of a repressive society. But this fault is not corrected by paperbacks, general education, long-playing records, and the abolition of formal dress in the theater and concert hall. … It is good that almost everyone can now have the fine arts at his fingertips, by just turning a knob on his set, or by just stepping into his drugstore. In this diffusion, however, they become cogs in a culture-machine which remakes their content. (65)

The only answer is to preserve domains of elite culture to prevent them from being “sullied” by the dominant frameworks of society. Arts and culture, among other endeavors, need to be separated out from mainstream society completely, because there is no possible way of achieving art that can serve its purpose—transcending mainstream society—from within mainstream society itself. This is both trenchant and unsatisfying, since it pushes past the ambiguity in a way that is reactive and hierarchical. For those of us who take our commitment to egalitarianism and justice seriously, such a conclusion is repugnant on multiple levels.

Burnham is clearly pushing the boundaries of this paradox, even if he has not broken through it. To some extent, he has pushed further and gotten closer to tackling what Marcuse describes: he is self-aware, and he is clearly satirizing many of the dominant cultural powers that have blinded well-intentioned people from seeing the forces hindering their pursuit for personal or social improvement. To give into Marcuse would be to accept nihilism and give up hope for any possibility of a better world—a type of neo-pessimism that is worth rejecting. Perhaps we can stake our hopes on Burnham’s next Netflix special; after all, he’s only 30.