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.
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.Continue reading