The Philosophy of Bo Burnham – Wisecrack Edition
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Philosophy of Bo Burnham!
Written by: Thomas Ambrosini
Directed by: Michael Luxemburg
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Beto Ruiz
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Patron Executive Producer: Brent Krafft
The Philosophy of Bo Burnham – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared again. You might have noticed that we have a soft spot for cynical, irreverent, and even nihilist comedy. But, we’ve recently been wondering: is there anything on the other side of our current cynicism? Is comedy based in earnestness and genuine human emotion still possible? To answer this question we’re turning to our friend Bo Burnham, a comedian who might have cracked the code for how to embrace all the intellectual goodness of postmodern irony. “My voice is so f**king natural.” While offering something with a real human core. “Could you let the house lights up for a second, could you let the lights on stage, let the artifice fade away, now we’re all the same.”
Like a candybar that has a hard shell of cultural cynicism on the outside, but a warm hug from your favorite aunt on the inside. Even though Burnham is still baby-faced, his work has actually gone through a few distinct stages. While his earliest work incorporates postmodern cynicism and ironic detachment, — “I adopted a child from overseas to rescue him from child-labor factories, and on his very first birthday, we went to Build-a-Bear Workshop. Isn’t that ironic?” His more recent work not only exposes the meaningless core of contemporary life, but also attempts to offer a corrective with introspection and a search for happiness. “On a scale from one to zero, are you happy?”
Burnham might be the rare comedic figure able to offer salvation from the empty cultural wasteland that is our modern world. So, welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Bo Burnham. And… I guess, spoilers?
PART 1: HOW DID WE GET HERE?
To understand why Burnham represents such an important shift in comedy, we first need to see how comedy arrived at its postmodern era, and more importantly, what in the hell is meant by “postmodernism.” This phrase has become so amorphous that it can be used to describe everything from cars to Scottish beer. But a more helpful understanding can be found in the work of Fredric Jameson, whose work describes postmodernism as “the cultural logic of late capitalism.” Which means that each new form of economic life creates a related form of cultural life. For example: when you’re a poor college student, your economic situation dictates a cultural life of cheap beers, movies in a dorm room, and paying for dollar cheesy-roll-ups with your laundry quarters.
When you graduate and get a job, you’re drinking a locally made IPA, paying twenty dollars for a movie ticket, and using your debit card for a cheesy gordita crunch. A few years later you sell your app, FLUSHFINDER, that gives you a map of the cleanest public toilets near you, and you’ll be drinkin’ aged whiskey, sitting courtside, and sending your scared assistant Adrian to grab you a crunchwrap supreme combo. Each economic stage in your life leads to a new cultural stage. And postmodernism is the cultural logic of the current stage of economic development, which Jameson calls late capitalism. Now, let’s see how Jameson’s ideas can help us better understand the shifting trends in American comedy over the past 70 years. We can do this with a three step process: economic culture leads to popular culture, which leads to comedy. Let’s start in the fifties: America is in a post-war boom, the GI Bill has led to record numbers of college grads and homeowners, it’s easy to get a middle class job, and Cuba is just a quaint island of resorts and cocktails.
This era’s popular culture is all about optimism and enjoyment, “What are you doing up here, I thought you were downstairs boxing chocolates?” “Oh, they kicked me outta there fast.” “Why?” “I kept pinchin’ ‘em to see what kind they were,” and their comedy sensibility can be seen in someone like Jack Benny. “Congratulations, Boss!” “Why?” “You just shined with a peeled potato!” By the mid-sixties, the boom time is over, the cold war has people on edge, and the Vietnam war is on the horizon. There were protests, naked hippies, and someone gave The Beatles LSD. The counterculture had snuck into the popular culture, and Lenny Bruce is on trial for obscenities, while George Carlin is listing them. “Sh*t, piss, f**k, c*nt, c*ck sucker, motherf**ker, and… tits.”
By the eighties, Reagan has promised endless economic growth, and we’ve got cable TV to keep us company twenty-four-seven. New media creates the opportunity for a new breed of superstar, and while Michael Jackson sold out arenas with his music, Eddie Murphy did the same with comedy. But, let’s be honest, the most important thing is how fly they look in red leather jackets. In the nineties, comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Ray Romano had gone from successful standups to television stars. Comedy was more mainstream than ever. MTV, giant cell phones, and economic growth abounded, and, all the while, comedy rode this wave with a new optimism and increasingly goofy spirit. “We’re not worthy! We’re not worthy!” But, just like Taco Bell’s nacho fries, good things can’t last forever, and by the dawn of the twenty first century, the dot com bubble had burst, Limp Bizkit was popular, and 9/11 left the country wondering if anything could be funny anymore. “Can we be funny?” “Why start now?” As the aughts rolled on, things didn’t get much better. The 2008 financial crisis was the worst since the great depression, and the weird Scrubs reboot left us all wondering if nothing was sacred anymore.
PART 2: COMEDY AS CULTURAL CYNICISM
The political and economic cynicism of the aughts lead to a new form of cultural cynicism in the media. “Keep those on.” “Leave my nipples alone! If you don’t f**king like ‘em, go f**kin’ squeeze on your dick.” While mostly known for its groundbreaking character ‘Prison Mike’ — “The worst thing about prison was the… was the dementors, they, were flying all over the place, and they were scary, and they come down, and they suck the soul outta your body, and it hoit!” The Office showed us the mundane and often meaningless existence of the American worker, and the rest of television was slowly taken over by reality shows that were all completely fake, but nobody seemed to care. One of the most recent shifts that helps us understand the effect of late capitalism on comedy is what we’re calling “the Adult Swim phenomenon.” What started as a way for Cartoon Network to get stoners to watch their channel while eating Double Decker Tacos has since become the home of some of the weirdest, most absurd, and most intentionally cringeworthy comedy to hit American airwaves.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job showed us a surreal and absurdist version of the upside down. “Pizza Mozzarella!” “Tastes pretty good!” Eric Andre ironically occupied the space of the late night host to show how meaningless the late night model had become while using interviews with C-list celebrities to highlight the vapid nature of contemporary fame. Mr. Neighbor’s House has recently shown us what happens when Mr. Rodgers is put through the postmodern cynicism filter. “A lie is a lie, no matter what the color. And when you lie, you hurt your brother.”
And of course, our friends Rick and Morty give us an animated response to the classic philosophical question, “What if Back to the Future was an R-rated movie involving the multiverse, nihilism, — ‘Nobody gets it, nothing you think matters matters,’ and lots of brown liquor?” Many of these shows weren’t even funny, at least in the traditional sense. Whereas the nineties and early aughts used canned laughter to tell our lizard brains when to laugh, Eric Andre used canned laughter to create an uncomfortable moment for all involved. “Hey Hannibal, did you hear about this?”
Maybe Andre just wants to push the limits of what we’ll watch or maybe he’s asking if there is even such a thing as authentic comedy anymore. We only know one thing for sure though. “You gotta eat the lettuce… Just, right… straight up eat the lettuce.” At the same time that Adult Swim is blossoming, Occupy Wall Street is taking over the streets of Manhattan, and young people around the world are questioning economic and political institutions in a way that would make the mud-covered hippies proud. But unlike their forefathers Lenny and George, who used political cynicism to infuse their comedy with an urgency for truth, — “Got no steel industry left! Can’t educate our young people, can’t get health care to our old people, but we can bomb the sh*t out of your country, all right! Huh?“ — the Adult Swim generation let this cynicism go from a rallying cry to cynicism for cynicism’s sake.
Rather than a response to a troubled world, this cynicism denied the existence of real meaning or truth in the first place. “Jus’ say Smith again, it don’t matta. Nonadis mattas.” To return to the fourth meal of cultural theory, Fredric Jameson, this cynical comedy is a perfect exemplification of postmodernism. The same cultural form repeats, but this time with irony. Or to paraphrase Marx, “first as Johnny Carson then as Eric Andre eating his own vomit.” Cynicism and irony lead to a brand of comedy in which truth, meaning, and human earnestness are just useless relics from the era of canned laughter and pesky New York mothers. So, are we now stuck in this postmodern feedback loop of meaninglessness?
Maybe not, but to find out, we have to return to our friend, Bo. Nope, the other one. She’s pretty, but no. No, not the Obama’s Portuguese water dog, the comedian, lanky white guy in his twenties. Yes, f**king finally, jesus.
Part 3: FROM IRONY TO SINCERITY IN BO BURNHAM
Bo Burnham is an interesting case, as much of his early work was shaped by the influence of Dutch absurdist Hans Teeuwen. “Where have you been?” “Jail!” “For what?” “Rape!” “Sorry, I uh, I had no idea.” And embodied a detached irony which exemplified the tenents of postmodern comedy. “If Jesus can walk on water, can he swim on land?“ Because there is no fixed standard of truth or meaning, Burnham used comedy to point the audience to this lack. “Jesus wasn’t the messiah, get back, I’m a heretic, and I’m on fire, it was Oedipus on those holy nights, and the Holy mother f**king Christ.”
But in his recent work, Burnham pushes back against the emptiness of postmodernism in an attempt to find genuine meaning in things like love and happiness. We could say that rather than returning back to a modern perspective, Burnham pushes through postmodernism to arrive at a post-postmodern perspective, where the death of traditional meaning is an opportunity for the creation of new meanings. We can see his progression by considering his three specials as three distinct stages in his comedic development. His first special, ‘Words, Words, Words’ explores the death of art and comedy, the follow up ‘what.’ goes a step further and operates under the principle that meaning itself is dead, and his most recent special, ‘Make Happy’ works through the death of meaning in an attempt to see if real meaning and happiness are still possible.
From the opening minutes of ‘Words, Words, Words,’ Burnham aims to show the audience the facade of entertainment, “It’s all an illusion. I’m wearing makeup. I’m wearing makeup, makeup.” And for Burnham art is dead because it’s really just the means for something else, “So, people think you’re funny… how do we get those people’s money?” True to the logic of late capitalism, the real purpose of art is simply creating opportunities for making more money, and presumably, eating Nacho Cheese Doritos Locos Supremes whenever you want. And when he speculates on what the forefathers of counter cultural comedy would think, his conclusion isn’t pretty, “We’re rolling in dough, while Carlin rolls in his grave.”
By pointing to the death of art, Burnham shows how comedy has just become a way for charming narcissists to make as much money as they can with no imperative for authenticity or truth. If ‘Words, Words, Words’ is Burnham’s eulogy for the death of art, he goes a step further in ‘what.’, and mourns the death of truth and meaning as such. “Art is a lie, nothing is real.” And he is aware that in the context of people’s actual problems, laughter isn’t the medicine we’ve been sold, “That’s it! Laughter is the key to everything; it’s the way to solve all the sadness in the world.. I mean, not for the people who are actually sad, but the people like us that have to f**king deal with them all the time.”
Unlike the Adult Swim comedians, Burnham doesn’t just embrace the chaos that comes from the death of meaning, he is asking what it means for us when meaning dies. “None of you are going to heaven.” And asking whether or not the creation of meaning is possible. “Maybe life on earth could be heaven.” But he has no conclusive answers in “what.”, and he lets us sit in that space of not knowing. If ‘what.’ is the point where he starts to consider that comedy devoid of the aspirations of any higher meaning is just an equine ATM, — “But we’ll stop beating this dead horse when it stops spitting out money, but until then…” —“Make Happy” represents Burnham’s attempt to use comedy not just for criticism, but as a vehicle to search for meaning. And he makes clear early on that his comedy is not a mode of escapism, “You are here because you want to laugh, and you want to forget about your problems. But I cannot allow it… you should not laugh. You should not forget about your problems.” Instead of escape, Burnham tries to use comedy as an occasion for the audience to truly encounter their problems, and maybe themselves, in the process. And lest you underestimate Burnham’s desire to make you think about some real sh*t: “The world is not funny. 12% of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. The world is not funny. Guy Fieri owns two functioning restaurants.”
And while he has some facts wrong, Burnham doesn’t wanna use culture as a way to escape reality, which is one of Jameson’s worries about postmodernism — that it removes the imperative for us to be critical about the world around us. Like a server who lets you know that he’s up-selling you on donkey sauce not because it’s good, but because it’ll make him money, Burnham lets us peek behind the comedians’ curtain, “Entertainers, they are lying, and they are manipulating you.” It’s not all harsh reality for Burnham though, as he thinks the move past cynicism has some upside, “We all deserve love, even on the days when we aren’t our best. ‘Cause we all suck, but love can make us suck less. We all deserve love, it’s the very best part about being alive, and I would know, I just turned twenty five.”
And by adding the last line, he undercuts his own point, showing us a position that straddles the line between naive optimism and ironic cynicism. The shows ends with Bo Burnham’s take on a Kanye West concert circa 2016, “Can I say my sh*t? New York, can I say my sh*t? I got lots of sh*t to say.” “Can I talk my sh*t, again?” And while it might start off with jokes, — “Pringles! Listen to the people! I’m sure 90% of the complaint letters you get are about the width of your cans, just… make them wider.” — he peppers this confession with some more vulnerable moments — “I don’t go to the gym, ‘cause I’m self-conscious about my body, but I’m self-conscious about my body, ‘cause I don’t go to the gym…“ And he closes out with what seems like a genuine wish for his audience, “Thank you. Goodnight. I hope you’re happy.”
With ‘Make Happy,’ Burnham harkens back to the Socratic tendencies from comedians in a previous era. Much like the gadfly of Athens himself, Burnham is urging his audience to truly acknowledge their problems and unhappiness, as “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And like Aristotle, his final words imply that happiness might be possible, but we have to work at it. What’s most interesting is that Burnham doesn’t simply reject postmodern comedy for the sake of something new, instead, he pushes postmodern comedy to its limits to see what’s on the other side. And over the course of these three specials, we see him transition from irony, to cynicism, to earnestness. Or, from the death of art, to the death of meaning, to the possibility for meaningful art after the death of meaning.
PART 4: COMEDY AS CURE FOR DESPAIR, OR, IS RICK SANCHEZ RIGHT?
Now, you might be wondering, “so what?” Even if Burnham thinks we should try to be happy, we live in a world where goodness and truth seem increasingly illusory. And in a world where Nacho Fries aren’t even on most Taco Bell menus anymore, is it even worth moving past postmodern cynicism? One telling factor is that Burnham isn’t the only one trying to inject a post-postmodern sincerity back into comedy. A great example is the most critically successful comedy film of 2017, ‘The Big Sick’, which coincidentally stars Burnham as a comedian obsessed with success. And while it’s a genuinely funny movie, it explores family, success, and love with a sincerity not common in comedy films. And it’s safe to guess that the inclusion of Ray Romano isn’t a coincidence, as we see the cranky sitcom dad of the nineties portraying a complicated and compassionate human being.
We’ve also seen this shift from irony to sincerity in shows like ‘Nathan for You’, “I mean, I do look at you guys, and a part of me is envious, that, you know, I don’t have someone in my life that is… I’m this close with.” And infusing absurdity with a story about genuine adult friendship in ‘Detroiters’, “You’re my best friend!” “You’re my best friend!” And even one of the darkest shows out there, BoJack Horseman, explores the possibility of finding real meaning. “It takes a long time to realize how truly miserable you are, and even longer to see that it doesn’t have to be that way. Only when you give up everything, can you begin to find a way to be happy.”
While Fredric Jameson has yet to offer an analysis of the way in which comedy can cure the cultural illness of postmodernism, it might just be the case that Burnham’s work is telling us something about what will happen on the other side of late capitalism. Either way the Crunchwrap Supreme is here to stay. So, maybe there are eternal truths that we can all still believe in.