A couple of weeks ago Bo Burnham posted a trailer for his new Netflix special Make Happy on his Facebook page. A fan commented, “I watched this live in Boston. I don’t think this is even comedy anymore. It’s great, but after going to the show I was felt like I was walking out of a mind-bending movie more than a ‘comedy’ show, and I loved it. Excited to see the Netflix version.” The Netflix version premiered today and that fan’s assessment is quite accurate. It’s not just a comedy special. It’s a multi-layered, theatrical piece of one-man performance art. In watching it, it feels like Bo Burnham has something to prove, but to nobody other than himself. I talked to Burnham about the process of building Make Happy, how his act is an exercise in biting the hand that feeds him, and the significance of January 17th, 2024.
This is another high-concept special for you. There’s a lot going on in it. When you finished what. did you get a sense that you had to top yourself for the next one?
I didn’t feel like I had to top myself, really. I was thinking of taking a break for a while and then getting back into it. It kind of snuck up on me. On what. I felt like I was experimenting with all these new things: lights, backing tracks, things I had never worked with before. It was me finding my footing with those things. As I dug into this new show it was like, “I think I’ve figured out how to use these things. It would be nice to fill the whole show with these things from the beginning.” Basically, when I toured what. I wrote all these bits and near the end I was like, “How can we put lights and stuff on top of this and make it a show?” Every venue we would go in and see what they had to work with. With this one I wanted to try to make a show where the production was thought of from the beginning, written with the tech in mind. We tested the show with lights and we traveled with the same gear. We used the same lights for the special that we did for a year and a half of touring. I traveled with a lighting guy and a sound guy for the first time. So for me it wasn’t about topping anything as much as it was just trying to make something work better. I found something last time and wanted to do it again and a little bit better. So I guess maybe a little bit of topping. But I always immediately hate everything I just did. It’s more like I just wanted to do something that I don’t cringe at any more. I’ll probably feel that way in a couple years about this.
There’s a moment in this special where after doing a pretty elaborate, flashy bit you point out that a couple of the lights that you used for the bit were expensive and that you could have used that money in a much wiser way. Did this special represent any personal financial risk for you?
That wasn’t so much personal as much as a comment on what all production is. Whenever you’re watching a big show just know that it’s basically what could have been food sent to kids in Africa being sprayed out of those fog machines. The truth is, standups get such a great margin because there’s zero production. They can go into a venue and take all the profits. What I was doing is closer to what a band does. A band has a lot of production going in, tech guys that you need to split stuff with. I brought guys who worked with bands before. I never thought of it as huge personal investment. The fog machines come out to $0.10 per person in the crowd. At the end of the day, I wanted to invest in the show. I wanted to give people a show. I’ve been to standup shows in giant theaters where I was sitting in the back row and the person was just a tiny blur in a white spotlight and I thought, “This is great and it’s hilarious, but I might as well just be at home watching it on TV.” I love the spaces of theaters and what they are, so for me I just wanted to try to create some of the moments I feel when I’m watching a concert or play. I wanted to try and make these big moments happen.
You poke a lot of fun at tropes in comedy and music. Since you do both you’re obviously making fun of yourself, but do you ever feel like you might be biting the hand that feeds you?
That’s a great way to describe my whole act. My whole act is biting the hand that feeds me. That’s just what I’ve chosen to do. For me this is a show about bells and whistles, with bells and whistles. I’ve never really thought of this before, but it’s kind of like what Penn & Teller do with magic where they kind of explain the magic trick to you the whole time and they still somehow pull off the magic trick at the end and you’re like, “Whoa!” My hope is that this show is saying, “This is why you are entertained. Why are you entertained by this?” while somehow entertaining them with it.
If you don’t pull it off right, like Penn & Teller, you’re just basically The Masked Magician Val Valentino. “Here’s how it’s done. Fuck everyone else.”
Exactly. I think what people sometimes might not realize is that I’m just trying to be funny and entertain people. If comedy is all about surprises and pulling the rug out from under someone, I want to make the surprises live within the structure of the show. The show lies to you and tells you that it’s lying. My first instinct isn’t to fight the man. My first instinct is to have a silly, weird, strange show that you never really get your footing in. It seems honest and then it’s not. It seems silly and weird and then all of the sudden it gets serious.
You have an extensive bio: comedian, writer, YouTuber, poet, musician. Of all the titles that you’ve earned, which one do you identify with the most?
I’d say writer. I think of myself as a writer who occasionally performs the things he writes. I feel like that’s what my real skill is. The one thing I’m certain that I would want to do for a long time would be to actually write. It’s only in Hollywood where they give those multi hyphenates out. A chef doesn’t call himself a boiler/peeler/cook. For me it’s writing and performing and I feel the most comfortable writing. I do enjoy performing, but I have a strange relationship with it. That’s why the show is strange.
How much of your original internet fan base has stuck with you over the years?
I have no idea, but I know there are a group of people that have grown up with me and I’m sure there are people my age that are equally embarrassed by my older stuff as I am. I like the idea that someone is like, “Ugh I cant believe I liked Bo Burnham at 16. But now I like him.”
Your website says that you’ll die January 17th, 2024. What’s the significance of that date?
That’s because I think that’s when my new dog is going to die and I’m going to kill myself.
Bo Burnham: Make Happy is now streaming on Netflix.