How Kanye Helped Bo Burnham Go From Having Panic Attacks Onstage to a Creative Breakthrough to Making Eighth Grade

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Bo Burnham Photo-Illustration: Vulture / Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

There is a moment in “Can’t Handle This,” Bo Burnham’s Kanye West–inspired closer to his last special, 2016’s Make Happy, where he sings through Auto-Tune, “I can sit here and sing like my biggest problems are Pringles cans and burritos, but the truth is, my biggest problem’s you.” At that moment, the camera cuts away from Burnham and to the audience, shot as a faceless, menacing black mass. It was arguably, at that point, the culmination of Burnham’s career in comedy and his exploration of the relationship his generation, one that grew up on social media, has to performance.

And it was a breakthrough. A breakthrough that showed a way to get over the anxiety he was feeling onstage that was resulting in more and more frequent panic attacks. A breakthrough that let him eventually stop doing stand-up and start making movies. Because, as he puts it, he’s over “expressing myself through myself.” And, if not him, “It had to be a 13-year-old girl,” he said in the interview that was conducted live at Vulture Festival. The result is Eighth Grade, Burnham’s critically acclaimed (it’s currently 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) film debut, which hits theaters on July 13. Of it, Vulture’s Emily Yoshida writes in her review, “Burnham’s direction is patient and endlessly empathetic; it’s an out-of-the-gate confidence that is as pleasantly surprising as fellow comedian turned auteur Jordan Peele’s.”

“Can’t Handle This” and how it directly led to Eighth Grade is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

A good place to start with this joke is three years before it, at the end of the What tour. How were you feeling about stand-up? What were you thinking in terms of a new show?
I was doing stand-up for a while and liked it. I had always been a nervous person and I had the first panic attack of my life doing my last show onstage in front of 800 people in Edinburgh. You know, just tunnel vision. I didn’t know what was happening. That just started to happen incrementally and I felt like I couldn’t do stand-up anymore. The finale to my last show, What, was like [“Can’t Handle This”], but I was pretending that the problem I had was other people’s perception of me, when the problem really was more personal than that. This felt like a way of saying the one thing I wasn’t being honest about onstage was that I was absolutely terrified of it.

At what point are you seeing Kanye …
I have always been a fan of him. He has an incredible approach to the theatricality of live performance and arena performance. It is a really economic use of monochromatic lighting. It’s all just really, really incredible. I directed Chris Rock’s last special and it really is just ripping off the Saint Pablo tour monochromatic, incandescent lighting.

So I saw the Yeezus tour, which was an incredible, incredible live show where he comes out in a jeweled mask and plays the entire first hour and a half of the concert without him letting you see his face, which is just so smart and incredibly brave and bold. And he would do this thing where he would stop everything for 15 minutes and Auto-Tune rant about Adidas and geopolitics. There was an amazing one in the United Center in Chicago where he was talking about the fact that they didn’t let Michael Jordan buy the Bulls. And the chorus that he kept doing was, “We should have never ever let MJ play for the Wizards.” It was just over and over again talking about how Michael Jordan shouldn’t have played for the Wizards. But I watched that thinking that even though the scope and paradigm and the value system he is talking in doesn’t match up to me, he is speaking his truth. So I thought, What if I spoke my truth? and the initial instance was like, “Okay, well, my truth is burritos and Pringles and something.” Like a lot of my stuff, I try to see if you can satirize the thing and give you the true heart of the thing as well. I am making fun of what he is doing by going, “Oh yeah, it’s burritos,” and what if this big thing was expressed with these banal, pedantic sort of grievances but then the second half turns into, “Well, actually, what am I worried about and what am I scared of?” And that’s in a lot of the things I do.

You are using the vocabulary of it to also then do the thing that it can do.
Exactly. That’s the whole form of the show. This show is going to make fun of what a spectacle is and also give you all of the “ooh ahh” moments that a spectacle gives you that make spectacles so fun.

The show ends with you saying “I hope you’re happy.” How did that line reading change each night?
That’s the thing. I don’t know if a lot of people have gotten that, but “I hope you’re happy” is supposed to be like, “I hoping you’re fucking happy. And, [genuine] “I hope you’re happy.” I think we ended up taking a take that skews more to the genuine, but the meaning is more, to me, “I hope you’re fucking happy.” Like, “There it is.” Again, I’m being dramatic. I’m being overdramatic. I’m connecting with young people that are overdramatic people.

[Someone in audience cheers]

Yeah, exactly! I have like a 15-year-old girl coming up to me after a show being like [fake crying] “It meant so much to me.” For a long time, I was told, “You just seem like a comedian for 13-year-old girls,” and after a while, I was like “Fuck yeah, I am” and I made that movie. I love it. I think I am. I’m the All-Time Low of comedians.

I was listening to an interview from around the time that this special was coming out, and it felt like this bit was directly leading to you saying “Oh, I’m going to continue this conversation by filming this movie about an eighth-grade girl.” It was part of one breath. Can you talk about how this joke in particular transitioned into Eighth Grade?
I felt like I had really exhausted myself as a subject, truly. I was so tired of my head, truly. I didn’t like expressing myself through myself anymore. I knew “Ugh, if I do another stand-up show I’m just gonna try to do this again. I have nothing more to say right now than what that show did.” And just because of my job, the only way that I was trying to explore this current cultural moment or whatever was from within a performer and like a D-list celebrity.

The real story of the internet is what my show is about a little bit. My stand-up is trying to describe this meta-anxiety you feel by being on the internet in a place where your self is atomized into a thousand different versions of you that are watching each other and taking inventory of each other. What was much more interesting was to watch someone that was not being paid attention to that doesn’t go viral. I wanted to make a movie about someone that’s living with the internet as a texture, someone that’s living with their anxiety untethered. You know, in the movie, she has a panic attack in a bathroom before going out to a pool party. It’s not backstage at the Beacon Theater, but it’s the same thing. That was the point.

If I’m being really, really honest about my feelings and my thoughts, they’re a little more vulnerable than I can be. I just wanted to drop the irony, drop the satire, drop the cynicism. Drop the “Ah, man, isn’t this moment so bullshit? Isn’t it so fucking stupid?” And go “Nah. Really I’m scared. I’m sad. My tummy hurts because of what’s going on.” Really! Because to satirize the internet is, at the end of the day, toothless. You know who satirized the internet? Geico, Old Spice. There’s a Donald Trump cartoon right now on Showtime. Like, what? Really? Like you’re making a cartoon of him? Good luck. What kind of angle is that? So, I wanted to do something smaller, more granular, more emotional. Less written.

What is it about a 13-year-old is the best way to tell your story?
It had to be a 13-year-old girl. The internet makes 13-year-olds of us all. We all act like, I think, 13-year-olds. And kids really feel the internet in their bones. They don’t even see it as this other thing that people on CNN will talk about when they talk about, like, “Are hashtags ruining our youth?”

So I watched hundreds of videos of kids talking about themselves online. The boys talked about Minecraft, the girls talked about their souls, so it was like, “Okay, it’s kinda just gonna be a girl.” The movie about a boy would just be like 90 minutes of Fortnite references. But also, I wanted to try to tell a story about being young now that was not nostalgic, was not a projection of my own experience, so it being a girl forced me to not project my own experience on her.

The real truth is, I would perform my show and I would meet kids after and young girls would come up to me and they understood what I was expressing in that bit onstage way more than guys my own age. Way more. So if there was a bridge between us that I had to cross to write the movie, it was built to me by them. I felt understood by them before I presumed to understand them. I think it has something to do with a certain flavor of anxiety that’s maybe more particular culturally to young girls than it is young boys or by women in general. I know the anxiety that I have is shared by my mother and sister and not really the men in my family.

You hold the camera on Kayla even in moments where she doesn’t want anyone to look at her. Can you talk about that decision? Because to see a person when they don’t wanna be seen is a powerful thing to show on a big screen.
It’s sort of similar to the show in a way, where the medium itself is almost the enemy of the thing. The anxiety of the movie is almost like, “The movie of my life sucks. If anyone were to be watching me right now, they would think I was really lame.” She wants to sound like all the young girls in movies that are perfectly articulate about their experience. She would love to edit her way through her life. She would love the tools of moviemaking to get away from herself. But she can’t.

That was sort of the challenge of the movie: How do you make a movie about a generation that self-documents, that has such an intimate relationship with the viewed image? I don’t know. There’s that old thing that when photos first showed up, people thought it took a bit of your soul. I think that’s true. We have to wrestle with portraying this very meta, strange, layered thing, that even knowing it, the internet, almost robs us of our ability to articulate it. You see older people thinking the internet is so uncinematic or so un-portrayable, but it means something to us, I think, neurochemically.

You came up doing theater, you did stand-up, you made a TV show. What is it about film? What is it about how audiences consume movies that make it a good medium for you?
Yeah, a theater. That’s a huge part of it. People are saying movies are being replaced by TV, but I think the more we are plugged in, the more urgent it is that we have cultural space where it’s required to put your phone down. It’s hilarious that the only place where we are required to put our phone down is when we look at a bigger screen. I do think the size of your phone screen is actually what makes you feel the way you do about the things on it. You’re just domineering over these stupid fucking people on your phone. Clearly. Like, of course. Look at this little bullshit. Look at my stupid friends. You’ll scroll through your phone and in no particular order, you will see your mother, the president, Jiffy Lube, but all existing in the same tiny, awful space. On television, it’s great, but it’s also just like it was embedded in your living room. To be smaller than a screen, to be subjected before an image is very, very powerful.

It’s not life-size, right? People will be bigger than you are.
Having it happen there and for it to be a 13-year-old girl — “Oh, that should be a television thing.” No, she should be 30 feet tall. Her experience is bigger than you and you should be able to sit back and humble yourself before her because her interior life is as big as anybody’s. Why can’t an epic story about the human condition be about a girl walking into a pool party instead of some fucking poet in a cabin in the woods or some guy with a sword?

What is the likelihood of you doing stand-up again?
I don’t know. I’ve been performing a little bit here and there, like five minutes in L.A. I have a couple songs. But I don’t know what they’d become. My big thing is like “Oh, maybe in my 30s I’ll do a musical, like a stage musical.”

Let’s say you don’t do stand-up again or you do it here and there or it takes ten years. How do you feel that this is essentially, for most people, the last they’ll be seeing you perform for a while?
Whatever. Whatever. Truly, the answer to that, if I have to take that question on its own terms is: Happy. I feel good about that. I feel like it’s a good one. The real answer is thinking about myself in those terms has led me to nowhere but unhappiness and anxiety — to think of myself in terms of my career and how I am seen is a bottomless pit of nothing for me. It leads absolutely nowhere. I don’t care about my body of work. I don’t care about having some oeuvre. Really, I don’t care about having a consistent body of work. The only thing that gives me enjoyment is the current pursuit of whatever I’m doing. The sort of careerist floating over myself, I’m never gonna be happy with that. I don’t think anyone would be happy with that. I don’t think that leads to anything good. So, like, whatever. Truly.

How Bo Burnham’s Artistic Breakthrough Started With Kanye