joke writing

How Bo Burnham Is Deconstructing the Idea of ‘Truth in Comedy’

Bo Burnham Special
Bo Burnham Special Photo: KC Bailey/Netflix

Twenty minutes into his third stand-up special, Make Happy, which premiered on Netflix last Friday, 25-year-old stand-up and former YouTube sensation Bo Burnham says he wants to get better at improvising, since most of his stage show is planned down to the sound cue and gesture (cue a finger-gun and a boing-oing-oing noise). So he asks an audience member his name — it’s Rob — and says he’ll make up a song on the spot about him. Burnham then sings along to a prerecorded track, where the vocal goes, “Bo had sex with [pause]’s mom,” allowing him to say “Rob” in the pause. Goofy as hell, the audience loves it.

Then, the joke Burnham tells next is the sharpest and ironically most honest one in the entire show:

“I’m not honest for a second up here. Honesty’s for the birds, baby. You want to see an honest comedian, go see the rest of them, alright? [In a stand-up comedian voice] ‘This thing actually happened.’ [Sarcastically] Cool.

Much of Burnham’s comedy is dedicated to critiquing performance and comedy, and here he takes aim at modern comedy’s most prized attribute: “truth.” The idea of “truth in comedy” has been an expression dating back to at least the release of Charna Halpern and Del Close’s longform improv bible in 1994, but it has been an asset for much longer. When people – like Vulture writers – laud Richard Pryor, it’s because he was “unflinchingly honest.” Burnham, however, isn’t making fun of Halpern or Pryor; he is making fun of modern comedy’s fetishization of honesty. That goes back to Louis C.K. — specifically, the narrative of how Louis C.K. became Louis C.K.

Early in his career, C.K. was an “unsuccessful” absurdist. Once he started talking about his darkest thoughts and feelings — in his 2005 HBO One Night Stand half-hour and especially his 2006 HBO special Shameless — he achieved incredible critical and commercial success. The result is that now, if you’re a comedian, you’re doing it wrong if you’re not talking about the saddest time you masturbated. I have no issue with C.K. or comedians who believe this is who they are as comedians (also, I should note that C.K. himself has never asserted this standard), but confessional comedy is to the second comedy boom what observational comedy was to the first.

Around the same time as C.K. was getting more personal, Burnham was 16 and posting his first YouTube video, “My Whole Family,” the quickly viral, clunky comedy song about how his family thinks he’s gay. As Burnham has grown as a comedian since then (and boy has he!), his comedy has become more honest, even if it’s not more “honest,” as the word is most commonly used in comedy. Burnham is an absurdist and, because he’s been a professional comedian since he was 16, what he finds most absurd is performance. I can’t think of any stand-up who talks more and makes as many jokes about the fact that he’s doing stand-up in his stand-up. After singing a verse from a song about how women have unrealistic expectations of their partners, for example, he says, “Now, the good thing is that at least men have realistic expectations for women, he said sarcastically setting up a second verse in a comedy song.”

No one has ever said, “Steve Martin was a pretty good comedian but what would’ve made him really big was if he told more personal stories.” That’s because Martin’s silliness and form invention were incredibly truthful to who he was as an artist. Comedy can be honest to the person’s worldview without being confessional. Burnham is a Martin descendant; just as Martin parodied the schlockiness of performance, Burnham mocks the self-seriousness of truth-tellers. The goal for both is similar: fighting homogeneity in comedy.

Make Happy isn’t a perfect stand-up special. There are some bits (especially the musical parodies) that feel a bit cheap, and there’s a moving, yet not particularly comedically focused, Kanye-inspired grand finale. But it is distinct, it is ambitious, and it is undeniably honest.

Bo Burnham Is Deconstructing ‘Truth in Comedy’