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Burnham aims for witty humor

Photo courtesy of Comedy Central

“I never know what to do when I’m home. I play piano. I work. I eat. But once in a while, I will be stuck in the tar pits of boredom. Like I am now. So why not write?” comedian Bo Burnham said.

He got his start in comedy back in 2008 when a few videos he posted on YouTube went viral. He writes quirky songs about love, math, irony and sometimes Helen Keller. His wit combined with his allusions to historical events led to him being the youngest comedian to have his own special on Comedy Central. He is now on the Bo Burnham and (No) Friends Tour, which will come to Capitol Theatre on Dec. 5. He took time to discuss his own start in comedy and views on the industry.

 Did you always want to be a comedian, or was this purely accidental? How did YouTube play a role in it?

The online thing was accidental, but I did always want to be a comedian. It’s just weird that this was how I became one.

How much of your personal life do you insert in your jokes? How much of what you say do you actually believe?

I would say zero to 5 percent … at least on the surface; some comedians just stand up and talk about their life and their wife and their kid, and I thought it would be fun to do sorta silly, sarcastic, backhanded, ridiculous things. So I try to never go after personal experience. There are some moments of poignancy that I actually believe, but for the most part they’re just jokes, and I sacrifice reality for that.

How did your parents react to the Catholic/abortion clinic jokes?

My parents are actually pretty progressive. I went to a Catholic school, but they’re not really Catholic. They’re cool with it. I try to get away from all that intensive stuff anyway. Not because I don’t like offensive stuff, but I think they’re cheap and easy and I didn’t want to be making easy jokes. Just shocking people into laughter, that’s an easy thing to do. But my parents have always been very supportive of me.

How do you come up with your material? How do you get inspired for your material?

It’s very rarely based on real life. Some comedians are very right-brained; they see stuff and it inspires them. But I’m very left brain; I sit down and write jokes. For me, it’s a lot more systematic. It’s not like seeing something and being inspired by it or an idea. It’s usually sitting down and writing words and breaking down words. It’s much more mathematical than the way most comedians write.

A lot of your jokes are really smart and complicated, so most people will have to Google some things to understand them. Does that affect how you write at all? Have you ever had to try to dumb something down?

No, because usually if it’s formulated like that, it’s maybe 50 jokes in two minutes, so even if people understood five, it’s fine. I mean, I would probably only get 10 of those if I listened to those once, and that’s fine because that’s enough jokes to get for one listening. I do that just so that it’s fun to listen to them multiple times and figure out different jokes. I don’t ever want my show to be some impossible cryptic puzzle that no one can decipher, but I like putting those little complicated things, like little nuances that you won’t find until you’ve listened to it a few times.

What, if anything, do you hope to achieve with your comedy?

I’m definitely not trying to change the world or specific issues. I don’t want to be a preacher or anything, but I do think that I want to maybe just challenge things. I think, hopefully, by making smart, cool comedy, I can inspire younger kids to be smart and cool rather than try to emulate the stupid stuff in entertainment. Not everyone wants to be the cast of “Jersey Shore.” If they watch my act, they might want to do something different. It’s not just about making people laugh. It’s more like I want to make something that’s cool and maybe be to younger kids what all the older comics that I look up to were for me.


Excluding (George) Carlin, who is your absolute favorite comedian?

Steve Martin. A lot of people my age know Steve Martin as the “Cheaper by the Dozen” guy, but he was one of the greatest comedians ever, and he is definitely the one that if I look at my act now, I think I’m most trying to emulate. The person that has the biggest influence on my act is him. Him or Tim (Minchin). Tim in a musical sense, and Steve’s comedy.

How do you think your comedy has grown over the years? How do you feel about the change?

I’m definitely happy with the way it’s changed. When I was younger, I was a little dirty kid who was writing songs. “Ooh I’m so young and I’m saying these things, how funny is that?” And it worked, but it was a bit of a gimmick, a bit of a novelty. I think I’ve changed the act by becoming a little less tacky musically and by finding my own voice in poetry and standup. I think my act has changed for the better. I think it’s become less cheap and more original and more like me rather than the comedians I was trying to be like. Like Stephen Lynch or something.

What’s being on tour like? Do you get to go out and actually see the cities you visit?

More now. I did a tour last year and I was on a plane the whole time, but now that I’m on a bus, I have more time.

What do you think about the fame? Do you get recognized now?

I would never consider myself famous. I do these shows and people come to my shows and that’s cool, but in real life there is no difference. I go to the movies and everything. There is no fame! I really don’t like all that stuff. It just seems weird.

Any advice for comics that are new to the business?

Yeah. Well, I have no advice on how to become successful because I just got really lucky, but as far as becoming a good comic, I would say you need to research comedy as much as you can, watch as much comedy as you can, find out your favorite comics, and then find out why your favorite comics are funny or how they’re funny. What specifically are they doing that’s so funny? And when you understand how comedy works, it can help you write much better. Because there is no comedy school. Architects go to school for it, every other job you go to school, even actors go to acting school. There is nothing really like that for comedy, and I wouldn’t really recommend comedy classes because you would really have to teach yourself by researching. I would say research then write as much as you can. That’s how I did it anyway.

What new things are you working on right now?

I’m working on a new hour of comedy and this tour. I’m also working on a pilot with MTV that might happen soon.

What do you think goes through people’s minds who get offended at jokes? Where do you stand on “getting offended?”

I can’t speak for anybody else, but I think there are so many bigger issues in the world than a joke. But I don’t ever get angry at a person who might have gotten offended. It’s their right to feel that way. I never try to offend people. The only thing I try to challenge are ideas that I think are wrong, like thinking that God doesn’t like gay people. I don’t want to offend people just for the sake of offending them. I think it’s good to offend people to get them to change their minds.

Do you think comedians can get “inspirations” from other comedians, or is it just stealing jokes?

I think every comedian gets inspired by other comedians, just like every musician is inspired by past musicians. I get inspired by comedians who are contemporary, like people whom I work with. I get inspired by them all the time. Joke stealing I think is very overused. I mean, in the age of Internet, everyone is pretty sure that if you steal a joke, everyone’s going to find out. I believe in parallel thought. I think it’s very important to be influenced by the thoughts of other comedians.

So I’m sure you’ve been asked who your favorite comedians are before, but who are your least fa
vorite comedians? (not counting Dane Cook and Carlos Mencia)

The Dane Cook hate train is kinda ridiculous because Dane Cook introduced an entire generation to new comedians, and the reason that all of us comedians, that all of our albums are even selling, is because of Dane Cook. He is definitely not as bad as people paint him. What are the odds that everyone’s least favorite comedian is the most successful comedian? You know what I mean? That has to be jealousy. My least favorite comedian’s probably some hacky road comic performing at a s—– club every night. I try not to hate on successful comedians. Don’t judge lest ye be judged.


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