Hamilton native, musician, and comic Bo Burnham turns a sense of humor and a knack for performing into a prolific career-all at the tender age of 20. By Beth Daigle
If you like a good laugh, look no further than Hamilton’s own Bo Burnham. Born Robert Burnham in August of 1990, Bo has taken his inherent talent to perform, along with a weekend passion for crafting clever online videos, and turned them into a satirically raw and successful comedic career.
Now, at just 20 years old, Burnham’s irreverent style and at times politically incorrect humor has landed him two comedy CDs: his first self-titled, “Bo Burnham,” followed by “Words Words Words”; an appearance on E! Television’s “The Soup”; his 2010 nationwide “Bo Burnham and (No) Friends” tour; and the honor of being the youngest person ever to record a Comedy Central special at the age of 18.
It began with a series of YouTube videos created on a whim in 2006. The clips swiftly gained viral popularity, eventually leading to Burnham’s discovery by Comedy Central. Bo’s success can be attributed, in large part, to the multi-talented nature of his work; however, he also recognizes the element of good fortune involved. “I appreciate the fact that I am living a fake life,” he says. “I understand how spoiled I am.”
BurnhamÂ grew up in Hamilton,Â son of Patricia and Scott Burnham and younger brother to Pete and Samm. He considers his upbringing rather typical, having enjoyed sports and theatre and attended St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers.Â He views his childhood experience as safe and happy. “I tell people that I have overcome nothing to get to where I am,” says Burnham. “A lot of people say that comedy comes from pain and that it is all about overcoming stuff, but that really couldn’t be farther from the truth for me.”
Burnham ‘s attraction to stand-up comedy surfaced with the realization that it was truly an unfiltered way to perform. “I think that stand-up is one of the most pure kinds of art forms,” he says. The idea of comedy without rules is so appealing because there really are no rules to stand-up comedy other than “to stay on the stage and be funny.”Â He is inspired by the classic comedy of Steve Martin and George Carlin; Martin because he was fearless, and Carlin because he shared Burnham’s fascination with words. “I am a very left-brain comic,” he says. “I’ve always been into math and breaking down words.”
Burnham’s humor is unquestionably quick-witted and edgy, covering topics like race, sex, and homosexuality.Â He takes a no-holds-barred approach to addressing issues in the mainstream media. Some might say that his stage persona comes off as arrogant, but Burnham is unfazed by these opinions. If a joke falls flat, Burnham is either moving so quickly through his jokes that it goes unnoticed, or he cleverly incorporates the miss into his routine.
Intellectually charged humor, coupled with broad musical and theatrical skills, fuels Burnham’s unique brand of comedy. He chooses not to be boxed in with manufactured limitations that suggest comedians wear a suit or open with their best joke and considers claims that his material is offensive to be ridiculous. “I may be saying crude words,” he says, “but the stances taken at the end of the day are correct.” BurnhamÂ has received some backlash in his time, but doesn’t concern himself with that. “The hard part with trying to satirize things,” he says, “is that you have to walk a really thin line.” Overall, however, the feedback has been pretty positive: “I’ve been lucky. People seem to enjoy it.”
Fellow St. John’s Prep student Ryan McGillivray was one year behind Burnham in school but met him while together participating in the St. John’s Prep Drama Guild. McGillivray is not at all surprised by Burnham’s success. He believes Burnham’s versatility and ability to make any character his own has fed his growing popularity. “He always stood out far more than any other performer I’ve seen,” says McGillivray. In the many rehearsals and shows in which McGillivray has seen Burnham perform, including a recent live performance, he felt that Burnham had a striking ability to take control of the stage in an extremely entertaining way. “Between his clever remarks and comical personality,” says McGillivray, “he always knew how to cast himself in a way that captivated his audience. He used his witty musical talents and dramatic charisma to engage the audience.”
Making his act feel more theatrical and more like a one-man show is a goal that Burnham continues to pursue. He strives to incorporate many layers of entertainment into his routine, including music, song, stand-up, and poetry. Experimenting with voice-overs, backing tracks, and lighting changes will take his comedy to even higher levels. On a trip to the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, Burnham learned that comedy could be more of a production and was inspired by what he saw.
By his own admission, Burnham’s act can be a little disorienting and intentionally “all over the place.”Â He challenges himself to make a joke out of anything, be it Shakespeare or quantum mechanics.Â “I pick a topic and work backwards to determine where I can get my jokes from there-I am not trying to change the world or make a statement with my comedy,” he says.
Over the past four years, the pace for Burnham has been fast and furious, and while he recognizes the hard work he has put in to it, he considers himself fortunate to be doing something he enjoys. “I am really happy,” he says, “not stressed or tired.” The toughest part, he admits, has been watching his friends go off to college while he prepares to make audiences laugh, all the while staying at the likes of a Ramada Inn in South Dakota or some other far-away location. Additionally, he misses the collaboration that theatre afforded him. Stand-up is very individualistic and the input of others is often minimized.
Despite his musical abilities, which are showcased in his videos to include piano, guitar, and vocals that slant toward well-developed rap numbers, Burnham does not have specific musical ambitions. Rather, he would like to pursue acting and continue writing. In fact, he is working on a pilot with MTV for which he is set to write and take a starring role. Regarding his desire to write, Burnham says, “In doing all this comedy, I have learned a lot about how to write. Even if this were to end tomorrow, I wouldn’t feel like I have wasted my time.”
The future remains unwritten for Burnham-he doesn’t really have a five-year plan. He is excited for his upcoming tour and says that his audiences can look forward to a “pretty cool opening number.” His immediate plan is to keep his head down and make his material as good as possible, understanding that comedy is not a world in which you should settle down or be content. Conversely, he doesn’t get too caught up in the specifics because, he says, “The specifics are really so out of your hands.”
Bo Knows Bo
Favorite current-day comic: Aziz Ansari. “He’s awesome; he deserves every bit of success he gets.” Most memorable act: George Carlin’s “Last Words.” “Most epic comedy bit of all time.” Where would you like to perform? Orpheum Theatre, Boston. Topics to explore in the future: Love songs. What makes you nervous? Live broadcasts. What impresses you? People going about their everyday life not looking for anything. Favorite personal live performance: House of Blues, Boston, taping his Comedy Central special. If you weren’t doing comedy, what would you be doing? “I would write or open a little theatre.”