Preview: Bo Burnham, comedian
By Tim Cornwell
BO Burnham wrote his first joke in fifth grade, aged about 10. "It was, a teacher walks up to a student and says hey, how do you spell calculator? He goes C-A-L, see you later. That's when I peaked."
At 16, he recorded videos of himself singing comic songs at a piano, between rehearsals for plays at his Catholic high school in Massachusetts. At 18, he had 45 million hits on YouTube; now, it's 65. He turned 20 this festival, where he's making his Fringe debut, but has leapt into contention for the main prize of Best Show at the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Awards, announced today.
On stage, Bo Burnham is a scrawny, edgy, irritating kid in what used to be called gym shoes. In person, he is a lanky six foot six and looms over you, but he is still disarmingly young. He lives at home, dates a girl from a nearby suburban town and says "awesome" a lot. OK, he's just submitted a film script commissioned by comedy producer Judd Apatow, an alternative, R-rated High School Musical, but he's doing it with a high school friend, Luke Liacos. "He's like, just my best friend from high school. Then I found out in my senior year he had wanted for ages to be a screenwriter. We both are pretty amateur. I'm writing the songs, and he's co-writing the script."
"I'm not big in the States at all. I am completely anonymous in the States, really. I don't sell theatres. I can do college shows in theatres, but that's because they are free tickets in college. I sell maybe 300 in any place. I've been blown up to be something, everyone wants to make you into some big star. Sixty-five million hits does not translate." On Comedy Central, he said, he has done one half-hour special, like scores of other comedians, though his CDs and DVDs produced by them have sold tens of thousands. "I'm not like struggling, but I'm not a star or anything like that."
The last time Burnham's name cropped up in Britain was when he came to the Leicester Square Theatre in 2008. His first hit song, My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay, had exploded two years before, but the four-night gig fell flat, he said. Now he's a Fringe phenomenon; his sell-out audiences have gone from being packed with teenage Americans who know some of his numbers by heart to being packed with the more 20-something Fringe crowd, to whom he is new material.
A teen fan wanted to know what Burnham would be if he was an animal. "I think I'd be a sloth. It wouldn't take much change of behaviour. It wouldn't be much of a transition." His Edinburgh routine? "Sleep, get up, work, try to find food, do a show. I actually love, I have to endorse this thing, Firewood Pizza, in the Cow Pasture. One of the bouncers stops me, and wants to check my ID. Then this guy comes out going, 'he's good, he's good". He's had enough drink to "last till he's 21", the legal age in much of the US.
Burnham's acid songs and act have no fat, from the opening What's Funny? to Art is Dead, there's not a word spare, and more than once he achieves laughs by chopping them off. If it's running too long, he'll slip out one of the oldest songs in it, Love Is. He'll find his character varies, he said, but the words hardly do. What about improv stand-up? "I can...I can...I can. But it's not enough to risk here. It's something I like to work on. In Australia, I would interact with the crowd. If there's a heckler on my show I can put them down. I want to put on an awesome hour here, and if I experiment, I experiment in a cool risky way, not in a self-indulgent, let's figure-out-how-to-do-crowd-work way."
Mid-way through the first time I saw Burnham's show, a man walked out, across the stage. "Where you going?" he called out. "Home, motherf**ker," the punter - now out of the door - shouted. "Well you paid, so I won," Burnham said, and that was it. Almost the only contribution, the second time, came from an older man, perhaps with his teenage kids, in the front row. "You da man," he said, awestruck. Other interjections get a look, or a head shake. Burnham says he doesn't want to risk breaking out of his self-contained persona, be normal and nice.
The length of work on his songs, the heart of his show, vary. He wrote Art is Dead in a few days. Its three-year-old, attention seeking kid, is a reflection of himself - he was doing "Bo Shows" aged three. "The ones that are like dense jokes, I could work on a month, just throwing the lines in." He's got about 20 in total.
Burnham counts himself as a European or Australian style comic; he came here to learn, he says, how to do a show and control the audience. He's been, among others, to Two Episodes of Mash, "they were so awesome", Gareth Richards, "he was great", Tim Vine, "inspired me to write better jokes", Hans Teeuwen "inspired me to be fearless". "I honestly, honestly haven't seen a bad show." As Burnham turns 20, will he lose the prodigy's shine? It seems highly unlikely; his act already reads as if he has the experience of someone 20 years older. "For me, being happy is liking what I do, and that means doing new stuff and challenging myself."
He developed as a comic from watching and re-watching those who inspired him, from George Carlin and Steve Martin to Bill Bailey and Tim Minchin. "I'm a very left-brain person. I tell everyone I have overcome nothing to get where I am. I had incredible parents that patted me on the back from day one, saying you can do this. I just studied and listened to comedy albums non-stop, and sung comedy, and broke down and figured out why things were funny, and then calculated how to do that, and wrote jokes. It's not theory at all. "
Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words is at the Pleasance Dome, 9:35pm, until tomorrow