By: Joel DiMambro
The late and great Robin Williams once said, “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy. Because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless, and they don’t want anybody else to feel like that.” For years I’ve followed the comedic and musical skills of Bo Burnham through YouTube, movies, television, and Netflix. He got his start making YouTube videos in his bedroom right here in Massachusetts, and has risen to a commonly known comedian around the world. His satirical and introspective pieces of music put listeners (and viewers) through a whirlwind of emotions, and that is exactly what he is trying to do. I am going to focus on his two most recent comedy specials, titled “What” and “Make Happy.” In these specials, Bo takes some time to present what is going on in his head, and usually puts it into a piece of music. His intelligence, creativity, and comedic abilities have intrigued me for years, and I feel a connection to him through them. After watching both specials another couple of times through and focusing on the “deeper” songs, I understood the problems Bo is going through, and felt as though I could relate. Bo is able to relate to so many songs and jokes to other people because he points out everyone’s flaws. From mainstream media to high school parties, Burnham creates jokes that everyone understands and finds amusing.
One of the first introspective pieces of music Bo Burnham wrote and performed on his special, “What” was titled “Left Brain, Right Brain.” This song explores the depths of Bo’s brain, appropriately separating the left and the right sides of the brain into two separate people (both being Bo, obviously).
His left brain is described as objective, logical, cold and analytical. The left brain comports himself with a more serious style of song through the lyrics and background music. On the other hand, the right brain is described as subjective, creative, emotional, and overall an idiot. This side gives the song a happier atmosphere with Bo acting like the immature comedic kid he wishes he always was. Throughout the song Bo sings about the issues between the two sides of his brain, as they don’t get along. One of the lines that sticks out to me when listening to the song is the emotional right brain telling the left brain “I hope you’re happy, because he’s not.” The left brain eventually retaliates and blames the right brain for this happening because he controls the emotions. He wants both sides of the brain to make him happy again, or as he says in the song, to “fix” him. Fixing his brain in this sense relates to famously known comics suffering depression problems including Robin Williams and Jim Carrey. Comedy is the happy medium for these suffering comedians to work on to give them a false sense of hope. “Left Brain, Right Brain” demonstrates Bo letting audiences know, this is what is going on inside his head. His different styles of thinking are always clashing and creating an unhappy environment for Bo to live through.
Next up is the finale of “What,” an extremely unique mashup of fictional characters talking to Bo titled “We Think We Know You.” This song consists of three different people’s conversations, two being people that claim they knew Bo in highschool, and one agent from Hollywood.
The girl who claims to know him asks for him to play some music at her party, and acts like they used to be best friends even after admitting they barely knew each other. The agent from Hollywood tells Bo to make music about more common things, the epitome of what Burnham hates about celebrities. The last conversation is a cocky, ignorant man who refers to Bo as a “fag” and tells him how weird he is, and was back in the day. The conversations are eventually mashed together to form the overall point he wants to get across; we think we know you. Although this might contradict everything I’m trying to say in this piece of writing, Bo is trying to get the point across that nobody knows him like he does. People may act like they can speak for him and give him suggestions, but that all means nothing. This song is one of the best in the special because of it’s creativity and the message it sends.
Bo starts to get deeper into his issues through song in his most recent special “Make Happy.” The finale of “Make Happy” was a parody of Kanye West’s style of music, titled “Can’t Handle This.” The first four minutes of the song are mainly comedy, as he sets up the auto tuned rant.
Bo then starts singing about how his comedy is made to please the audience and give them the night out they deserve. One of the important lines he uses while referring to his fans was, “My biggest problem is you, part of me loves you, part of me hates you, part of me needs you, part of me fears you.” The mixed bag of emotions is exactly what is tearing Bo apart inside. He wants to make everyone happy, but that is very difficult when he cannot give happiness to himself. The line that probably hit me the hardest was, “Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he can not give himself.” Here is one of the first times where outside of a joke, Burnham refers to his struggling mental health issues. The title of the song “Can’t Handle This” describes exactly what Bo is going through when writing these songs and performing for audiences that don’t know the truth about him.
Last but certainly not least is the hidden song found after the special “Make Happy” is over. We are brought to a small room which looks to be backstage, with just Bo and a piano of course. The mood at this point of the comedy special is nowhere near comedic after listening to “Can’t Handle This,”and the upcoming song does not help that mood at all.
Throughout his career, Bo has stayed away from serious toned songs with a few exceptions. His last song “Are You Happy?” is quite honestly his only song that may put some tears on your face, with some lyrics about his mental health issues, and how he is taking a break from comedy. Burnham refers to himself as everything he hated, even after the money and success he has gained over the years. Clearly for Bo, money really can not buy happiness. I think that this song was a huge reality check for all of his supporters that may not have realized how serious his problems were. It makes you realize that comedians are not just high powered machines created to make us laugh just for entertainment, but they are people too. They need personal space from their audiences, and in this day in age, they don’t seem to get it. Social media outlets like Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, etc. are allowing fans to practically live through the daily lives of celebrities they love, and the idea of this angers Bo Burnham. For years he has been ripping mainstream media for its representation of celebrities and other icons for the minimal work they have done. I think these ideas have a lot to do with Bo’s struggle with mental health.
Burnham was quoted in an interview with the New York Times stating he is going to take a very long break from comedy to focus on writing. As much as that kills me to see, I still love the idea of it. His creativity and wittiness will be phenomenally displayed in whatever he chooses to do with it. So to answer your question Mr. Burnham; No, I’m not particularly happy, I relate to this feeling of only doing things to make others happy, without achieving it for yourself originally. I wish the best for you, Bo Burnham on whatever you may stumble upon searching for happiness.