Bo Burnham is a comedian-turned-filmmaker who first found fame self-publishing bedroom performances to YouTube. He recently explored that personal experience by writing and directing his debut film, “Eighth Grade.” American Masters Podcast co-producer Josh Hamilton acted in the film, and speaks with Burnham about identity, coming of age in the era of social media and more in a wide-ranging conversation. You’ll also hear from one of Burnham’s comic inspirations, George Carlin, in an exclusive outtake from the PBS series Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America (2009).
Josh Hamilton: Bo Burnham first found fame putting his own videos onto YouTube and has managed to turn that into an explosive career in comedy, TV, and film. His approach to standup is theatrical, frenetic, self-aware… Think Steve Martin spun in a post-internet musical blender.
Joe Skinner: But recently Bo’s taken a break from comedy to write and direct his first feature film, Eighth Grade. It’s an introspective and clear-eyed look at the many anxieties that today’s youth face, and Josh was great in it, he also got to act in the film.
Josh Hamilton: Oh thanks Joe. Yes, I, yes… That compliment threw me.
Joe Skinner: How did it feel to go from working with him on set to having him in a podcast booth?
Josh Hamilton: It was great to have the chance to ask him some questions. I wasn’t familiar with him before we made the movie, and I had a lot of questions as I got to know his earlier work more, but when we were shooting we were pretty much consumed with talking about the film and I was very grateful to get the chance to grill him.
Joe Skinner: Well it was great to be able to see this conversation between you and this clearly master in the making. Here it goes.
Josh Hamilton: Hey Bo!
Bo Burnham: Hi Josh. How are you?
Josh Hamilton: I’m great, how are you?
Bo Burnham: I’m really good.
Josh Hamilton: Just to sort of set the scene you originally became known to people outside of your family and small circle of friends by posting videos on YouTube. Is that correct?
Bo Burnham: Yes.
Josh Hamilton: So I just was wondering do you remember before YouTube existed? And do you remember sort of realizing or at what point do you realize that there was this delivery system in your bedroom?
Bo Burnham: Oh yeah.
Josh Hamilton: I mean was that a tangible moment?
Bo Burnham: Yes like a specific conversation too because it was 2006. And I was in my high school theater program writing like little funny songs on the upright piano backstage, just playing them for my friends. And I told a friend I want to show this to my brother who was at college at the time and he said there’s this site called YouTube where you can post videos and share them and I was like…What? And when I say that I sound like, “And then I bought a hamburger for a nickel.” I mean it sounds like I can’t believe it’s 12 years ago and like we didn’t actually know what this thing was. And that happens so much in the culture right now where there are these things that are just such cultural standards that we can’t believe… were actually new words.
Josh Hamilton: Mine was MTV. I remember the summer when someone said hey there’s a channel that’s showing music videos all the time I was like no way, I cannot believe it.
Bo Burnham: And I don’t think I ever knew MTV as that. I mean I guess I had a little bit of that but I knew MTV as like Jackass and like those television shows that’s what I knew MTV as. So that was yeah 2006. I recorded the video, posted it… I don’t remember the timeline because like I’ve had to remember it so much, but I think it was like I do remember like I post these videos like they were little like funny song things they got like 6000 views. And those were all local. So those were all like spread from my high school to another high school.
Josh Hamilton: Friends of friends.
Bo Burnham: And I remember going to like a basketball game and like the other team kids that were in the stands for the other team had seen that and knew who I was and I was like oh woah this is very very strange. And then it was posted on the site Break.com which was this weird like Bro-humor site that would every day post 7 things to an already built-in audience of like a million people or whatever. And that’s when the first viral thing happened. It got 250,000 or something views in a day.
Josh Hamilton: What did that feel like?
Bo Burnham: I printed out the comments! I printed out the comments, which is like the most hilarious, like lame and also analog thing to do. And also like the internet comments like half of them were things you would never want to print out about yourself, just completely vitriolic and horrible. But it was just very exciting to me. The funny thing is I’ve been known as I should as this YouTube comedian for a while. I posted 14 videos.
Josh Hamilton: That was it?
Bo Burnham: Yeah that was that was it. And then all the videos past that are videos of me you know – promoting – you know posting trailers for a special or something. But the videos were like 14 songs or something or bits posted in these sort of like two to three bit chunks. And the sort of like the eras of my YouTube experience are like the t-shirts I was wearing.
Josh Hamilton: Were there are other videos online already that influenced you or did you feel like you were really just experimenting on your own?
Bo Burnham: Well there were comedians. There was like this musical comedian Stephen Lynch who I really loved at the time. Flight of the Conchords I had discovered around that time and loved and like there are just like straight songs that like I’m just biting completely their entire gag. Tim Minchin I discovered as well, who was an incredible Australian musical comedian wrote Matilda. And Bill Bailey, he’s another British musical comedian. Old Steve Martin. But yeah, at 16, 17, 18, you know, it’s quite a time to be immortalized. You know let alone for at this point, it’s 20 million views for the, you know, the second thing I ever wrote.
Josh Hamilton: Well yeah and that’s such a… obviously fame and celebrity is something that you seem to address or wrestle with in almost every aspect of your work. I mean you seem to take the role of having an audience very seriously and as a responsibility. I mean how do you feel about yourself in the role of a comedian in terms of someone who speaks truth to power in society? Or would you not put that kind of pressure on yourself?
Bo Burnham: It’s so strange. I mean because it’s like so hard to have this conversation because I’ve had to try to talk to these points and it’s a subject that’s being so interrogated like week to week right now you know? And like, it’s been it’s been a great time to have quit comedy like I did. It’s been very funny to watch from the sidelines as like comedy is being torn down and I’m just like smoking a pipe like waving at my former friends as they like sink to the bottom of the earth, as they probably should. I’ve always just engaged with it because it’s to me it was the first thing that presented itself to me. It was the thing I could never get past to be honest about the other stuff. It’s like everyone says in comedy you’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to talk about what you’re going through, you got to dig deep and be honest. And I’m like, okay! And I get on stage and be like I’m on stage. You’re all staring at me. This is weird. What is happening? You know I could never get past what was happening to be honest about my dad or whatever you know.
Josh Hamilton: People think that’s meta but actually it’s like exactly what’s happening.
Bo Burnham: It’s literal to me. It’s like it would be meta to divorce myself from what’s happening and then try to like talk about you know parking meters. But the so that’s at least where it started was that I just had a personal fixation on it because it was what was presenting itself to me. And then why I feel like I’ve continued with it is because it resonated with the audiences that I was performing for particularly the young people it was this weird thing that I like totally backed into. I wasn’t intentionally doing this.
Josh Hamilton: Being a stand-up you mean or?
Bo Burnham: No to well yes but separately I didn’t intend to talk about celebrity and attention and an audience as a metaphor for what this generation is going through with the Internet and social media. But I found out that that’s what was happening. You know I would get on stage and talk about or you know it started in my late teens early 20s when I actually started to do, I went from YouTube videos to actually performing live because that’s what I wanted to do.
Josh Hamilton: right.
Bo Burnham: And started instead of posting little videos. Building hour-long live shows which really needs to have a narrative and some sort of meaning to them for me. And in that process started to engage with this stuff and would talk about my problems. Which my problems were, I was at that time 21 or 23 or a 25 year old comedian with an audience with anxiety struggling with being onstage, struggling with managing you know people’s expectations of myself. The sort of proper noun version of my own name that you kind of get when you become you know an actor or a writer or something there’s like a weird thing where you would hear your first and last name and it all of a sudden doesn’t sound like yourself anymore. It sounds like this thing people say to you or this thing that’s on call sheets or this thing that’s written about. So I wrote about that and I was like I don’t know if anybody is going to relate to this, unless they’re a 24 year old male comedian performing you know at the Wilbur Theatre and I would have you know 13, 14, 15, 16, 17-year old kids come up to me after and say I feel exactly like you I get it. I’m going like what you know and then I was like, oh right, they have an audience. They feel like they’re performing all the time. The sort of like stresses I have as a sort of C, D-list comedian have been democratized and given to an entire generation and that was like at least for this part of my career, that was the breakthrough that I realized like oh OK that’s what I’m doing.
Josh Hamilton: And so did you start to think about your material and the themes that you wanted to explore in a different way after that?
Bo Burnham: I could just commit to them. When you’re up there riffing about you know making fun of pop culture making fun of celebrity and stuff you feel like I’m just being like a little like thin here and meta and like am I just like doing like 30 Rock and stuff, and is there a better way– and then I realized like no there’s actually an emotional core to this and this is tied to the way a generation feels about itself. And that was like, I found meaning in my work for the first time to other people. Maybe people will feel less stressed or alone or at least find some commonality in this really uncommon experience that we’re all having which is living out loud performing our lives. At first I was getting up there going like you know celebrities are stupid and pop culture’s this way and pop songs are stupid and… But if I was being honest with myself I was freaking out. I was feeling things during all of this.
Josh Hamilton: Sure.
Bo Burnham: And even if that feeling is empty and meaningless that’s something to describe. That’s an emotion to ground yourself in. Also like I’m also 21 so that’s also why I feel like I’m meaningless and ungrounded. And that was the huge joy. I realized that I was given by having a career so young and I was so freaked out because when I got attention when I was 16 I was like I knew I didn’t deserve it. Like I knew I wasn’t good enough for it in theory but you know having an audience at 16, 17, 18, 19, to you know 26 or whatever when I stopped – for now – my act couldn’t help but grow and evolve because I was growing and evolving. Pretty rapidly you know and I finally feel like I maybe started to settle into a person.
Josh Hamilton: Yeah that’s what happens in your late 20’s.
Bo Burnham: Yeah yeah.
Josh Hamilton: So aside from the people that you mentioned before the musical people are there also other comedians or thinkers that influenced you or you thought of as role models?
Bo Burnham: Steve Martin. 70’s early, 70’s Steve Martin was pretty big like wild crazy guy. I love George Carlin. I love love George Carlin.
Josh Hamilton: Were you aware of Bill Hicks at that age or did you…
Bo Burnham: Yeah yeah yeah. I liked Bill Hicks a lot. He wasn’t like my biggest person though. Steve Martin though was just like did so much of what I wanted to do was very silly like had no shame, used props, used music, all these things that like when I was starting out and you know the, whenever late ought’s or whatever, it was so hacky to be anything other than someone with like a ruffled notebook onstage working through your thoughts all dirty and everything you know and I was always I came from the world of theater and was like if I do a show I’m going to go up and do a show like I’m going to try.
Josh Hamilton: You’re not going to wing it.
Bo Burnham: Or do everything I can to appear like I’m winging, which is like a lot of the game which is just like-
Josh Hamilton: Effortless.
Bo Burnham: And I’m like, I’m effortful. I’m just an effortful person. I mean what really really inspired me was going over doing the Edinburgh Fringe Festival seeing what European comedians were doing and Australian comedians were doing, where they engaged with it way more theatrically. But it was a lot of that it was a lot of theatre a lot of like being in high school loving like Julie Taymor and Grotowski and you know, like that stuff. I loved being on stage and throwing myself into something.
Josh Hamilton: Yeah yeah. But what about politics? Do you think of your work in political terms? I know that you personally have strong feelings about you know social justice and politics and not to put you on the spot but I mean do you think of your work in terms of that way or has there been a progression in your work in terms of that?
Bo Burnham: There’s been some stuff I mean when I was 20 I was like, god’s not real! Like I’m like now looking back like, cool, cool buddy, good for you. Yeah you really got… You really buried Saint Thomas Aquinas with that one.
Josh Hamilton: Burn.
Bo Burnham: Exactly. I don’t know it’s strange. There’s an evolving definition of what is political. You know someone like me, a straight tall white dude can be apolitical in exploring himself when other people can’t. Anyone else’s act is called political just by them expressing their, what it is to live for them. And I don’t often come in contact with that and that is what I’m coming into contact with. Now you’re actually thinking of yourself as a white person in the world so like that’s um. So it does become political which is good but I don’t know. I would need like to agree on what the definition of political is. I think there’s a morality in my stuff maybe.
Josh Hamilton: Maybe morality but also I guess I was thinking more in terms of commerce and like capitalism. Do you feel like capitalism kills everything?
Bo Burnham: I don’t know about that.
Josh Hamilton: Coming out of YouTube in a way before it was as corporate. I mean in terms of how do you be authentic in your art without turning into to a- I mean I think you say you know artists are manipulating and lying to you.
Bo Burnham: You know that was part of the fun was just to… It may appear like what I’m doing on stage is like actively tearing down the artifice of performance as like a political critique. But more it’s like a magic trick and fun like it’s fun for me to play with the things that we’re supposed to not talk about when we perform comedy, which is, I am not saying this for the first time. I just got you to laugh but I don’t care and I’m dead inside and I’m bored right now and you’re responding Pavlovian to this thing I’ve written. And then it’s, what spontaneous, what’s real, what’s happening in the moment? What isn’t it? Those are just fun things to engage with as just sort of like being like a little Machiavellian like Bugs Bunny character up there and just kind of throw stuff to the wall. But also like I feel very passionate about culture and its role and Terence McKenna.
Josh Hamilton: Yes, I was going to ask you about Terence McKenna.
Bo Burnham: The great quote, “culture is not your friend.” Which I think is like… Again that can be a huge argument that is incredibly an incredibly white sentiment too. But pop culture I think across the board we can say is not your friend.
Josh Hamilton: Yes.
Bo Burnham: And yeah I mean that’s… A huge amount of what I wanted to do with Eighth Grade even you know like there’s a certain conversation about representation that I think is great but not nearly being pushed far enough. And yeah I think culture fails us so hard. I think it’s like it’s like absolutely crazy. And I think like Trump seems like such a cultural phenomenon it feels like the tail really started to wag the dog and now we’re in trouble. You know.
Josh Hamilton: Do you feel a responsibility as an artist to, you know there is a line from your last special that hit me so hard, where you talk about… I hope I’m not getting more out of this than you are. That you the performer aren’t getting more out of the audience. And it just made me wonder if stepping away from standup, moving into filmmaking, if that part of the thing that appealed to you was taking yourself out of the spotlight a little bit and being able to explore themes that interest you without having to sort of put yourself center stage.
Bo Burnham: I don’t quite know. It’s because the question of the artist, the danger of the artist getting more out of it than you do. And then so quickly the pendulum swings the other way. Which it feels like it’s kind of going in this moment a little bit. Which is like, if you are not fighting the good fight in your art, if your art isn’t in itself a fight for the good fight, you should sort of be obliterated. Which also a fear because I’m a huge fan… And I’m not even saying that on behalf of myself, I don’t even think I make that. I think I make at least now, nice art, that I hope is part of the good fight. But I’m a huge fan of art that’s just like on the person’s own behalf. And I’m a huge fan of art that is from an ego place. And it’s kind of… it’s like sports in a way. It’s one of those safe places where we can have egotism be thrown at the wall and all of a sudden we get, you know, Kanye’s fourth album, and it’s like whoa, this is what happens when someone thinks they’re a God. But all of a sudden, that starts to bleed into the actual world and now we’re in trouble.
Josh Hamilton: Let me ask you this. Do you feel like you need to sort of mess with people’s desire to know you or to confound preconceptions or-
Bo Burnham: Oh yes of course. Certainly that answer deserves an honest answer which is that I am selectively honest. I would say that’s what I am. I would say I don’t lie. I don’t say things I don’t believe. But there’s no reason to say everything you believe. I mean at a certain point that’s just being responsible. I don’t think I present a version of myself that is false at all. I just present the versions of myself or the things about myself that I want people to see but that see that and that’s sort of what the movie is about the performance itself is honesty now.
Josh Hamilton: Yes.
Bo Burnham: That is what being truthful is. And I hope I can you know in these conversations and you know I’ve been talking to a lot to kids speaking at colleges and like speaking at colleges now is super super loaded you know, but I like being there and I like talking with the kids and trying to bring things up and trying to ask questions on their terms because I think I can speak their language, which they have a very specific language right now that’s really evolving very quickly.
Josh Hamilton: You’re one of the few people because you’re old enough, you’re just old enough to have come of age in this world of YouTube and social media. And the self-awareness that inevitably breeds and you’re just old enough to sort of start making art about that.
Bo Burnham: Yes.
Josh Hamilton: But without you know you’re not making it from the vantage point of like someone older looking down on it or you know, you’re still in it but you’re just old enough to have a bird’s eye view too but to have come up with it which is a very specific vantage point for someone in this culture now I think.
Bo Burnham: Yeah.
Josh Hamilton: And in Eighth Grade I feel like really you know who better to sort of write about or you know to make a piece of art about what it feels like to be figuring yourself out in this age of social media and presenting yourself in public and forever you know because you’ve done that and obviously you’ve wrestle with that and I think that gives you a kind of empathy that most people who haven’t wrestled with that wouldn’t be able to have.
Bo Burnham: Yeah I think people see it as something frivolous or decorative and not something that is very very deep. I think that question you asked, is like a very interesting question, like it’s like it’s so funny like how do I want to be perceived right now? And even right now you know what I mean. I’ve done it so much that I probably don’t have to think about it anymore you know. But the answers to that are for this: I want to be perceived as intelligent but not arrogant; intelligent not pretentious; sensitive but not passive; empathetic but not saccharin; commanding but not forceful. You know to feel like I am you know authoritative enough to be in this position and yet humble enough to be telling this particular story. So it is a complete performance. You know what I mean, in so many ways but isn’t that life? Like what is the difference between that and a conversation with anybody anytime? Don’t people get six months into a relationship and go like who are you again?
Josh Hamilton: I’m 20 years in a relationship and I’m still doing that.
Bo Burnham: Yeah. So it’s that is what I’m realizing is that like to drop the shame of what this is, which is presentation, performance, that’s what I’m really interested in and that’s what the movie kind of engages with. The performance of life and like the gap between me onstage and the people in the crowd is maybe the same distance between our head and our mouth. Do you know what I mean? Like all of those are gaps all of at every moment we have a chance to lie to our self to lie to the people in front of us to lie to the world. And I don’t know what to do other than to admit that I’m doing it. But like we also are performing to the culture. I’m performing to being a man. To having been born in Boston to my family you know like what are you but like a congregation of performances that you’ve forgotten you’re performing.
Josh Hamilton: Yeah. So people talk about you know that ugh kids and social media and the Internet and putting themselves out there and making these videos is I mean you know in a way I think that forcing them to wrestle with how they present themselves in the world ends up actually maybe getting to a certain kind of authenticity maybe that, you know why is that less authentic than how we all do that-
Bo Burnham: Exactly, and the only strange thing about is that it’s numbers being put to these abstract concepts we didn’t have to think about.
Josh Hamilton: You mean in terms of Likes.
Bo Burnham: But just like self-presentation now has like a… I mean it’s digital so you can’t really grasp it but like it’s now been externalized and you can point to it and before it was just this ethereal thing that we thought was just organic. But it’s like oh I’m sorry 70 years ago did you all want to talk like this. Like did you all come out of the womb talking like this or were you looking at each other like imitating. I don’t know social media in a very weird way is like amplifying, externalizing, like speeding-up, streamlining the process by which we imitate and perform ourselves to the point where it’s like… Things are being called out and it’s like no wonder all of these things are being questioned at once it’s very strange and it is culture. I mean social media just to even think of that term. Those two words shouldn’t be in the same paragraph let alone right next to each other, you know social media. That’s an insane idea. And what I’m fighting for is the kids abilities to be able to articulate it because there’s nothing about participating on it that gives you the ability to articulate it like if anything being on it is actually like the mediums which they themselves are their own form of communication are designed and have a vested interest in not having these conversations.
Josh Hamilton: Right, and you’re just one leg enough out of it to be able to do that. What I love and I think one of the reasons why people respond so much to the movie is that you’re not, it’s not dogmatic. It’s not saying like this is good or bad. It’s literally just with such empathy you know exploring what it feels like to be in that which is I really feel like all you can do as an artist these days is not to come out and say that’s good or bad or you know and just to sort of just wrestle with it. And just be aware of it.
Bo Burnham: Yeah exactly. For me it’s yeah it’s for me it’s hopefully some form of an x-ray or something that goes like I’m not judging this thing I’m just showing you how complex it is that like a girl recording a video about being cool in her bedroom is very very very complex.
Josh Hamilton: Yeah.
Bo Burnham: It’s like an incredibly incredibly deep thing. A 13-year old presenting themselves publicly privately to an audience that may or may not be there about a standard of how to act cool that has been given to her through culture decades long that is in itself imitated culture. I mean the idea of cool. I mean what a weighted concept. The idea of trying to be that, you know what I’m saying do you know.
Bo Burnham: It’s like the first video of Eighth Grade you know being yourself you know being yourself. And how are you… Who is being you?
Josh Hamilton: I don’t know. I mean I still go see a movie now and there’s a character that I that I admire and want to be like I spend the rest of a day walking around acting like that character and I think like you know is my sense of self that flimsy?
Bo Burnham: Yeah yeah yeah exactly. And like even just being around people you’ll leave them you know being a little amped up like yeah. And yet, and again I’m not saying these things I’m not looking at this going man that opening video is so deep because I’m a genius. I’m saying that video is basically copied from videos I saw of kids online. I was watching these young people post about themselves online with my jaw on the floor going like oh my god this is so life. This is like these young women, 13, 14, making these videos trying to speak themselves into existence to an audience that they hope is there and actually is not or may be there in the future. That is a better description of what I’ve been trying to describe for 10 years on stage.
Josh Hamilton: Yes.
Bo Burnham: Than I ever made.
Josh Hamilton: And that is why I think that you were the perfect person to make this film because I think a lot of people when they try to address social media or teenagers these days it’s like they either it gets too satirical or they’re coming from a point that’s too removed or too judgmental. And I really feel like because you spent all his time wrestling with what this means and presenting yourself and your developmental progress you know in public for all time for people to go back. You can’t it’s in the same way like Truffaut his movies about children he loved children you can tell his affection and love for children and how difficult growing up is, is so authentic and empathetic because he had a difficult childhood. And I feel like you know I think what people why they respond to Eighth Grade so much is because your deep-seeded empathy not just for Kayla and Elsie but for all 13-year olds who are you know people who are just trying to figure out themselves in this landscape is, it just feels very true and connected. And I know you talked about wanting to make this film before you got old enough that it felt nostalgic. You still wanted to feel connected to these feelings and I do it feels emotionally immediate.
Bo Burnham: Yeah yeah that’s nice. Yeah I always like. I didn’t care about Eighth Grade quote unquote. I didn’t care about I didn’t want to make… Y.A. movies are movies that I look to. I wasn’t trying to make like a coming of age movie like I don’t care about that stuff like that. Like for me I wanted to make a story for me about what it felt like to be alive right now. And I just saw these kids and I found it sort of in writing a girl where I was like… She is to me the most worthy conduit for expressing this so like… I’m not sitting there going like man I’m making my John Hughes, I love John Hughes but I’m just saying I’m not going like I’m going to make my part of the… to be in the big canon of coming-of-age movies. I was going like I’m making a movie about the human condition with a girl in a SpongeBob shirt. I mean that’s what I felt like. I felt like I was making The Revenant or something like truly I mean. And I had to feel that way.
Josh Hamilton: Well I think everyone connects to the you know the 13-year old girl inside of them.
Bo Burnham: And I really do think like as a culture we’re really like… Our cultural moment is very 13 right now.
Bo Burnham: And everyone knows that you’re in the movie.
Josh Hamilton: Oh yes by the way. Probably should say that.
Bo Burnham: Is that we’ve worked together. And you’re a very large chunk and important chunk of the film.
Josh Hamilton: Yes which I… And just to sort of fill that in. I mean when I when I got the call to come in and audition for your movie you know I’m old enough that I don’t know anything that’s really you know going on in the culture except my own little bubble. And so I wasn’t aware of you and I and it all happened sort of quickly and all of a sudden we were rehearsing and starting to shoot and I started watching some of your stuff at home and you know in my hotel room and I actually had to stop because I would come in the next day and sort of like fan out a little bit and be like oh man that song you’re like OK I mean that’s cool I actually want to concentrate on the scene right now.
Bo Burnham: Yeah. Did you ever think ‘cause I would have thought you would be like, what is this movie going to be? Because like you would think, because like Elsie I think thought the movie would be a little more snappy and pyrotechnics.
Josh Hamilton: Elsie Fisher.
Bo Burnham: Elsie who plays Kayla, thought it would be… I don’t know ‘cause if I were you, I’d be a little freaked out going like, oh God is it going to try to be this like weird silly like… Are we making Airplane because I’m saying that’s what my show can kind of look like.
Josh Hamilton: Oh no because the script itself didn’t have that vibe at all the script itself. I mean I could tell as soon as I read the script that you know you can tell when something is just written well enough that you’re like OK I’m already in safe hands. You know I can tell on the page.
Bo Burnham: That’s good. Just saying, ‘cause I feel like what am I making here? You know what I mean?
Josh Hamilton: Here’s just some random questions. What posters did you have on your on your bedroom wall growing up?
Bo Burnham: Oh my god this is bad like, I came from like a cultural vacuum like you need to know from like 30 minutes north of Boston. OK so my posters on my wall were a Simpsons poster. I never watched The Simpsons. OK, a photo mosaic of Abraham Lincoln, this is really true. You know those like…
Josh Hamilton: Up close you can’t quite tell what it is and then you move back and you’re like oh…
Bo Burnham: Oh, that’s Abe Lincoln you know, to just throw your mind to what is happening in a 13 or 14-year old boys bedroom with a photo mosaic of Abraham Lincoln within eyesight. What was it? It was like a Duke basketball pennant, a Bulls basketball 70 wins from, when did they win 70? ‘96?
Josh Hamilton: Big Velvet Underground poster.
Bo Burnham: Not that I was not. No movies. I mean like I was like you know I think I watched like Shawshank Redemption and Con Air until I was about 18, getting better though. But that’s a shame and I have other friends you know that work in this sort of world we do that like I bond with over that. The fact that, our shame was like I was not like 11-years old like watching Bergman you know what I mean.
Josh Hamilton: You weren’t a cinephile.
Bo Burnham: No I was 11-years old watching like… I was 19 watching Zoolander and like…You want to hear the wor-, This is the most incredible example ever that dates me so bad. It’s like the most shameful thing that just obliterates my artistic integrity or background. I first heard of Martin Scorsese through Shark Tale, the animated Will Smith movie where it’s literally like I was like 14 and I was like oh the Blowfish from Shark Tale, also directs movies. That’s so dark, do you know how dark that is?
Josh Hamilton: You know that’s good for the theme of this season is American Masters and standing on the shoulders of giants. So you know you’re standing on the shoulder of Shark Tale.
Bo Burnham: Actually to be fair to myself though I was a young theater kid and loved loved theater like film was just not in my world.
Josh Hamilton: Right.
Bo Burnham: I mean I was 9, 10 like loving loving Shakespeare, loving theatre. And then it wasn’t until very very late which I think I hope comes across as an actor that was in my film. Our film. Is that like I just loved acting and working with actors and doing that and then I wasn’t the guy running around with the camera and then I was like oh film is this place where I can do that stuff you know like so I come from the sort of other world of it and I’m sort of you know catching up on the technical stuff.
Josh Hamilton: Well I was going to ask you actually how because I know you’ve talked about stepping, you know taking a break from standup and that it was causing you, you know you were experiencing a lot of anxiety but you do have desires to act in other things? In one of your specials you do a little a little bit of Hamlet and it occurred to me, I was like you know what I’d actually would love to see your Hamlet.
Bo Burnham: I would love to do Hamlet. I would love to do Hamlet.
Josh Hamilton: Because your facility with words and with… you know it’s a pretty astounding.
Bo Burnham: I have multiple. I have a lot of them memorized a lot of the soliloquies memorized. Love, love Hamlet. But yeah I mean I’d love to act like I don’t know if it’s for me. I think I love it more than I’d be good at it. But yeah I mean doing Eighth Grade was it for me like I got to do it because of that and it’s probably slightly annoying to be an actor on the other side but like, I think my style of directing is like I kind of have to be acting, I have to be a little bit in it like with the actors.
Josh Hamilton: I’ve always liked that in a director actually I sort of feel like then, it’s like you’re all kind of in it, in it trying to work it out together as opposed to someone going like why don’t you try…
Bo Burnham: Yeah. Right exactly. Where it feels like… and I’ve been there just felt like been an actor on a set feeling like and it was like it really broke my heart when I first like did a little part in a film and was like oh like this isn’t acting at all. This didn’t feel like acting at all to me like being on a set you’re like sitting around forever and then people are tweaking lights, and like you get talked to so little and it’s like you just feel like cattle and you’re not important and no one cares about you.
Josh Hamilton: I’m telling you Hamlet. We gotta do your Hamlet. Was part of the anxiety about being up there every night and doing your show was part of it, like as more and more people are seeing you, I mean did the anxiety grow as your audience grew?
Bo Burnham: Oh yes yeah yeah yeah. Proportionately, yeah it was like literally like when the theatres got to be about 2000 seats I started freaking out. Literally like 1200 was super chill and 2000 felt completely abstract and strange. Because you might you know most people unfamiliar with this but like a 1000 seat theatre you can see everyone’s face for the most part. And you can actually pick out individual laughs and people of character and when it gets to 2000 it becomes, basically like 2000 to an arena is basically just feels kind of the same. Because even an arena is kind of structured as 2000 slabs in a circle. It just feels completely abstract and strange and you’re just performing for like a mass, a thing. Now the audience is like a thing.
Josh Hamilton: Right. Right.
Bo Burnham: So that’s really strange. But like the best part of the movie for me is that like I’ve never been able to watch something I’ve made like I can watch the movie because I don’t see…
Josh Hamilton: Right. Because you’re not in it.
Bo Burnham: And it’s like I don’t see my work I don’t watch Eighth Grade anymore, period. But when I do see it in a screening or something I’m not going like even though I have some of these feelings like I’m not going like oh man, look that cam- oh like that camera is a little off. I’m just going like look at Elsie, look at Josh, like I just I just watch the performances which are not mine.
Josh Hamilton: Right.
Bo Burnham: So I just, I can enjoy it. I can just enjoy. I know. I know I’ll be able to enjoy that movie forever. I know I’ll always always love what you guys are doing up there.
Josh Hamilton: Well how do you feel now in terms of your next, because now, do you feel like there’s more of a, well what’s he going to do next?
Bo Burnham: That’s very stressful. Right now it’s very hard to write especially like with your, with me I like to think I like try to keep my ear to the culture a little bit. It’s like very hard to create in this culture right now because things are just happening so quick and I think everything kind of gets loaded very quickly and there’s a kind of like irresponsible freedom that’s sort of needed at least in the initial creative stages which is you know hard to you know kind of get kind of just unload without questioning everything and how it’s going to be received.
Josh Hamilton: Are there other mediums that you are just in exploring?
Bo Burnham: The stage, I love to write for the stage.
Josh Hamilton: Do want to write a play maybe?
Bo Burnham: Yeah a play or a musical or maybe a musical way way down the line.
Josh Hamilton: Do you have any favorite screen parents in movies like that when you thought about writing Eighth Grade and the father? Did you have any other sort of screen parents that you that stood out to you in movies?
Bo Burnham: No because my initial thought was Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence. I mean, but that’s not for this movie. I was just saying those were my favorite screen parents ever. But no I like always said that like your character was my mother, if anything, if it was inspired by anything it was my mother which was like… And I just think it’s very particular to my generation and people younger than me which is like our parents were not going up being like you’re lazy and why don’t you… I mean I’m saying, sure people enjoy that but our parents are not telling us like… Our parents are going like, you’re so smart, and we’re going like, we’re not. I’m not. All right. That doesn’t help me like you know what I mean like there’s like a the problem some of us who are lucky enough to deal with deal with is like excess of expressed love you know and that there’s still an issue there you know and that’s what I felt like we could bring. I could portray that I felt hadn’t been portrayed a lot which is that relationships aren’t necessarily fraught in the negative direction they’re kind of fraught in the positive direction, where it’s someone looking at you with puppy eyes feeling bad for you. It’s like I feel bad for me. Can you, like give me something to rebel against? I remember feeling, I remember it, and also in hindsight feeling that way sort of against my parents a little bit like I wish I had fought a little more. I wish I had been in an environment that was maybe a little more fraught because I felt like this sick joke of my life is that I fell into a world where the thing I was supposed to unlearn was actually reinforced by my career for a little bit. I would perform both shows from my mother or my sister. Where I just literally did like hour long whatever I want songs and jokes and then like I ended up doing those for everyone and like am I just performing for my mother or my sister? Am I having panic attacks because I’m… I don’t know.
Josh Hamilton: But some artists do that you know they end up that way in that position because no one listened to them you know. And I remember meeting, you know meeting the actor, speaking of you know Gena Rowlands and Peter Falk, I remember meeting Seymour Cassel you know when I was young and he goes which you know, which parent you know like ignored you, you know the whole un-licked cub theory of artists you know that like, there were all these people who didn’t get enough love or attention. The un-licked cub. It’s like you were just and you’re like, look at me, look at me.
Bo Burnham: Yeah I wasn’t. I was I was a licked Cub, yeah. But yeah it’s its own form of, because I then felt I had to like learn a strength on my own. I was given a lot of strength, I mean there’s so many pros. I mean there’s so many pros were like I mean I feel like my mother gave me all of my empathy, not all because that sounds mean to my father, but like my true whatever my strength is as a creative person I feel like I got from my mother who isn’t an explicitly creative person but is creative in other ways. She’s a hospice nurse but yeah… I feel like I’m a sensitive person that doesn’t take criticism well. Because I wasn’t criticized as a young person that much, you know and that’s like, there’s a lesson to learn. You know there’s definitely like…. We’re definitely a generation of… We’re definitely entitled and coddled a little bit for sure. We don’t have to be like… We can admit that. And also not be like you know some neo-con like right wing person like, college campuses are crazy. I mean like there’s a way to admit that, admit that like, Yeah, there’s a way for us to toughen up without inheriting all of the problems from our fathers. I mean there’s a way to toughen up without becoming you know racist, sexist, bigoted, patriarchs. And there’s a way for all of us to become resilient and strong and not look to the world for approval which social media is not helping.
Josh Hamilton: No I think that’s working against us. Would you say the idea of a role model is an outdated concept?
Bo Burnham: Interesting. You know, it really is like, we’re not going to get rid of religion. That’s my answer. I mean like that’s like the idea of anything is the idea of structure and archetypes and you know you need to admire something you need an ideal to strive for. You need to probably embody that ideal in a person to make it tangible even if that person does fail. I’m much more ambivalent about this stuff than I used to be. You know I used to just tear all this stuff down and say get rid of it and then I realized like there’s just some structure that can’t just be abstracted and we need people to embody our values in order to sort of navigate through the world especially as young people. That’s what our parents are, our parents are embodied values and projected ideas for us for the most part. So I take that you know if I need to be that, for some kids. I’ll take that and maybe I can like embody the idea, maybe the value that I embody is hopefully a perceived open honest vulnerable inquisitive thing that maybe I do have to perform a little bit paradoxically to provide it. You know that like that I have to maybe slightly publicly become the idea of myself to honestly get across what needs to happen. I mean that at this age of just like you know what is absolutely true which is versus what is practical. You know what’s probably absolutely true is that maybe you know role models aren’t needed, but like no matter what you talk about you’re asking kids not to admire people, and that’s not going to happen.
Josh Hamilton: And I’ve always actually I always thought it was really interesting and maybe really important, you know I feel like a lot of artists who you know as they’re trying to figure out who they are and what kind of artist they are they emulate they go through a period of emulating their heroes and it’s through that that they figure out what their own voice is. You know I mean there’s a long line of people who- Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie or you know Patti Smith. It’s like people, they are very consciously choosing their heroes and emulate them. So you might go through a period of being you know derivative or you know whatever or you know shadow but that’s just a process, that’s part of the process of figuring out what their own authentic voice is.
Bo Burnham: Right. Right. And the way in which I think I would interrogate the idea of a role model isn’t the base idea of a role model it’s the way in which it’s weighted in our culture. The room that’s given for role models to be singers and actors and writers and not other substantial people that do substantial things.
Josh Hamilton: Like hospice workers.
Bo Burnham: Exactly. That’s like sort of my issue, I was saying my father’s you know works in construction. My mother is a nurse and I’m like there should be some type of cultural representation for people other than just these, like that’s my issue that all kids role models are people in the arts and that just kind of turns… What I think it’s kind of just turned the culture in on itself. And we’ve kind of lost sight of what’s real and tangible and you know a bunch of kids who want to be famous.
Josh Hamilton: Teachers should be paid. You know if teachers were held as high you know they would things would make more sense than Reality TV stars.
Bo Burnham: Yeah. For both sides. If people… people should want to get into the other stuff for the right reasons and people should want to get into the arts for the right reasons which is not that if you get into the arts you can be a role model. It’s more if you can get the arts you can make art, if you want to do that you know. And also you can get into the arts anywhere anytime, and the thing to admire about artists or creative people I hope is what they make, which you know and not how they reign over their dominion of attention.
Josh Hamilton: Yeah. That’s well said.
Bo Burnham: Hey. Lickin’ cubs.
Josh Hamilton: This is probably the most important question I have. Do you have a favorite body of water?
Bo Burnham: Wenham Lake, which is near where I grew up and actually back in like the 17th century was known as the best ice in the world and they would ship blocks of ice on sawdust back to England. From Wenham Lake, in Massachusetts.
Josh Hamilton: It was considered like the purest, coldest, most refreshing ice in the world?
Bo Burnham: It also sounds like a lie that circulated my town and I’m just realizing it’s not true. But I believed it.
Josh Hamilton: Branding. It’s all branding. Well Bo, as an American Master in the making, thanks for being here.