The first time I watched a Bo Burnham comedy special, a lone spotlight shone down, cymbals crashed, and all of my acne cleared away. I had been graced by something otherworldly, something magical.
I have consumed a lot of comedy in my time on this great green earth. Saturday Night Live, Key and Peele, HBO comedy specials, Comedy Central comedy specials, comedy specials in general – I’ve watched a lot. But Bo Burnham really struck a chord with me (that’s a joke, because he’s a comedic musician. Ha.).
I always felt a kindred bond with Bo, and I was never quite sure why. I always thought maybe it was because he was relatively young, like me. His first special, what., came out when he was in his early twenties. I watched it in my late teens. We were practically the same age – at any rate, we were closer in age than any of those old geezers on sketch shows. Thirty-year-olds, I bet they’ve seen dinosaurs.
It wasn’t until I watched Make Happy for maybe the fifth time that I started to realize that there might be another reason I relate to Bo. Technically, we’re very different people. He is, in his own words, a “straight, white man.” I am neither white, nor a man. He is also around ten years older and ten feet taller than me. He is also much smarter than me (but that’s neither here nor there).
The thing is (as I realized it this one Saturday night at midnight), Bo’s shows tend to focus on the paradox of telling the truth versus being funny. Sometimes both happen at once. More often, they don’t. Most of the time, what is true and what is funny actually lie on opposite ends of the spectrum. Especially to people like Bo Burnham, who probably don’t experience the world in such happy-go-lucky terms (he is a self-proclaimed “skinny kid with the steadily declining mental health,” “privileged, and… lucky, and… unhappy”), reality needs a bit of a twist to make it appeal to the general public. It needs to be distorted into a form that it may have looked like on the outside, but didn’t feel like on the inside – it needs to be made into a performance. To quote Bo directly, “Art is a lie. Nothing is real.” He frequently mentions how much fakeness exists on the stage with him. Fake poetry books with blank pages, made-up stories and encounters – all for the pursuit of comedy. And one of the questions left at the end of the show, when all is said and done – was it worth it?
Is the lie worth it? I think that this is a problem that plagues a lot of people today, whether they know it or not. Everyone feels like she’s lying about how she really feels sometimes, so as not to come off as weird or pessimistic, or, gasp, depressed.
Quick veer here that will eventually come back to my main point: personally, I sometimes wonder if it is possible for me to genuinely express human emotion. Sure, I have no problem crying during movies and I crush easily and quickly (Bo, we’re not that different in age), but put a gun to my head and force me to tell someone I genuinely care about them or reveal anything about my real emotions, and I might take the bullet. Ick. Just writing that sentence made me cringe. The allergy test never told me that my weakness was feelings.
As I grew older, I learned how to cloak this discomfort in general tomfoolery. A friend says they care about you and are glad to be your friend? Throw yourself onto the nearest object to hide how uncomfortable you are! Feeling like life is a pointless waste of time and we’re all going to be forgotten someday into the endless abyss of nothingness so why even bother trying? Cry silently to yourself in the bathroom and then tell a hilarious rendering of what happened to you in the Kroger the other day!
Sometimes, life sucks. It’s true; don’t deny it. Sometimes, there’s nothing funny at all, but we have to be funny because that’s who we are and we have no other identity and this is all we have going for us and if we lose this then who even are we and everyone will hate us because this is our purpose. So we have to sprinkle little lies in among our stories to make them more acceptable – funnier.
This is why I relate to Bo Burnham. We are liars. Sorry. If you can think of anyone whom you would call consistently “funny” or “cheerful” or “happy,” then surprise, they have lied to you at some point. Before I watched Bo Burnham, I had never really acknowledged the fact that I was a liar, as honesty was very important to me. If I was a liar, then I had compromised my core values and was despicable as a human being.
But then, Bo Burnham basically confessed that he was a liar. Better yet, he was a famous liar, out of the closet, and people still liked him. What! Novel idea! I am a liar! We are all liars! It is okay!
Of course, don’t lie about important stuff, like infidelity or whether or not you actually watered that houseplant during spring break (come on, they deserve to know). But if you need or want to lie a little sometimes because you feel unjustifiably sad and you know no one can help you, then I say go for it. Sometimes, the lie is worth it. Bo Burnham backs me up, maybe, provided I didn’t completely misinterpret his message. If no one ever lied even a little, everyone would be miserable all the time. So, in a way, sometimes lying increases joy for ourselves and others. Gentle lying isn’t wrong; it’s art.
I’m not sure if this was exactly the takeaway Bo was aiming for when he wrote and performed his specials. It is likely that it is completely off the mark. It is also likely that I am doing that super annoying thing of reading too much into something, when it really was just a few side jokes.
Oh well. Bo will never see this article anyway (in case you didn’t catch it, this is an invitation for Bo to please read this article and then please contact me; as I said before, we really aren’t too far apart age-wise). And even if you completely disagree because honesty is a virtue, then you should still watch Bo Burnham’s specials. They’re on Netflix.
That is all.