Bo Burnham’s Make Happy: A Performer’s Duty

[Disclaimer: Please tell me that you have been able to watch Bo Burnham’s new comedy special Make Happy. If not, the following is going to be pretty confusing. It’s only an hour long (almost to the dot) and on Netflix. Not only will you be able to understand my personal thoughts completely, but it just might change the way you see live performance.]

Bo Burnham is a young comedian who has already made his way to the top of the comedy ranks. He has been making silly funny songs on the keyboard for the past 10 years now, starting in his bedroom with a camera and now the camera faces him on the big stage. If you have seen any of his most recent works, you can see how he pushes the boundaries of the comedic act by bringing attention to the falsified nature of a live show. In his previous special what. Burnhan constantly references how meticulously timed the entire show it, even bringing to the point of saying “Art is a lie. Nothing is real.” His art is a lie.

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This thesis is again repeated in Make Happy. He has an entire bit where he asks for the name of a random audience member in which he replaces their name into an already prepared song. It was all prerecorded; all he needed to do was say “Rob” at the right pauses in the song. But then he takes it another step and adds another dimension to the sincerity of the live performance. He brings attention to the audience and the audience’s role in a performance.

In his “You’re a fuckin’ faggot” bit, all with pretty with lights and effects, he drills into his audience that all of the credit for that song belongs to him. He conceived, composed, and executed every little bit of that lacklustre bit, and you better know it. He shares the story of seeing a Kendrik Lamar concert and immediately shushes an audience member who “woo”s at the rapper’s name mentioned: “Don’t give credit to people outside this building!” This is his show. They paid money to see Bo Burnham live in a gorgeous theatre, not to woo at another artist who may or may not be more talented, who’s really to say, but it’s all about your own personal taste. Burnham worked for three long years to gain their attention for an hour, so he’s going to milk every minute of it.

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You can view this ‘outburst’ as a rude tug for the attention, but as the show progresses, there is a portion of Burnham that becomes more and more exposed, a more vulnerable Bo. In the beginning it comes up in a minor mention in the opener as “I know you paid money, so I should be funny” and again in “Kill Yourself”, in the line “If I stop entertaining you, throw me to the curb”. He is hyperaware of how disposable his hard work is to the other side. There is almost a sound of worry and concern for the audience. He is concerned about not fulfilling the unspoken promise between entertainer and audience member: pay money for the funnies, no funnies will get you kicked out. It transforms into a more existential crisis of the audience’s opinion of the show and, ultimately, of him.

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Throughout the special there are littles slips here and there of Burnham ‘losing focus on his job’. He becomes introspective, talking about a point of unhappiness or concern, but he catches himself with a “That’s not why you’re here” or a “Let me do my job” to bring him right back. He deprives himself of the human moment for the funny moment. That is what people paid good money to see. Why would people be interested in the real problems or concerns he may have? Why would a person pay  x amount of money for a ticket just to hear some skinny white kid talk about his sadness and concerns?

If you’ve read this far and still haven’t seen Make Happy, why? I mean thank you, but why? At the very least, watch the finale “Can’t Handle This”. This piece alone encompasses the role of the audience in seven and a half minutes in a Kayne West-esque autotune style. He rants about his qualms with Pringle cans and burritos. Funny shit right? Well what about that part in the middle-to-end where he talks about his real problem?

“The truth is my biggest problem is you. I wanna please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out that you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it. A part of me loves you. Part of me hates you. Part of me needs you. Part of me fears you. I don’t think I can handle this right now.”

“Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you something he cannot give himself.”

“They don’t even know the half of it. I’m not a doctor, I’m a pussy. I put on a silly show. I should just shut up and do my job so here I go.”

                                                                            ~ Can’t Handle This, Make Happy

And the crowd just roars in cheers at the return of Pringles and burritos. Perhaps they are cheering at the amazing display of honesty… Or maybe they are cheering because he’s finally getting back to the silly Pringle cans and burritos rant, which is undeniably funnier than a discussion of mental health. There seems to be a bit too long of a beat for it to be the former, but that could just be my pessimistic empathy for Burnham and resentment for the unspoken performer-audience contract peeking out of me.

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After the performance, in a special part of his hour that was not presented on stage on tour, Burnham performs a final song with just the camera and a piano. It’s almost a call back to when he started with a similar set up, posting YouTube videos of him in his bedroom. He asks on a scale of 0-1, and again on a scale of 1-2, if you are happy. Now it seems very appropriate to have this as the closing shot of a show titled Make Happy, but the most noticeable characteristic of this song is the overall seriousness in tone. In fact, this is the least funny, and debatably the most genuine song in this hour.  It highlights the difference between the performance with an audience and the performance without an audience. Now that it is the figurative “you and me” backstage, Burnham feels more comfortable asking the question he seemed to be dancing around the whole performance: Did he make you happy?

If what. is about unveiling the live performance as the fraud it is, then Make Happy is about the effects of the fraudulent performance, but who really cares if it’s all a lie, as long as you get what you paid for right? This is about the performer’s obligation to give the audience what they came to see: silly jokes and songs about deconstructing the Country Music genre or the complaints of the straight white male, regardless of what the performer might be feeling. We paid for this, so Bo, you better make us laugh. We need to laugh. We feel a horrible emptiness in our souls that only the light heartedness of dick jokes and My Little Tea Pot renditions can fill.

This is Make Happy, not “Okay Guys, Time For Me To Do My Best And Make You Laugh”. As a performer, especially as a comedian, Burnham is in the service industry. He must serve his audience and make them happy. His special is making good happy feelings for us. We paid for him to fill that empty space, so he is obligated to fill it before he is allowed to fill his own. And this is a duty he takes very seriously. His final words onstage are a call into the endless watching void: “Good night. I hope you’re happy”.

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Now did he do it for you? Do you think he has fulfilled his promise? Let me know what you thought of Burnham’s Make Happy in the comments below! Do you have any thoughts on that performer-audience relationship? Leave those in the comments too!

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