It was a cold, dark October night. My wife and I were driving around downtown Nashville trying to find a place to park for free because I’d forgotten my wallet at home and she’d forgotten her purse, we had no cash on us at all, and we hadn’t realized this until we got down there. We were on our way to the War Memorial Auditorium to see Bo Burnham. It was his “Make Happy” tour. We’d had the tickets since, literally, the minute they went on sell, and everything in the world was trying to stop us. See, we’d also both been violently ill for 2 days leading up to the night of the show and had only not been excreting unwanted bodily fluids (and some solids) for less than 24 hrs so we were just drained of all energy. That’s the main reason we were so scatterbrained and just took off without making sure we had everything we’d need like, you know, money. I said, “Maybe we can Google free places to park in Nashville?” So we did. And guess what… you can park at pretty much any meter for free after 6:oopm in Nashville. I know, right?! We’d driven around for like 20 minutes and passed a billion meters that we could’ve parked at, but whatever. We finally parked and headed to the venue to see something that, after everything that had been going wrong, would make us happy.
That show we saw was just one tour date in a string of them leading up to the filming of the official “Make Happy” special which premiered on Netflix on June 3rd of this year. If you’re not familiar with Bo, this is his 3rd major special, after 2010’s “Words, Words, Words“, and 2013’s “what.” (which my wife and I also were lucky enough to see live). I want to recommend “Make Happy” to everyone, but I feel like you benefit from it more if you see the two previous shows so that you can understand the progression of his craft, so If you haven’t seen those please watch them.
“Make Happy” is the next evolution in Bo’s one-man shows. I say “one-man” shows because that’s a way better representation of what you’re watching. It’s comedy on the surface, but underneath Bo is making comments on society and culture in ways that transcend “stand-up”. I think the first clue that Bo was different from other comedians was his “Art is Dead” song from “Words Words Words”. The idea that a comedian would break the wall that way and express a sad reality right in the middle of a comedy show was both surprising and refreshing. Like, “Ok, this dude is self-aware.” Most comedians won’t show that side of themselves without partnering it with some kind of arms-length self-deprecation that lets you in just barely, but still keeps you from seeing too much. Much of that special is just very clever comedy, but there’s one other song that stands out. “Rant”. It’s just Bo sort of going off about religion, specifically the Catholicism he grew up in. Pretty much every comedian ever has had some joke or bit about religion but there’s something different about this because some of the things he says in it are so relatable that it’s almost hard to laugh at. He does a fantastic job of injecting moments to lighten the heavy reality of it though, which is something he’s very good at…
I remember sitting in my seat at Marathon Music Works the first time I heard Bo perform “From God’s Perspective” and being paralyzed by how profound it was. It had a huge impact on me. There are some funny lines but, overall, the message resonated with me on a deeper level more than just some throwaway joke song would. I walked out of there and carried that song with me, eventually struggling to recall the whole thing, until the special was released and I could listen to it over and over again. Those first two specials had these carefully placed serious moments surrounded by very well-written and brilliant comedy, but “Make Happy”… is very different.
“Make Happy” is not a comedy special in the traditional sense. Not even in the same way that “Words…” and “what.” were. Each special has allowed Bo open up a little more and “Make Happy” is where he pours it all out on the table and says, “This is who I am.” It’s VERY funny, but it’s also VERY emotional. There are a few bits that are just straightforward comedy, but most of them are laced with some kind of social or cultural commentary, or something personal for Bo. The opening number is very energetic but he still makes space to slow it down and softly sing, “I can’t wrap my mind around exactly why I’m here. I know you paid money. I should be funny. Other than that, don’t know why I’m here.” It’s introspective, yes, but it’s also a teachable moment to the audience. An opportunity for us to realize that being spectators of his introspection is… really strange, but that’s what makes it art and not just “a comedy show”.
Won weak. pic.twitter.com/ig1mpCZp8y
— Bo Burnham (@boburnham) May 27, 2016
From there Bo satirizes things like the emptiness of modern hip-hop, our failure to accept reality when searching for love, and the plight of the “Straight White Male”, by singing about how hard it is when women want rights, and gays want rights, and “the blacks want… not to be called the blacks” but nobody cares when he gets an brand new iPhone with a iPod Touch’s case (“The case doesn’t fit that phone”). But maybe the best thing he lampoons is the lack of substance and creativity in “stadium country music.” Somehow, in writing about how pop-country is nothing but pandering trash Bo ended up accidentally writing the best country song of the year.
There’s also an enlightening moment where he destructs the hollow nature of things like “Celebrity Lip Syncing” and how these people are pretty much doing the absolute bare minimum to be labeled “entertainment” and we’re allowing ourselves to be captivated by it. He says to the audience, “Your attention’s a valuable thing. I’ve worked for three years to get it for an hour, and I *barely* get there.” That’s heavy.
Another thing I found interesting was the song “Kill Yourself”, which is a response to people feeling like an empty pop song will change their lives and make them feel better, but what I find most fascinating about it is that it also feels like a follow up to “Repeat Stuff” from “Words, Words, Words.” I’ll explain what I mean. I feel like “Repeat Stuff” was Bo’s attempt to warn us about the careless impotence of corporate pop music, and “Kill Yourself” is a resolution that his warning went mostly unheeded so… you know… fuck it? That may sound crude but it’s exactly the way you would feel if you went out of your way to warn your friend about a shitty taco truck and it was like all your time and energy were wasted because they kept going there and ending up getting sick. You would eventually cave to the futility also, and say, “Fine. Keep eating the shitty food and making yourself sick. I’m done trying to help.”
Classic comedian Ed Wynn once said, “A comedian is not a man who says funny things, he’s a man who says things funny.” On “Make Happy”, instead of injecting ideas and emotions into the comedy, Bo has cultivated a piece of comedic art with correlating humor and sincerity. Sometimes that sincerity is a tad… hostile? What I mean is, you can tell that Bo’s relationship with the audience is strained, because there are moments where he almost seems surly toward us. It all comes to a head in the finale of the show when he takes a cue from Kanye and laments his problems with an auto-tuned sing/talk demonstration. Now, like Bo, I also happened to catch a stop of the Yezzus tour so I knew exactly what he was talking about when he began to explain it. When I saw him he was complaining about how NIKE was blowing him off about some shoe deal so he went and told on them to the president of Dolce & Gabbana, or something.
Bo starts his parody by griping about the size of Pringles cans before moving onto grumbling about a messy burrito at Chipotle, and it’s absolutely hilarious, but then… shit gets real. He begins to pour out his real feelings; his discomfort with having to please an audience and feeling like it’s expected of him by them and by himself. He defines himself as a “skinny kid with steadily declining mental health”, and then he repeats “I don’t think that I can handle this right now” over and over. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever witnessed. Seeing it live for the first time was kind of a shock. I think I didn’t really know how to process it, but I was impressed with his ability to be so open and honest. The first time I watched the special on Netflix my wife and I reacted differently because it was just the two of us in our bed together and we were holding hands and we kept holding hands until it was over. She cried and I just sat there stunned by the emotion of it all.
I watched the special again, alone, really only casually, and it affected me very differently yet again. I pulled it up to watch on my phone while I was doing some housework and by the time the end rolled around I was doing the dishes. I had my phone propped up on the paper towel holder above the sink and as I began to hear him unload his emotions I stared weeping. Standing right there in front a sing full of dirty dishes, with my kids playing in the room behind me, I gripped the sink and just cried. Like, ugly crying. Maybe it’s because something in me sympathized with him, or maybe it’s because I related to it in some way, or maybe it’s because the idea of “Make Happy” was hitting me in the heart like a fucking bulldozer. I have no idea, but in that moment I feel like I began to understand the title as more of an action than a label. MAKE Happy. It’s not a noun, it’s a verb. A challenge. Go *make* happy. Don’t expect it to be hand delivered to you. This sentiment is backed up by the final song of the special, which was not performed live, that I recall. I assume it’s titled “Are You Happy?” because that’s what Bo sings interwoven between lines like, “I really wanna try to get happy…” and “You’re everything you hated.” It’s not funny at all. Rather, it’s very reflective and antagonizes a lot of feelings inside you. I use the word “antagonize” intentionally because that’s what’s happening to you. It isn’t creating new feelings inside of you. It’s activating dormant feelings you have and urging you to indulge them. Embrace them. FEEL them. Which, again, is what makes it more than just comedy. It’s art. Tangible in ways that you didn’t know were possible, and Bo’s way of letting go of our collective hand and politely saying, “From now on… you make yourself happy.” It’s sad, but it’s a happy kind of sad and that’s more “real life” than anything a comedian will give you. You only get that from an artist.