March 10, 2015 by Devin
All art is autobiographical. The pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.
– Federico Fellini
This is apropos of nothing, but I have been thinking a bit about Bo Burnham’s excellent special, what, and more specifically, the finale of it. Burnham is a really smart guy, and his whole special is worth a watch. In fact, if you have not seen it, it is available on Netflix and on YouTube, so you literally have no reason not to watch it. So you should go do that now.
Now wasn’t great?
For those that did not actually watch the special, I’ve embedded the finale below. At least watch that.
So anyway, that was pretty excellent, but upon further reflection I realized that this finale is, in a way, emblematic of the entire process of creating standup, art, and even philosophy and religion.
To begin, I want to breakdown what Burnham is doing here. He’s taking three conversations with three different people that all represent stress areas of his life. The conversation with the agent is obviously a conversation representing or indicative of conversations he has had with publicists and people while trying to develop his career as an entertainer. The conversations with the girl and guy obviously point to tensions with fans and people in his life. There is obviously this ideal that he wants to be and these ideals that other people want to be. So what does he do with this divide and the conflicts that come from it?
He turns them into entertainment.
This is actually a pretty common occurrence with comedy. I previously wrote about Sleepwalk With Me, where Mike Birbiglia also took experiences in his life and turned them into entertainment, but Burnham here is being a bit more obvious and seemingly a bit more intentional about it. What Burnham does with those stresses actually relates to grand themes of life and human existence.
To explain this, I want to go to religion. Specifically, flood stories.
Now, flood stories are all over myths of the ancient world, from Gilgamesh to the Judeo-Christian Bible. Why is this? Well, at least in Egypt, floods were a regular occurrence, and there is evidence that a great flooding of sorts may have happened, so obviously people wrote and told stories based on what was around them and what was happening.
I think there is more to this motif, though. Look at the Judeo-Christian version, for instance. In this, a great flood occurs, but what comes of it? Why does it happen? It is obviously a terrible occurrence, and the reasoning for it reflects that. The world is an awful place so this flood comes in and destroys nearly everything, but the story of the flood is not the story of a flood destroying everything and everyone. It is rather an attempt at finding hope through this tragedy. It is the story of how a man’s faithfulness allows him to survive this great hardship, how his devotion and loyalty to his god carries him and his loved ones through the most traumatic experience of his life, and how there is hope for the future. This particular story “ends” so to speak on the promise that this tragedy will not happen again.
In other words, the narrative takes this terrible event and turns it into something that actually gives hope and comfort. Natural disasters like floods are a chilling reminder of humanity’s powerlessness compared to nature, especially in times before civilization was as developed as today. This story found a narrative that made that reality a bit more comfortable and a bit more understandable.
While the flood is a great example of a singular tragedy dealt with through story, I think all art is in some way existentialist. That is, all art faces the meaningless of existence and, to some extent, says, “I do not accept this. There is purpose to existence. I will find it, and if I cannot find it, I will create it out of what existence has given me.”
Going back to Burnham, this is essentially what I think he is doing here. “You will die alone, and you will deserve it” a disembodied voice tells Burnham at the beginning of the show, reflecting that existentialist fear. “But in the meantime, you might as well tell us silly jokes of yours. See if that helps,” which reflects how he deals with that existentialist fear. Later, during his song about how he has these two sides of himself that have trouble interacting, he finally settles on comedy as a way to understand and express himself. From the beginning of and throughout the show, we see this great struggle followed by this desire to make something out of it through the use of comedy.
This whole conflict wraps up in the finale where Burnham ties the whole show together with a strong musical number, the one embedded above. Using music here is an inspired choice. Rhythm, beat, tone: these are all products of an order. They are all creations with purpose. Music is about taking noises, vibrations in the air that alone and in any other context are meaningless, and attaching that order and creation to them in order to create something beautiful. It is a near perfect summation of the existentialist struggle and how artists deal with that.
The most famous example of this creation is probably STOMP, which is a group that takes mundane sounds like keys shuffling or card dealing and turns them into music by making these mundane sounds beats and rhythms. In some sense, this process is about finding beauty inherent in life, but it is also about creating and recontextualizing what is orderless into something beautiful.
Here is the brilliant part about Burnham’s show: what STOMP did with mundane noises, Burnham does with life struggles. “Bo, oh my god,” “Mr. Burnham,” and “Fag,” the anthem of his conflicts, become the beat upon which he creates music, but Burnham goes beyond simply making music out of normal conversation like an autotuned news report. He makes meaning out of the words there as well. “We think you’ve changed, bro,” “We know best,” and “You suck” all become “We think we know you,” a clear summation of the struggles that were evidenced with these conversations. At this point, Burnham displays a dour expression, reflecting how these struggles are really getting to him, but he works through these emotions. At the end in the climactic finale, “Bo, oh my god” subtly becomes “Bo, my god.” This shift is a clever way to show how Burnham moved beyond taking these messages to heart and began using them as a way to propel his artistry to something greater than it was before. In other words, how he has taken this noise from his life and turned it into music.
This analysis may sound like reaching, but I think Burnham’s comedy is filled with so much nuance and depth that it is impossible for me to think that this interpretation would be new to him. The amount of craft that he put into this show reflects a deep understanding of theme and meaning, and this finale is not only a clear reflection of his creation of his comedy, but also a piece connecting his process with a struggle inherent in all art and philosophy.
Not bad for someone who was only 22 at the time.
1. People who were smart people and watched the whole show know that at one point, Burnham actually critiques this idea. In his sad song, he talks about how making jokes about poor people starving in Africa does make it more bearable for us, but it also makes us kind of seem like pricks (“Tragedy will be exclusively joked about/because my empathy is bumming me out”). I think this is Burnham working through this perspective and acknowledging that yeah, it often is pretty insensitive in the wrong context.
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