Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages staff writer Jacob Oller.
Taking a tonal note from Rick Alverson’s Entertainment, Bo Burnham opens his exclusive Netflix stand-up special Make Happy by rising from a drab hotel bed in clown makeup while a TV drones offscreen, opening the curtains to daylight and disembodied applause. The audience is his life. Being awake means performing. The grayscale world offstage provides a visual representation of Burnham’s depressive relationship with his career, as do the opening lines of voiceover beginning the show.
“You should not laugh. You should not forget about your problems. The world is not funny.”
Drinking water is scarce. Poverty is rampant. Today, hours before I began writing this review, 50 people were shot dead by a hate-driven man in Orlando for allegedly being part of the queer community.
“Guy Fieri owns two functioning restaurants. The world is not funny.”
A stand-up show in name only, Burnham discards standard protocol like rolling applause from joke to joke or building a friendly audience with easy openers. He immediately disenchants his viewers, veering immediately into the comedic avant-garde.
Burnham is a hyper-ambitious 25-year-old who has been performing comedy professionally since his teens. His breakthrough was comedy songs — performed in his bedroom, filmed, and posted on YouTube — but he doesn’t parody songs like one of his (ok, everyone’s) influences, Weird Al Yankovic. Rather, his songs toy with musical formulae like recurring choruses or the simplicity of pop lyricism while exploring silly themes like the hardships of being a straight white man.
However, Burnham strikes a unique figure equal to Yankovic in the comedy-music pantheon because his original songs stand on their own musical legs. Burnham has always had an ear for composition since his internet days, but Make Happy songs have the sophistication of a live, off-the-cuff Billy Joel after a few drinks.
The musical styles oscillate from the industrial, dark flash of gangster rap to the orange-tinged CMT spectacle and southern accent of pop country. When the red, white and blue lights go off, one can begin to understand that Burnham hasn’t put together a comedy special, but a deconstructive stage play of epic proportions.
By playing with the mechanics of song performance, like a call and response with the audience or inter-lyrical changes in his songs, Burnham constantly draws attention to the artifice (“A worse comedian would’ve milked that joke for four verses”). An opening number riffs on the epileptic hype afflicting many live shows, flexing the exaggerated movements of Burnham’s gangly limbs in combination with brisk light and musical transitions until an explosively funny anticlimax. It’s so quick and breathless that it almost leaves the man in the one-man-show behind.
The bits never fall into what may be construed as typical stand-up material. Burnham undercuts his own jokes while aggressively playing with the crowd; more magician than comedian, his comedy is a comedy of direction rather than misdirection. He draws attention to the very audio mechanics of the venue, playing tracks and yelling at the crew, then quickly admitting that he set it all up from the beginning.
Through skits, songs and stand-up, Burnham combines the silent talents of Buster Keaton and the over-talking wit of Will Rogers. He’s proud of himself for crafting every detail, and after three years of work, he doesn’t want an ounce going to waste. Burnham’s extraordinary talent for direction and performance manifests during a sequence in which he mimes making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while first high, then drunk. Matching highly synchronized sound effects with absurd, goofy choreography is both impressive slapstick and extraordinarily ambitious comedic directing.
There are honest comedians and then there’s Bo Burnham. There’s storytellers and then there’s Bo Burnham. Make Happy revels in the facade, creation and spectacle. It’s heightened, ambitious, sharp prop comedy on a stage-wide scale. Burnham is having a quarter-life crisis through the stage, creating the French New Wave equivalent of stand-up. Stand-up’s been trending more and more towards truth and over-sharing as performers dig deep inside their most personal failings to connect with our darker smirking recognition.
By embracing and explaining the artifice of performance (especially comedy as hyper-produced as Make Happy), Burnham takes the genre in a completely new and riveting direction, bringing the audience in on a unique and similarly realistic level — though for opposite philosophical reasons. When songcraft, jokecraft and stagecraft meld in a glorious Kanye West ascension of form and content at the show’s climax, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the moment Burnham has created and aware that it’s as special and ordinary as every moment one spends off-stage.
The world isn’t funny but, damn, can it be beautiful.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Oklahoma City-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.