YouTube star Bo Burnham returns to Pittsburgh
Bo Burnham, a 21-year-old comedian and musician, performed at the Carnegie Library Music Hall last Friday to a crowd of about a thousand. Pittsburgh was the first stop on his short, 10-day tour across the country.
The comedian got his start by posting YouTube videos in 2007. “I was sixteen and doing that before anyone knew YouTube was a thing,” Burnham said. “I just started writing songs and posting them online so my brother could watch them at Cornell. Then one day I had like 5,000 views.”
Since then, Burnham’s fame has continued to rise with clever, self-aware songs like “Love Is” and “Art Is Dead.” The song “Art Is Dead,” for example, discusses the conundrum of the artist. “When he grows up to be a comic or actor/ He’ll be rewarded for never maturing/ For never understanding or learning/ That every day can’t be about him... My drug’s attention/ I am addict/ But I get paid to indulge in my habit.”
Burnham has performed twice in Pittsburgh before this most recent appearance. “I’m very happy to be back,” Burnham said. “I’ve been living in L.A. since December, but I’m from Boston and I really miss the East Coast.”
Apparently, the East Coast missed him as well. With the Carnegie Library Music Hall nearly filled to capacity, Burnham emerged from behind heavy red stage curtains amid raucous applause.
As a recording repeatedly sang, “Welcome to the show,” Burnham danced and ran his hands through a mass of dirty blonde hair that seemed to defy gravity with its upward pull. Before sitting on a stool placed center stage, Burnham ripped off two pairs of red track pants and a hoodie to reveal an Urban Outfitters T-shirt and a pair of worn blue jeans. The show had begun.
With an old fashioned wrap-around balcony and seating reminiscent of a high school theater, the venue provided an intimate and comfortable space between the audience and the artist.
Burnham used a variety of mediums in this comedic performance — including voice-overs, abrupt ends to songs, spastic dancing, and dark, pithy quips directed at the audience. Much of his humor dwelled on adolescence and awkwardness.
Near the beginning of his act, Burnham “accidentally” knocked over his water bottle, and as he clumsily apologized, a 10-second song came on. “He meant to knock the water over. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But you all thought it was an accident. He meant to knock the water over. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Art is a lie, nothing is real.”
Tiny bits like this were sprinkled throughout his act. Another one that he used several times was a microphone transition song, which is exactly what it sounds like. “Walking between the microphones ... is really awkward.” After these short bits, Burnham would immediately launch into another joke or song, playing on a keyboard at a breakneck speed.
“Nowadays so much of what I want to do is being based off of taking people by surprise and being a little bit random, a little all over the place with the content jumping around, so that I can be silly the whole time,” Burnham said. With a mixture of melodramatic acting, dancing, stand-up comedy, poem reading, singing, and playing the keyboard, Burnham was indeed random and diverse in his performance.
“It’s all the same muscle — writing and performing,” Burnham said. “Muscle confusion, engaging in different mediums, is going to make you stronger. I always try to confuse myself. “
Although his humor was sharp and clever, the fast-paced and random format of his show was slightly confusing. Audience members who were familiar with Burnham’s comedic style took it in stride, but for those who were not familiar, it was a bit disconcerting.
Fortunately for Burnham, the majority of the crowd was already accustomed to his erraticism. The audience, which consisted largely of teenagers (and more than a few screechy fangirls), laughed uproariously at his self-deprecating jokes and his dark humor.
“I like taking subjects and ripping them apart,” Burnham said. “Ripping myself apart is easiest because it’s what I know best. So much [of my act] is a reflection of who I am. Or rather, it’s the way I choose to present myself in an hour, a weird version of myself that’s not always very likable.”
Toward the end of the evening, the audience began getting even more comfortable with Burnham, requesting specific songs or asking if he had a girlfriend. More than one audience member asked for his hand in marriage. One memorable interaction occurred when Burnham, who had been describing his experience being called the c-word, was then called said word by an audience member. Burnham looked the audience member coolly in the eye and snappily stated, “I didn’t know this was a role call.”
Burnham’s 90-minute set ended at 9:30 p.m., but the audience wasn’t ready to let him go. After continuous clapping, Burnham came back out onstage to perform his song “Nerds.” Still, the audience wasn’t satisfied until he had come out for a second encore, this time ending with a performance of one of his newer songs, “Oh My God,” which details the thoughts of God on humanity. After two encores, Burnham managed to persuade the crowd to leave, with the promise that he would be waiting to meet fans outside.
Even after successful shows like last Friday’s, young Burnham is still asking himself, “What is comedy?”
“I understand science and what its purpose is, but what is the purpose of comedy?” Burnham mused. “For me, it’s really a matter of being fearless on stage. I have a lot of young fans that come out and I would like to be good for them in some way, to get up there and show them that you can trust your own voice.”