If you browse the “Originals” section on Netflix, you will stumble upon a show called Bo Burnham: Make Happy. Ordinary, overused phrases such as “unique twist on life”, “stand-up comedy” and “talk show” in the description could trick you into skipping this one. So you read reviews, which will make it seem like Robert Pickering “Bo” Burnham is just a singer who does stand-up comedy with funny songs. But don’t be fooled. Burnham is a performer. And this show, after Words, Words, Words (2010) and what. (2013), is a one-man theatrical monologue, which he’s seamlessly slipped into an explosive combination of lights, song, mime and abrupt action that keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Burnham, 26, rose to fame through his YouTube videos as a high schooler. He released his first video 10 years ago, singing humorous songs from his bedroom. His fan base grew, and in keeping with his early work, Burnham has his song segments from Make Happy available as stand-alone, free-to-watch videos on YouTube. So if you’re still not convinced to commit to a one-hour show, or don’t yet have a Netflix account, start off with the song segments and they might convince you.
Through songs such as Lower Your Expectations, Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant), Country Song and Straight White Man, Burnham takes shots at people’s expectations of romantic love, at pop culture as it is today, and at domestic and international sociopolitical problems. He is a witty, satirical lyricist who uses his easy relationship with the keys to make every bit of his staged performance look like a casual improvization. And through the show, he acknowledges just how orchestrated his ease is too.
While he teases the audience like many stand-ups do—a feature that can sometimes get too close for comfort with other acts—he is self-deprecating too (I had a privileged life and I got lucky and I’m unhappy, he jokes).
But when experienced as part of the larger show, you’ll recognize the songs for their smart production value and not just for the performer’s sharp lyrical insight. For if there is one contemporary comedian who uses stage lights (and how!) to his act’s advantage, it is Burnham. If you have come to expect regular caricature-like mimicry to demarcate characters in the telling of an anecdote, Burnham uses different coloured spotlights to reflect the character’s voice and general disposition, instead. If in one moment he is a live wire of energy, jumping around to different parts of the stage, in another, he is suddenly—with an abrupt manipulation of lights—sombre and introspective about a range of things.
“I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta,” Burnham confesses 45 minutes into the show. He is now in casual conversation with the audience, having broken the Fourth Wall not by jumping into them, but by turning off the stage lights and instead calling for the auditorium lights to be turned on.
But all of a sudden, the lights are dramatic again, he’s singing again, melting into the act again, and before you know it, the smart yet vulnerable 20-something Robert Pickering from a few minutes ago is back to being Bo.
Bo Burnham: Make Happy can be watched on Netflix