Bo Burnham vs. comedy

Or, streaming frenzied anxiety

In Bo Burnham’s special Inside, he breaks down modern comedy. He also breaks down. 

But first, the comedy. It comes in the middle of his song titled *checks notes* Comedy via a quick glance at a whiteboard bubble chart. I almost dove back into Netflix to get a screencap of the diagram, but then I remembered Burnham’s song Welcome to the Internet — “could I interest you in everything all of the time?” — and realized that of course it was already online.

The split second during which I forgot about the internet can be credited to the fact that I’m a decade-ish older than Burnham. And based on Burnham’s mental state, I feel lucky that my brain is fractionally offline. A 2018 New Yorker profile called his previous shows “as frenzied and inconclusive as a late-night Web surf,” and this show illustrates how un-fun it is to be the creator of such content.

Which brings us back to comedy. Aren’t comedians famously miserable, a tiny carload of sad clowns? In a 2002 column on the documentary Comedian, Robert Fulford described standups as the “walking wounded of show business, and apparently they like it that way. For slave wages or none at all, they spend years facing heartless rejection by jaded audiences, with only a slight chance of success — which, should they achieve it, will probably make them even more wretched.” 

Burnham did all of that on YouTube, so it happened faster and at scale. As he said at age 20, older comics who felt he hadn’t received enough heartless rejection by jaded audiences should “read ten thousand Internet comments and see if they don’t feel fully criticized.”

Why do they do it? Fulford concluded that it’s “the perfect way to express the negative feelings most of us are required to hide.” The standup’s true enemy is the audience, and in the battle the comedian either kills or bombs. It's a hostile crowd versus a desperate performer, he wrote, and the performer is “the kind of person who grows anxious when nothing around him is creating anxiety.” 

Jumpy jumpcut to 2021, where if you’re not anxious, you’re not paying attention. Bo Burnham’s collection of songs, speeches, sight gags, and one-liners seems like a better way of processing all that anxiety than a nightclub monologue about airplane food. And it’s not him against the audience so much the audience with him against the internet. Then again, the internet is us. 

As for the chart, it features such microgenres as

  • Psychologically abusive parents making Rube Goldberg machines” and

  • Two-hour indie dramedy, zero laughs” and

  • Middle-aged men protecting free speech by humping stools and telling stories about edibles,”

all of which are funny only in how easily they can be described.

It does feel like Bo Burnham is creating something that can’t fit into a bubble chart. It’s bigger than comedy. It’s more like life.

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Quick quips; lightning

“Comedy is the blues for people who can’t sing.”
— Chris Rock

“Comedy has to be based on truth. You take the truth and you put a little curlicue at the end.”
— Sid Caesar

“Our comedies are not to be laughed at.”
Samuel Goldwyn


That was Get Wit Quick No. 105, your weekly analysis of Netflix bubble charts. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting deftly sidestepped heartless rejection. The internet needs you to tap the❤️ below, and it’s vital that we keep it happy because it knows everything about us.