Bo Burnham makes people cringe. And laugh. And think.
His comedy — self-aware, biting, every word refracted by his love/hate relationship with the Internet — has made the 30-year-old a superstar, especially among teens and twentysomethings who recognize themselves in his mediated reality.
The Massachusetts native recently released “Bo Burnham: Inside,” a one-man comedy special on Netflix that captures the hermetic weirdness of life in quarantine and the brilliant chaos inside Burnham’s head. It’s dark, funny, and set to catchy pop melodies. It also just scored six Emmy nominations.
So why don’t you know Bo? Unless you spent a lot of time on YouTube circa 2007, you may have missed his early comedic forays, shot in his childhood home in Hamilton. He became an Internet phenomenon while still in high school at St. John’s Prep in Danvers before rocketing to Comedy Central and his own stand-up specials. He later wrote and directed the film “Eighth Grade,” released to critical acclaim in 2018.
While already on Netflix, “Bo Burnham: Inside” will screen at theaters across the country this week. Initially scheduled for one night — Thursday, July 22 — the big-screen run has been extended through July 25 due to surging ticket demand.
Want to go? Here’s a primer on Burnham.
Warning: This video timeline contains explicit language and content that may be inappropriate for young viewers.
A kid in his room. Bo Burnham started uploading videos to YouTube in 2006 from his bedroom in Hamilton. He grew up sheltered, attended an all-boys Catholic school, and was a theater kid who loved Shakespeare. At 16, he was sending videos — mostly of himself seated behind a keyboard or a guitar — singing satirical songs about things like love and math to his older brother at Cornell. The videos managed to go viral before the phrase “going viral” ever did. In 2008, at 18, he became the youngest person to record a Comedy Central special, “Comedy Central Presents: Bo Burnham.”
The character Burnham presented to the world early on was a rehearsed, arrogant, flamboyant, wordnerd who was deeply familiar with growing up socially awkward in suburban Massachusetts. His earliest comedy was divisive and, frankly, picked on familiar targets. He made jokes about Helen Keller. He relied — as so many other comedians did — on stereotypes. Burnham was quick to warn viewers that he was offensive and, yes, he could be. And also very clever. His first video “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay,” includes this gem of a line: “Even my boyfriend thinks I’m gay — just kidding.”
Taking it to the stage. Burnham’s early work was a reflection of the Internet’s dark and edgy humor at the time. He was self-deprecating, pun-heavy, and used literary references to make “your mom” jokes. When it came to social commentary, he often relied on shock value to prompt introspection, in ways that wouldn’t get a pass today. At the same time, his observational comedy questioned cultural power structures — religious, racial, political — through irony. He sang about hypocrisy in ways that spoke to angsty young fans who were questioning those power structures as well.
‘You’re incomparable, like a…’
Bo Burnham, from his book, “Egghead: Or, You Can’t Survive on Ideas Alone”
Wordnerd to poet. In 2013, Burnham, then 23, released a book called “Egghead,” which was a collection of amusing, absurdist poems. He also returned to the stage for his one-man show, “what.,” which would later stream on Netflix. As existential as its title, “what.” dissected weighty topics — what God thinks of humans, how humans process traumatic sadness, and how people can be performatively #deep. At some point, another theme crept into his work: his role as the performer in front of an audience, a relationship that demanded a thoughtful exchange. He began to examine and loathe the idea of celebrity. And he started punching up instead of down. His newer targets were often people who abuse their positions of power.
The Vine years (2014-2016). Long before TikTok, Vine was known for its looping 6-second videos, which catapulted some of today’s biggest social media stars into the spotlight before the platform crashed and burned. For Burnham, who already was famous by then, Vine introduced him to a new audience. Even after the app’s death, new and old fans re-uploaded compilations of his Vine content as acts of preservation to YouTube, generating hundreds of thousands of views.
Political correctness. In June 2015, Jerry Seinfeld famously decried political correctness on college campuses, saying it was ruining comedy. Burnham, whose early shows were occasionally picketed for being politically incorrect, took a completely different approach. “Well, I just think comics are crybabies,” he told CBS News in 2016. Burnham said he found it hard to relate to comics, who’d spent their lives monologuing to crowds, suddenly complain that they were being silenced. “Yeah, they’ve [young fans] swung the other way, and yeah they’re a little irony-deaf, but I’ll take an irony-deaf, tolerant crowd over a racist crowd that really understands the workings of comedy and irony.” He continued, “My mother’s a hospice nurse. It’s hard for me to look at, you know, a couple of college kids with signs outside a comedy show and think that I’m up against anything structurally.”
Make Happy. Burnham released “Make Happy” in 2016 before he stopped performing live to take care of his mental health. In the special, he lamented straight white male privilege, called out pandering millionaires (sorry, Blake Shelton), and focused a lot on the role of entertainers. He also toyed with a complex idea: By living through social media, we are all subconsciously performing so as to share everything, all of the time — only to watch ourselves back.
‘I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta, it wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that — I don’t think anyone isn’t.’
Bo Burnham, “Make Happy”
Behind the camera. In 2018, Burnham wrote and directed “Eighth Grade,” a coming-of-age film starring Elsie Fisher as 13-year-old Kayla, a digital native just trying to survive in middle school. “I wanted to talk about anxiety and what it feels like to be alive right now, and what it is to be unsure and nervous,” Burnham told USA Today. “That felt more like middle school than high school to me. I think the country and the culture is going through an eighth-grade moment right now.”
Around that time, Burnham also acknowledged publicly that some of his early work was inexcusable. “I have embarrassing, offensive, bad material from when I’m 16 and 17, stuff I cannot stand behind,” he said in a 2018 interview with Vulture. “I am pretty ashamed of it.” Having grown up online, he looked at his past and examined how unrestricted access to the Internet at a young age shaped him and had repercussions. In interviews, his frustration with the online universe and its effect on children grew more palpable.
Well, well look who’s inside again. After taking time off from standup to work on himself, by January 2020 Burnham felt ready to get back out on the road again. Then, well, you know. In “Inside,” the kid who accidentally fell into early online fame is back in his room in front of a computer. But this time, he’s a 30-year-old man who’s experienced the toll of an overstimulating digital landscape and is trying to cope during a pandemic. Equipped with directorial experience and professional film equipment, Burnham invites the audience to watch him unravel through quarantine, grow facial hair, and put into song that cross-generational “funny feeling” that the world is ending.
While Burnham’s comedy has long been embraced by young audiences, “Inside” gets at something more universal — not just the constrained lives we’ve lived during the pandemic, but what it means to keep going even when one day feels indistinguishable from the next. Not to mention, the looming apprehension about what comes next.
“Inside” and TikTok. The catchy, synth-y stylings of “Inside” were suited to blow up on TikTok, without much context needed. On TikTok, where creators whittle down and pick apart longer media to mere seconds, “Inside” has delivered what may be years of freestanding viral snippets. People eagerly awaiting Amazon packages to arrive blast pieces of Burnham’s songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II,” shouting lyrics: “CEO, entrepreneur, born in 1964, Jeffrey, Jeffrey Bezos!” Certain subtle, fast-paced production elements from “Inside” have gotten their own moments online, too. In the song “Sexting,” for example, a paused image reveals a sweet, important text exchange of consent that needed to happen for the conversation to move forward.
‘I grew up as your usual suburbanite. A tiny town in Massachusetts, overwhelmingly white.’
— Bo Burnham in the “Inside” song, “Problematic.”
Canceled? With the virality of “Inside” on TikTok and elsewhere, some members of Gen Z and newer audiences are discovering some of Burnham’s earlier online work — and calling for his cancellation. In response, however, a wider swath of audience has, at least for now, decided that the cancellation request should be denied, based on the comedian’s own, very public reckonings with his past.
The “Inside” soundtrack album charted at No.1 on Billboard’s Comedy Albums and No. 116 on the Billboard 200 in days following its release. Burnham, who most recently starred in Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” alongside Carey Mulligan, is set to star as Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird in an upcoming HBO drama series about the Los Angeles Lakers.