I’ve been saying this for years: if George Carlin were alive his favorite comedian would be Bo Burnham. Only Bo can trick an entire audience in to saying the N Word then go into a song where cartoon characters call him a “f—ing f—ot” repeatedly and still have everyone love him. I know I love him, that’s for sure. I had the pleasure of seeing Burnham live during his what. tour a few years ago. I was absolutely blown away. What I saw was like no other “comedy show” I had ever seen. Sure, I expected to really enjoy the show since I had been a fan of his since the YouTube days, but I didn’t know I was going to get a full fledged theatrical performance. And that’s what what. was: a theatrical comedy performance full of stand-up, live songs, poetry, recorded songs, conceptual bits, plenty of fourth wall breaking humor, and lots of miming (yes, miming). Bo Burnham is not a “comedy musician,” and he does not perform parody songs; he is a comedic actor, writer, director, and performer all in one.
So the question was “could he top that amazing special I saw live” (then watched again several times on Netflix)? And the answer is a resounding yes. Actually, I am surprised the answer is yes. You would think that it would be hard to capture this kind of indescribable comedy magic again. Make Happy, like what., is full of silly yet clever, hilarous yet moving comedy. Bo can seamlessly transition from miming what it is like to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while you’re high, to seriously contemplating the concepts of fame and happiness, to creating a long, drawn out bit that ends in a fart noise — and make it all very funny.
Make Happy has less “songs” than you might think, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. It doesn’t have the same sort of catchy tunes as his previous albums. It is also melancholic at times, but this fits his evolution as a person and comedian. Burnham has said himself that he is giving up stand-up comedy. He is growing up as a person and comedian, and he seems troubled by the concept of fame. You can even see this in Burnham’s Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous — an amazing show many comedy fans probably missed because it aired on MTV — as it is all about the negative consequences of fame. Make Happy does eventually go a bit farther past the meditation on fame and examines what it means to be happy. These are the two most prevelant themes in Bo’s mid-twenties work: happiness and fame. Sure, you can pay a lot of attention to the deeper messages at work in Make Happy, but you can also just enjoy the silly humor and have a great time “forgetting you’re dying” while watching it.
It is very rare that I actually laugh out loud when watching something on a screen. Live comedy makes me laugh out loud a lot, and anybody who routinely goes to live comedy shows knows there is a huge difference between a recording and live performance. But Make Happy not only had my fiance and myself laughing out loud, but crying with hysteria. Then two minutes after shedding tears of joy, I seriously contemplated what it means to be a privileged straight white male. Then at the end when Bo performed a deathly serious, Kanye West inspired auto-tuned “gospel rap” about the struggles of eating a Chipotle burrito, I was back to crying with laughter again.
Is Make Happy better than Bo’s what. special? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters. Are Make Happy and what. incredible achievements in comedic live performance? Yes, without a doubt. It must have been incredibly difficult to come up with something wholly original and just as funny as that first special, but I’m glad Bo Burnham did it. I’m just incredibly sad we won’t be getting another special of this magnitude in another few years, but hopefully we can all look forward to a movie, TV series, or musical (I hear one with Apatow is in the works) from the young and talented Mr. Bo Burnham.
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Joe Portes is a writer of Fiction and Essays, as well as a Creative Writing instructor in Upstate New York. He has edited literary journals and online magazines where his stories, interviews, and reviews have also appeared. His work has been in or is forthcoming in the Indianola Review, Pitkin Review, and Free George Magazine among others. Aside from writing for the Pop Culture Beast, he maintains a blog at JoePortes.com where you can read about everything from teaching college freshmen, to his love of podcasts, to playing video games.