Bo Burnham's "what." is Stand-up Without the Standing Up Mia Galuppo

On Dec. 17 I got my wisdom teeth out. Also on Dec. 17, comedian Bo Burnham released a new one hour comedy special, titled what.. One of these required the repeated application of medical gauze.

Burnham has the rhetorical humor of George Carlin, sans the sweet receding hairline/ponytail combo. And, even though he occasionally lets his audience in on the gag, he seemingly employs an ultra-realistic stage persona that would make Kaufman blush.

Admittedly, I primarily know Burnham from his Vine account, but today I had to/got to watch what. twice. Halfway through my first viewing, my frozen pea bags thawed and while I was changing them out for two bags of frozen peaches that were infinitely less comfortable, I missed the middle twenty minutes of the show because I forgot to press the pause button on the Netflix machine.

“But Mia, you do realize that technology has afforded us the ability to go back and replay our comedy specials from whichever timestamp we so desire?”

Why, of course I realize this, voice inside my head that I am using to make a point. But I ask you to please take this into consideration: Vicodin.

So I watched what. twice, and was happy to do so.

I have always admired stand-up comedians 1) for their ability to prove that humor is universal and 2) for their ability to stand for long periods of time. Now, I am not going to claim to know Burnham’s intentions, nor will I attempt to deconstruct the underlying meaning of his humor because the moment you attempt to critically examine comedy is the moment, at least for me, it stops being funny. I just wish to laud what. for its inventiveness and impressive lighting design.

What I found particularly jarring about Burnham’ s hour-long special is that he does not shy from sincerity, usually a comedic mark of death. what. appears to be an active analysis of pop-culture from the perspective of a man on the inside. His observations range from songs about religion (‘Song from the Perspective of God’) to his own career and experiences in LA (the whole show), all the while still maintaining his humor. He never seems to take anything, including himself, too seriously and asks his audience to do the same. Burnham’s comedy is the socially aware sugar that helps the cultural critique go down.

Within the schizophrenic, sometimes absurd pop culture landscape, where a grumpy cat has captured the hearts and fan fiction of millions of Internet patrons, where Anne Hathaway is public enemy No. 1 and where the nightly news reports on the latest viral-video-dance-craze, Burnham questions the role of celebrity. How much of it is the actual person and how much is an audience-produced projection?

Stand-up comics have never before been confronted with such popularity. Twitter and Vine offers comedians a challenge to distill and display their wit in 140 character or six-second increments to a large web-based audience. Their comedy is no longer beholden to a stage nor does it necessitate a microphone.

Born of YouTube, Burnham seems to have perceived this shift and has transitioned away from the rigidly observational, self-depreciating, “what’s up with that” shtick and is, consequently, more willing to play with the format. This is not to say that Burnham’s stuff is better because of this experimentation, it’s just different. Most notably, he doesn’t always stand. Instead, he moves. Burnham sits, jumps, dances, interacts with an disembodied voice and pretends he is a dinosaur.

what. is not so much a stand-up special as it is a self-reflexive variety-show. A mixed-media theatrical showcase of traditional stand-up, performed alongside songs, poetry, pantomime and a remarkably well-timed timed light display (seriously, who is this guy’s technician?).

I am sure the CD of this special is great– and I will probably be buying it once I can remember my AppleID and regain my fine motor skills– but what. is unique in that it is a visual experience just as much as it is an auditory one. It should really be wholly ingested— kinda like what I used to do with solid foods! You can’t be looking at the trees and forget about the big ‘ol the forest or– if you would allow me a tooth-related analogy—you can’t focus on the bicuspids and forsake the whole oral cavity.

what. cannot be measured as a sum of its parts, otherwise it will delve into absurdity. But maybe that was the point all along?

Anyway, if you would excuse me, I have to go funnel chocolate pudding down my esophagus so, in conclusion, do yourself a favor and please go watch what. and never try to eat mashed potatoes through a bendy straw. One of these is not as fun as you would think.

Featured image via.


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  1. WHAT Mia, it was only after watching what, searching youtube to find critiques, and READING THIS WHOLE ARTICLE and wondering who wrote it because it sounded like someone from our generation that I fucking realized you wrote it!!!!

  2. OOH man, I have loved Bo since his YouTube days! All of his shows are hilarious! He came to Iowa State when I was a sophomore in college (a few years ago) and it was wonderful. My friends and I waited in line all day just to get to be in the front row to see him. He is so smart! My senior year of high school my besties and I would sit in our cars in the parking lots laughing our asses off to his songs/jokes. Please please please do yourself a favor and watch his early skits! Especially the ones he filmed in his bedroom / home as a teensager.

  3. Dear Zooey,

    I’d like to invite you to the Fab Woman Virtual Christmas party, which starts today. Being an online party all you need to do is to turn on your computer, get comfy with a drink, click on my blog anytime after 5pm CET and via the party-post imagine together the best celebration ever! Looking forward to seeing you there. Anami, xx

  4. Mia, this is a wonderful article. This is written and your expression of “what.” is absolutely some of what I was feeling and thought was phenomenal about Bo’s performance. I saw “what.” twice as well. Gosh, I said what a lot in this comment

  5. Since you mostly know him from vine, go watch his old videos on youtube! They’re great, really. There’s a ton of clever wordplay. I started watching him about 5 years ago, and he’s always been awesome.