Back in 2010 the nearly 20-year-old Bo Burnham performed a brief teaser set during the Pleasance press showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe. Seasoned critics in the audience – myself included – had already heard great things about the Massachusetts-born comedian, but he blew us away regardless. That short set signposted his clever, incisive take on musical comedy and was a taster of the full length show Words, Words, Words. A show that went on to garner rave reviews, won the Foster’s Edinburgh Comedy Panel Prize as well as a Malcolm Hardy Award for ‘Act Most Likely to Make a Million Quid’.
For some reason I missed his debut show that year spending most of the month, as I do most Fringes, being sent from one show to the next by my editor and furiously typing in cafés in between. Anyone from the generation below would have known about Burnham for a couple of years previous to him arriving on these shores from his home-made videos on YouTube. As a teenager he’d post songs about topics familiar to any high school attendee; what stood out though was that razor sharp wit and an astonishing dexterity with words for one so young (in case you hadn’t noticed yet, there’s going to be a lot of emphasis on how young he is, but that’s only because he’s so damn good it’s hard to believe).
Now 23, Burnham is years into his career and at a point in life where some acts are just starting to wonder whether they might like to try some stand-up. What is his second show and where I finally get on board. It opens with a showy, theatrical musical set piece as he gangles about the stage dancing and posturing. It’s loud, a bit rock and punctuated with some very funny moves. In someone else’s hands it could seem crass but here it’s precisely choreographed, mesmerising and self-consciously hilarious.
What is the kind of show you might expect from an act well into their 30s and wondering where their life is going. It takes a dark look at Burnham’s psyche, constructing him as a tortured soul having achieved too much too soon – the guy who at 18 forsook college to take to the road to pursue comedy and the subsequent notoriety that followed. He again picks up on the name-calling he used to be taunted with at school and adds more recent accusations of egotism based on, it seems, their own perceptions of his (faked) somewhat big-headed stage persona.
But before events get too dark it’s all undercut with Burnham’s sardonic, post-modern wit. He’s been criticised in the past for his gags – unafraid to makes jokes about the fact that his family thought he was gay, or ones featuring disability, but none of these minorities are the punchlines, the jokes are on the knuckleheads, bullies and those who chase the dollars. There are shedloads of clever self-referential comedic devices at play here too, drawing attention to the construction of a joke or the downtime bits of the show as he walks from mic to the keyboard – but really there is no downtime – the show moves along at a right old pace, the kind you’d expect for a skinny 23-year-old.
The only dip, if you can even call it that, is in the second half where there is a slight change in direction of material, as if to flesh out the original hour long show he momentarily breaks away from the psychological deconstruction idea to slot in some older numbers – Love Is, Oh Bo, Art Is Dead. It’s a perfectly respectable addition as playing a few greatest hits is a must for all those original fans in the room, of which there are many.
His youth and good looks have already got the TV bods interested in the States but it’s Burnham’s intelligence and ear for a gag that have hooked in the comedy connoisseurs. So yes, while he is most likely to make a million (if he hasn’t already), if he carries on with work this good he’s also going to earn a truly deserved place in stand up’s hall of fame.
Review by Marissa Burgess
What: Bo Burnham
Where: The Dancehouse, Manchester and touring
When: at The Dancehouse on November 17, 2013