How Did Comedian Bo Burnham Get Famous?
Imagine it’s the year 2006, and you’re a sixteen-year-old aspiring comedian with a funny song you want to share with your older brother in college. You upload your videos to YouTube, a platform that is barely a year old, and the next thing you know you’ve accumulated a then-unheard-of quarter of a million views in a single day.
This is the actual beginning of the steady rise to fame experienced by the critically acclaimed comedian, actor, director, and songwriter Robert Pickering “Bo” Burnham.
Bo Burnham got his start uploading funny songs to YouTube
Burnham is arguably one of the most innovative comedians to emerge from the early days of YouTube where he began sharing his clever song parodies about teenage angst. At the time, the lanky kid from Danvers, Massachusetts was performing for classmates and family members before making a name for himself online.
“Bo pushes the envelope, that’s for sure,” says sister Samm Burnham in an interview with Boston.com. “A lot of YouTube fads get their 15 minutes of fame, but I don’t think that’s the case for Bo.”
Indeed, it’s impressive how Burnham’s YouTube success grew after the upload of his first song, “My Whole Family…” which features the teen sitting at an electric keyboard in his bedroom. He croons in a lyrical tenor voice that lends itself well to his comical style, singing:
“My whole family thinks I’m gay. I guess it’s always been that way. Maybe it’s ’cause of the way that I walk makes them think I like … boys.”
His catchy rhymes are punctuated with unexpected quips and awkward glances at the camera. It makes him incredibly endearing.
He became famous through his own blend of stand-up comedy and musical parody
After going viral, Burnham’s raunchy and irreverent videos quickly garnered the attention of an agent in late 2007. By February 2008, the seventeen-year-old was on his way to London as the youngest comedian ever to record a half-hour comedy special with Comedy Central. Burnham’s quirky songs and observational humor scored him a four-record contract with Comedy Central Records and his first full album, self-titled Bo Burnham, was released in 2009.
The next few years saw Burnham’s star rise to higher levels of fame as he graced the world with an international stand-up tour and no less than three wildly popular comedy specials. Each of Burnham’s TV specials is a raucous and introspective fever dream of comedy and song.
In Words, Words, Words, Burnham begins the 2010 Comedy Central special behind the piano by singing, “my show is a little bit silly, and a little bit pretentious.” It’s a description that fits his style well, which is deeply sarcastic, often self-deprecating, and ridiculous to a surreal degree.
Burnham’s other specials, including what. (2013) and Make Happy (2016) are currently streaming on Netflix. Each carefully crafted performance is a testament to Burnham’s genius, exploring and lampooning all aspects of modern culture through a series of discrete comical bits. Somehow between his obscene onstage antics and his live musical stylings, Burnham manages to touch on deeper themes, like the horrors of social media and the burden of mental illness.
About three-quarters into Make Happy, Burnham turns serious, saying, “Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here. Perform. Everything. To each other. All the time. For no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific.” In these more exposed moments, the audience falls in love with his underlying honesty and vulnerability.
Burnham’s innate talents have earned him accolades both in and out of the spotlight
Burnham has always been forthright with his fans about his mental health—in fact, it is his transparency and introspection on this subject that makes him so relatable. When Burnham took five years off from performing live on stage due to panic attacks, it didn’t seem to affect his fame at all. If anything, it drove him to even higher levels of success.
Time off from comedy allowed the jokester to turn his attention to acting and directing, churning out a number of notable appearances and projects. Among them, his first feature film, Eighth Grade (2018) which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and won multiple awards including the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay and the Directors Guild of America Award for Outstanding Directing–First-Time Feature Film.
Burnham’s most highly acclaimed piece of work to date is arguably Inside (2021) released one year into the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Burnham single-handedly wrote, directed, performed, recorded, and edited the hour-long musical comedy while in isolation in his home in LA. The Netflix special ultimately won a Peabody Award, a Grammy Award, and three Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, which include Outstanding Music Direction, Outstanding Writing, and Outstanding Directing for a Variety Special.
On the one-year anniversary of Inside, Burnham surprised fans with over 60 minutes of additional footage via a YouTube special titled THE INSIDE OUTTAKES (2022). Since its release, the 4K outtakes special has racked up over 5 million views, proving Burnham’s star is brighter than ever.
RELATED: Bo Burnham and Lorene Scafaria: Surprising Things Fans Might Not Know About Their Relationship