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24 things to know about Bo Burnham’s career that started with an accidental YouTube hit when he was 16 years old

Summary List PlacementRobert "Bo" Burnham was born on August 21, 1990, and grew up in a suburb of Boston where he attended an all-boys private school and fell in love with theater. His father was a business owner and his mother works as a hospice nurse. Burnham went to high school at St. John's Preparatory School — a private, all-boys Roman-Catholic school. At St. John's, Burnham was a part of the theater program and also participated in a state program called the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild. Burnham and his peers would perform 40-minute plays for one another and then discuss them...

Bo Burnham YouTube 2006 Inside Netflix 2021 2

Summary List Placement

Robert “Bo” Burnham was born on August 21, 1990, and grew up in a suburb of Boston where he attended an all-boys private school and fell in love with theater.

His father was a business owner and his mother works as a hospice nurse. Burnham went to high school at St. John’s Preparatory School — a private, all-boys Roman-Catholic school.

At St. John’s, Burnham was a part of the theater program and also participated in a state program called the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild. Burnham and his peers would perform 40-minute plays for one another and then discuss them during rounds of competition.

“It’s really just very, very beautiful and wonderful, and it’s an unbelievable program,” Burnham told NPR in a 2018 interview. “It was like my first real love. One of the greatest times of my life was being a part of that.”

In 2006, Burnham wrote some parody songs and wanted to show them to his brother. So he uploaded a video of himself performing to YouTube.

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YouTube was created in 2005.

By December 2006 (when Burnham uploaded “My Whole Family”) it hadn’t yet become a major social-media platform where people conceptualized and created videos specifically for the wider public’s consumption.

Instead, it was more like the mechanism by which people would share home movies or informational videos with their families.

“I definitely didn’t put it up there as like, ‘This is my ticket out of this town!'” Burnham told the AV Club in a 2009 interview. “I had written these songs, and I wanted to show them to my brother who’s in college. And at the time, YouTube was nothing, no one knew what it was. It was just like another outlet, and I didn’t think of it as a career move.”

The song is written from the perspective of a teenage boy with verses like:

My whole family thinks I’m gay
I guess it’s always been that way
Maybe it’s cause of the way I walk
That makes them think that I like…boys

“My Whole Family” went viral on YouTube and another video-aggregate site called Break.com, where the song reached more than 250,000 listens in a day.

A quarter of a million views may sound like an reach in modern internet currency, but back then it was an astronomical amount of people to have see a video in a single day.

“It was very strange because I saw this giant number and then I went to school and nothing was different,” Burnham said in a 2018 NPR interview. “And I think it started a lifelong journey of these two separate sort of narratives being absolutely incoherent but overlaid on top of each other.”

“My Whole Family” racked up even more numbers on YouTube. Today the video has just over 11 million views.

 

By 2008, Burnham had written his first album of comedy songs and was gaining traction in the comedy world.

By the time he was 17, Burnham’s musical-comedy chops were steadily growing a larger audience. He was discovered by an agent’s assistant on YouTube at the tail end of 2007. 

“Last month, Burnham flew to London to tape a segment for Comedy Central,” the Boston Globe reported in February 2008. “He’s also recorded a CD for Comedy Central Records and performed standup gigs at Boston’s Comedy Connection. His agent, Douglas Edley, represents a stable of top-tier comedians that includes Drew Carey and Dave Chappelle.”

On the same day he released the “Bo Fo Sho” comedy album, Burnham uploaded a video of a new song called “I’m Bo Yo.” The sexual, pun-filled parody rap features lines like “girl don’t sit on the couch cause I treat my objects like women.”

It become one of his biggest hits on the platform. As of 2021, it has 32 million views on YouTube. 

 

 

After applying for college, Burnham got into Harvard, Brown, and New York University’s experimental-theatre program. He initially accepted the NYU offer, but deferred so he could go on tour for his new album.

A later New Yorker profile revealed how Burnham had sent his videos with his college applications, leading to his acceptance at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. But Burnham never wound up attending school — instead, his professional career took off. 

Towards the end of 2008, after Burnham had graduated and was performing for live audiences, writer-director Judd Apatow (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) took an interest in the young comedian. Apatow hired Burnham to write a screenplay that would be a “anti-‘High School Musical'” movie.

The project never actually went into production, but created more buzz around Burnham’s potential as a movie/TV creator.

In 2009, Burnham released a full-length, self-titled album that included the songs from his EP. He began doing major live appearances like “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

Burnham was booking more televised events like an appearance on Carson Daly’s MTV show, and NBC’s “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and also festivals like the All Points West Music & Arts Festival in New Jersey. 

By 2010, he had filmed his first special and released the critically acclaimed album “Words, Words, Words.”

Burnham as 19 years old when he performed a set for Comedy Central’s “House of Comedy Live from House of Blues” series. He was the youngest-ever person to record a special with the network. 

Burnham’s recorded performance of the new show was released under the album titled “Words, Words, Words.”

Shortly before his 20th birthday, Burnham performed the show the world-famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the first time. One description in a festival newsletter called him a “five-star comedy child prodigy,” and his performance of “Words, Words Words” landed him at the top of the shortlist for the festival’s comedy awards that year.

In 2010, MTV ordered a pilot for a TV show by Burnham called “Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous” — a show about a teenager who decides to pursue fame instead of going to college.

On September 7, 2010, Variety reported the news of Burnham’s break into scripted television.

The half-hour scripted pilot was “about a kid fresh out of high school who’s pursing the new American dream of being a celebrity without having any talent,” Burnham told Variety at the time.

Burnham played Zach Stone, a teenager who spent the money he was going to use on college tuition to hire a camera crew to document his life at home. The character believed he could manufacture fame for himself by making himself look like the star of a reality show with staged events.

 

As Burnham worked on his TV show, he continued making comedy appearances, like the 2011 taping of “The Green Room.”

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The season two premiere of “The Green Room” on Showtime, hosted by Paul Provenza, featured 20-year-old Burnham in a live discussion with Ray Romano, Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow, and Marc Maron. 

During the episode, Burnham performed “Art is Dead” — one of his songs from “Words, Words, Words” — in front of the older generation of comics. The song is a pointed analysis of how and why entertainers (particularly of the male variety) are “rewarded for never maturing” beyond their childlike need for attention.

The song is one of Burnham’s most notable works that digs at his own self-awareness and anticipation of the criticism that he doesn’t actually have anything worth listening to about how the world works. You can see this in one particular section of the song:

I am an artist, please god forgive me
I am an artist, please don’t revere me
I am an artist, please don’t respect me
I am an artist, you’re free to correct me

“Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous” premiered on May 2, 2013. But by June, MTV had canceled the show.

In his Facebook post announcing the cancelation, Burnham said he didn’t want blame to be put on MTV’s audience for the reason the show wasn’t renewed.

“I believe that the ‘internet generation’ (or ‘cyber generation’ if you want to sound even lamer) is very misunderstood and underestimated,” he wrote. “What many older people dismiss as my generation’s short attention spans, I see as young people hunger for density, demanding that every second of material that you give them is worthy of their time. This challenge, though daunting, is a good thing. It pushes art forward.”

Burnham said that perhaps the show could have a second life somewhere else, but as of 2021 his reality-show parody character has never resurfaced.

Burnham had already been working on a new special called “what.” In December 2013, the special was released on Netflix and for free on Burnham’s YouTube channel.

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Burnham not only released the new special, but also wrote and published a book of poetry (TK title) that year. In a Reddit AMA (“Ask Me Anything”), he said it had taken about three years to develop the special.

“Comedy is very strange to me and I don’t fully understand it’s purpose or function (hence ‘what.’),” Burnham said in the AMA. “And furthermore, I am very confused how comedy relates to me, and how it helps or hurts me, and how the audience relates to me. Are they my friends? My customers? Something in between? It’s all very strange and this show wasn’t meant to give answers to the audience as much as it was meant to let the audience in on those questions if that makes sense.”

 

Burnham also returned to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with 10 performances of “what.” It was around this time that he began experiencing panic attacks on stage.

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In many interviews over the years, Burnham has said that he experienced bad stomachaches throughout high school and spent time in hospitals and his school nurse’s office. But what he (and adults around him) were mistaking for some mysterious sickness was actually symptoms of anxiety.

As his live audiences grew in size, and his career pushed forward, that anxiety started manifesting as panic attacks. 

“At Edinburgh Fringe Festival, my opening night I was in front of a lot of people performing and ten minutes in just — tunnel vision and shortness of breath,” Burnham said in an interview for the Off Camera Show in 2018. “I had no idea what it was, just powered through it for ten minutes. No one knew it was happening.” 

Burnham says he didn’t realize at the time that these were symptoms of a panic attack. He was looking up things like “how to deal with stage fright” online but not finding answers. He thought the issue was linked to his role as a performer — not an outside force that he’d always been dealing with. 

“I’ve had ten panic attacks my life,” he said on the Off Camera Show. “Nine on stage and one on a train between shows.”

In 2014 Burnham appeared on an episode of “Parks and Rec.”

His character, Chip McCapp, is a 17-year-old country singer whose top song is called “Beautiful Like My Mom (Support the Troops).” He has an elitist diva personality that’s covered up with a faux-Southern charm.

A couple years later, in his second Netflix special, Burnham would continue needling the “stadium country music” industry with a song called “Pandering.”

Throughout 2013 and 2014, Burnham was also active on Vine. To this day, some of his classic bits appear in “best of” compilations from the platform.

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Some of the highlights include songs like, “Yo my raps on Vine would be a lot stronger if the videos on Vine were just a little bit long—.”

In 2015, the now 25-year-old Burnham started touring with yet another stand-up special titled “Make Happy.”

During the last 15 minutes of “Make Happy,” Burnham turns the comedy switch down a bit and begins talking to the audience about how his comedy is almost always about performing itself because he thinks people are, at all times, doing a “performance” for one another.

“They say it’s like the ‘me’ generation. It’s not. The arrogance is taught or it was cultivated. It’s self-conscious. That’s what it is. It’s conscious of self. Social media; it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform so the market said, here, perform. Perform everything to each other, all the time for no reason. It’s prison. Its horrific.”

Burnham then kicks back into a Kanye West style parody song, still addressing his audience, who seem unsure of whether to laugh, applaud, or sit somberly in their chairs. 

“A part of me loves you, part of me hates you,” he sang to the crowd. “Part of me needs you, part of me fears you. And I don’t think that I can handle this right now. Look at them, they’re just staring at me, like ‘Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.'”

 

“Make Happy” premiered on Netflix as a special to more critical acclaim than ever.

The video of his “Can’t Handle This” song (the “Kanye Rant” from the end of the special) was uploaded to Burnham’s YouTube account where it steadily grew more than 24 million views. 

While self-awareness and commentary on the act of performing had always been a tenet of Burnham’s comedy, “Make Happy” brought a new level of intimacy and sincerity to his work — and people responded with rave reviews.

Around the time of “Make Happy,” Burnham began working on a new movie script about the anxiety he was experiencing.

In a Reddit AMA Burnham did in June 2016, he said he had been coming to terms with how to express the anxiety and panic attacks he was having “because it came from something I was pretty ashamed of and didn’t even really want to admit to myself.”

But by performing that song, Burnham said it made him feel “less anxious because now [his] anxiety was part of the show.”

Something unexpected came out of that expression of anxiety in his live shows — his younger fans, mostly teenage girls, were coming up to him after the shows to tell him that they could relate. 

So when he sat down to write a movie script, his protagonist wound up being a 13-year-old girl living in 2018 and making YouTube videos.

“I was coming to terms with my own anxiety, and I wanted to talk about the internet,” Burnham said at a Q&A about the movie attended by Insider in 2018. “Because I felt like I have a relationship with the internet that I didn’t see represented and the way my anxiety was interfacing with it.”

He continued: “So it was ‘What is it like to be alive right now?’ I feel really nervous and uncomfortable and unsure of myself, and things are changing really rapidly and I don’t know what’s going on, and I was like ‘Oh eighth grade.”

Burnham started watching a lot of YouTube videos to see how young people were expressing themselves on line. 

“The boys tended to talk about Fortnite and the girls tended to talk about their souls, so it was like ‘OK I guess I’m writing a story about a girl,'” Burnham said.

 

Burnham decided to stop doing live comedy after “Make Happy.” Instead, he focused on writing and directing other comedian’s specials.

In 2017, Burnham directed Jerrod Carmichael’s Netflix special. The following year, he also directed Chris Rock’s “Tamborine” special.”

Burnham also appeared in two movies in 2017: “The Big Sick” and “Rough Night.”

“The Big Sick” (produced by Judd Apatow and cowritten by Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani) is based on a true story, and features of a number of real-life comedians. Burnham was among the cast of comedic actors who appears in scenes that take place at a comedy club.

Years later, in Burnham’s 2021 special “Inside,” he would use a joke about pirate maps that appears in one of his scenes found in the DVD extras of “The Big Sick.”

Burnham also finished writing and directing his first feature film, “Eighth Grade,” which premiered at Sundance in 2018.

“Eighth Grade” was widely praised by critics (the movie currently has a 99% “certified fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes with more than 300 reviews cataloged).

The movie was was snubbed by the Oscars, but Burnham won several other awards for writing and directing his first feature film, including top honors at the Writers Guild and Directors Guild of America awards. 

 

During the press tour for “Eighth Grade,” Burnham made it clear that he was more interested in continuing to write, direct, and act than he was in doing more live comedy shows.

“I stepped away from stand-up after ‘Make Happy,'” Burnham told Rolling Stone in 2018. “I just felt like I did what I wanted. I had no more ideas in that space and I felt like I’d sort of exhausted myself as a subject.”

Burnham also talked about wanting to interrogate the way millennials and Gen Z’s connection to the internet wasn’t a black or white issue. 

“It’s everything. It’s overstimulating, it’s numbing,” Burnham told Rookie Mag in 2018. “We’re hyper-connected, we’re super lonely. Black Lives Matter, Trump. Both things! It’s giving visibility to people who never would have had visibility ever before. It’s keeping people accountable who have never been held accountable. And we’re kind of miserable, and the country’s on fire.”

He continued: “My issue is that, to have a conversation about the internet, the only place we have conversations is on the internet, and do you think the internet might have a vested interest in not having a critical conversation about itself?”

In 2019, filming was completed for the Oscar-winning movie “Promising Young Woman.”

Burnham played the main love interest in the movie, which premiered at Sundance in January 2020 and was then given a wide release in December 2020 (smack-dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic). 

“Promising Young Woman” was nominated for several Oscars, including best picture. Writer-director Emerald Fennell won the Oscar for best original screenplay. 

Burnham was planning on returning to live comedy at the start of 2020. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, and instead he started working on “Inside.”

“Inside” starts off right where “Make Happy” ended — with Burnham reentering the small studio space featured in the closing shot of the his 2016 special. Many songs and jokes throughout “Inside” reference Burnham’s previous work, including a whole section where he sits in front of a project playing his “My Whole Family” YouTube video from 2006.

Then, in the final act of the special, Burnham gives a monologue in the middle of an emotional song, explaining how his plans in 2020 went sideways: 

“You wanna hear a funny story? So, uh… Five years ago, I quit performing live comedy, because I was beginning to have severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a good place to have them. So I quit. And I didn’t perform for five years, and I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally. And you know what? I did! I got better! I got so much better, in fact, that in January of 2020, I thought, “You know what? I should start performing again. I’ve been hiding from the world, and I need to re-enter.” And then, the funniest thing happened…”

For more on “Inside,” read our full breakdown of 27 details you might have missed in the special here.

So what’s next for Bo Burnham? He’s playing former NBA star Larry Bird in an upcoming TV show, working on a “Sesame Street” movie, and has already written a second movie.

In March 2021, news broke that Burnham (who is 6’6″) was set to play the famous Boston Celtics star Larry Bird in an HBO series about the Los Angeles Lakers team, set in the 1980s. No premiere date has been announced yet, though IMDB has the pilot episode marked as “completed.”

As reported in 2019, Burnham also helped write songs for an upcoming live-action “Sesame Street” movie. Starring Anne Hathaway, the movie was originally going to premiere in 2021 but has been moved to 22, according the The Wrap.

Last but not least, Burnham’s second completed movie script is reportedly in the works with comedian/actor Jaboukie Young-White (who appeared with Burnham in “Rough Night”) and actress Danielle Macdonald (“PattiCake$,” “Dumplin'”) set to star. The movie is currently untitled, though back in 2013 Burnham said the working title had originally been “Gay Kid and Fat Chick.” 

In a 2013 Reddit AMA, Burnham described the story about two best friends in high school who “decide to dress up and beat the f— out of ‘mean’ people at their school.” He also said at the time that he wasn’t going to act in the movie.

“I’d really love to make something that doesn’t involve my stupid face,” Burnham said at the time.

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