Bo Burnham’s Satire

In 2006, Bo Burnham was just an average 16-year-old boy who liked to upload his original songs to YouTube. Sounds typical, right? Burnham was anything but typical, as he was uploading videos with dark humor, clever puns, and satirical content that showed that his wisdom was far past his age. He sang about controversial topics, such as racism, Helen Keller, homosexuality, and white supremacy. His videos went viral, and that’s how Bo rose to fame. Bo’s comedic style is described as “a unique amalgam of music, spoken word poetry, and stand-up comedy – complete with George Carlin-esque social commentary and the goofiness of Steve Martin” (Hollywood Take). Burnham, now 27 years old, has 3 comedy specials, appearances on Comedy Central and MTV, his own poetry book, and more than 192 million views on YouTube.

Bo attended a Catholic high school, which is the target of a lot of his early comedy. He often satirizes concepts of God and how parts of the Bible seem to be hypocritical. Further in his career, he shifts to satirizing the entertainment industry after he sees what it’s like from the inside. If you watch all of his specials in order, you can see that his content is significantly “dumbed down”, which gives me the idea that his target is younger audiences. I say “dumbed down” because his dense wordplay (mostly found in his older material) doesn’t always stick right away, and the shock value isn’t as relevant in his work if you are watching it as a live audience. He was able to get away with doing this when his comedy was just on YouTube, as commenters could analyze the songs and further interpret what they meant, but in a show setting it didn’t resonate with the audience as much. A lot of Burnham’s older comedy saw a lot of delayed laughs because it took longer for the audience to catch on to the joke. In this paper, I will primarily be discussing the two topics he satirizes most, religion and the entertainment industry.

Bo graduated from St. John’s Preparatory School in the spring of 2008, just as his comedy career was starting to take off. He was accepted into New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, however he deferred to pursue his career in comedy. He then went on to sign a four-year contract with Comedy Central. I assume that because he was fresh out of high school, particularly an all-boys Catholic school, he was satirizing what he knew. This could be another reason that his material “dumbed down” later on in his career – because he is trying to appeal to a larger audience, and you won’t be in on the joke unless you understand the religion he is satirizing, and also because he was finding new material to satirize.

His song “Rant” from Words, Words, Words (2010) is known to be one of his most satirical songs. Through the lyrics of this song, you can see that Bo thinks people blindly follow what the church says, even if it doesn’t make sense or is hypocritical. For example, Bo sings about a verse in the Bible that condones slavery. Bo is satirically making a metaphorical interpretation to show how God condones slavery, which can be compared to the way that Christians condone other morally-questionable things to justify their beliefs that God can do no wrong. The point he’s making here is to show how ridiculous it is that Christians (his primary target, but could probably be applied to other religions) will blindly defend what their God says is right, even if they don’t quite understand what is being said (this is seen in the line “All the parents nod in agreement / I think I can vaguely see what He meant”).

“Rant” satirizes the paradoxes in religion, like how God is the “blue-balled anti-masturbator / the all-loving faggot-hater”. Bo thinks that religion is kind of superficial, and that these people attending church, who in this song he says are both rich and white, prioritize their problems first rather than actual issues in the world (“I come to you with one request: / There’s so much pain beyond this steeple / Wars and drugs and homeless people / Sadness where there should be joy / Hate and rape and Soulja Boy / A world in darkness needs your light / So I’m sure your schedule’s pretty tight / But my dog just had surgery / If you could fix that first?”).

The time period that Bo performs “Rant” in is also seen in his lyrics. Performed in 2009/2010, we can hear the cultural relevance of recent issues, a lot of which was homosexuality and how the church does not support legalizing gay marriage. Bo does some wordplay here, “Obama, could you pass some hope to the Pope / I know a couple dudes who wanna elope / See the church said nope so the bros can’t cope / The bros can grope but the bros can’t cope”. We see the obvious rhyming, but also his word choice is clever and packed with double meaning – “pass some hope” not only refers to Obama “passing hope” by legalizing gay marriage, but it also refers to one of Obama’s 2008 campaign slogans. Basically, Bo is saying “Hey Obama, screw what the church says, legalize gay marriage!” which we see happens later on in Obama’s presidency. He also briefly mentions Hurricane Katrina and criticizes the delayed response that FEMA had during that crisis, and relates it to Jesus and basically says that Jesus is a little too late helping us.

Another satirical song about religion and God is the song from his 2013 special what. called “From God’s Perspective.” In this song, Bo is calling out how ridiculous some things in the Bible are. Bo, who is singing as if he were God, says that the books that he wrote are way too thick (“Who needs a thousand metaphors / to figure out you shouldn’t be a dick”). Here, he is saying that to believe in God and religion, you just need to be a good person – it’s not about how often you go to church or pray, but how good of a person you are. Bo thinks it’s ridiculous that God had to write down some things that seem to be common sense to most people. Bo is implying that humans have let God down because all we do is argue, bicker, and fight. He even compares humans to a bad game of Sims, which is a computer generated game of life.

The latter part of the song tackles a more serious topic, moving away from the humor and parody and into the introspective ideas. “But nobody entertains the thought that / maybe God does not believe in you,” is a line that hit me the first time I heard this. While I’m not very religious myself, it showed me how stupid it is that we, as a society, fight over which religion is “right”, when in reality there may or may not even be such thing. This comes full circle with the idea that we just need to be good people and good to each other, rather than using our religion to justify our means of violence towards those with opposing beliefs. This song is satirical because it’s challenging people’s beliefs and aiming to expose and criticize the church.

While Bo’s audience is a wide variety, these satirical religious songs specifically target those devout believers in their respective religions. After consecutively listening to “Rant” and then “From God’s Perspective”, you can most likely see what I mean when I say that he “dumbed” his material down for the audience to understand. I had to Google some things mentioned in “Rant” to fully understand what he meant, and “From God’s Perspective” was easier to understand because he used more well-known issues to make his point. Not only this, but a lot of his later comedy is slowed down, most likely because of the fact that his faster material was harder to follow.

You can tell that Bo is really challenging the ideas of the church and the people that attend. His material shows some very progressive thinking, and that as a society we are growing out of traditional practices from the Bible (such as gay marriage; gay marriage is a lot more accepted now than it has been in past centuries, and some Christians often express their support of God and also support of same-sex marriage). These two songs alone can show that Bo has a deeper understanding of life and is very forward-thinking. The satire itself is progressive because he’s challenging the ideas of church and God without tearing down any other groups in the process of making a point (unlike how Chapelle was comparing the LGBT community with African-Americans in the “Discrimination Olympics”). He’s not necessarily satirizing God himself, but the God that people use for their own personal gain, and those who follow blindly and ignore the hypocrisy going on in many churches. I don’t think he’s trying to tear religion down, but rather open up the topic for discussion.

The other main topic Bo satirizes is the entertainment industry. As little as two years into his career, Bo has already seen what it’s like from the inside and decides to expose it for what he thinks it is. One of his first songs satirizing the industry is “Art is Dead” from Words, Words, Words. As the title suggests, Bo thinks art is dead because artists today (most notably musicians) aren’t passionate about their art anymore, but view it as a means to make money. “So, people think you’re funny / How do we get those people’s money? / I said art is dead / We’re rolling in dough while Carlin rolls in his grave.” – here, Bo is showing us that talent recruiters are actively seeking out talents and trying to make as much money as possible. Bo mentions George Carlin, whom he has stated as one of his comedic inspirations. By saying that Carlin would roll in his grave, he’s implying that Carlin would be disgusted with the industry today. Carlin was known to call out social injustices, and he would be ashamed that artists today (especially on-the-rise comedians) only put in minimal effort and gain huge success from it.

During another part of the song, Bo says “I am an artist, feel free to correct me”. Bo thinks that his standing compared to his fans shouldn’t matter, and that they should correct him if he’s wrong or says something offensive. He still has this mentality 6 years later in his 2016 Netflix special Make Happy, where he says “Stop sticking with artists through thick and thin. If I stop entertaining you, leave me. Don’t ‘stick with me’. You wouldn’t stick with your mechanic if he stopped fixing your car would you? I am in the service industry – I’m just overpaid”. I think he makes a really good point here, and you can see that throughout his career he still feels uncomfortable being paid for entertaining. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said that he believes comedy is meant to create dialogue. “Anyway, my point is, you do this stuff to get a reaction from people. You do this for other people to think about. So you can’t soak up people’s love and adoration and then try and silence them when they’re pissed about it.” (Rolling Stone).

3 years later, in his special what., Bo is still clearly fed up with people blindly buying into this grand marketing scheme and came out with another satirical song called “Repeat Stuff.” He is directly calling out mainstream musicians (which he specifies as Justin Bieber, One Direction, and Usher). This is primary satire, because he is clearly stating that the music industry counts on their consumers’ blind stupidity for them to thrive and make money. The song is called “Repeat Stuff” because the songs that were coming out around this time were just regurgitated love songs that keep recycling themselves; nothing is original anymore. “I also hope that you don’t see through / This cleverly constructed ruse / Designed by a marketing team / Cashing in on puberty and low self esteem / and girls desperate need to feel love” – this part satirizes the fact that most mainstream artists nowadays don’t write their own lyrics, but are rather generated by a marketing team to draw in young consumers. What’s sad about this is that we view art as a form of free expression, however Bo is saying that the music industry really isn’t free expression anymore because the artists don’t really have free reign over their careers, and that young people (young girls, specifically) don’t understand this – hence, why they still buy into it. “Oh, we know it’s not right / we know it’s not funny / but we’ll stop beating this dead horse / when it stops spitting out money / but until then, we will repeat stuff” – here, Bo is saying that the music industry knows that what they are doing is wrong, but it’s all about making the most money possible.

Bo satirizes the entertainment industry the most in his latest special Make Happy which featured three songs focused around the industry.  In “Country Song,” he states that country artists are some of the best songwriters, but the phenomenon known as “stadium country” isn’t honest and that these artists, like Keith Urban, are just Hollywood phonies disguised as country artists to pander to their audiences. He’s calling out how ridiculous it is that stadium-country artists sing about typical country things (“dirt road”, “cold beer”, “red pickup”), yet they’re most likely writing these songs from their own private jets. A lot of famous country stars live out in Los Angeles, and Bo thinks it’s ridiculous that they try to compare themselves with actual working-class people that live in small towns. He’s claiming that it’s all a facade.

Another lyric in the song goes, “A Bud Light with the logo facing out,” which Bo uses to mock these artists, as a lot of stadium-country artists get paid to sing about products (with beer being the most popular sponsored product). This goes back to the idea that this is just a quick way for them to make cash without really putting in the effort, while also pandering to a specific audience to make as much money as possible.

A more controversial song from Make Happy is his song “Kill Yourself.” The song starts off with him poking fun at the vaguely positive messages that Top 40 pop songs spread – “believe in yourself” “it gets better”, etc. The song starts off “Have you ever felt sad or lonely? / Have you ever felt two feet tall? / Have you ever thought, ‘Man, if only / I was anybody else at all’?” – this is direct wordplay pointed at Katy Perry’s hit song “Firework”, as her intro lyrics are framed as questions as well.

The chorus goes on to tell the audience that they should kill themselves, which is satirical because he’s challenging the way that we, as a society, deal with suicide. We would never tell somebody to kill themselves now, especially in today’s era where you can legally be held accountable for somebody’s suicide if it is proven that you provoked them into committing suicide. The second verse of his song takes on a very serious tone, saying that if you are depressed that you need to seek out a professional and talk about it. However, it quickly transitions back to the satirical chorus when Bo sings, “But if you search for / moral wisdom in Katy Perry’s lyrics / then kill yourself”. Here, he’s saying that you’re probably not that smart if you turn to pop culture to help solve your problems, and that your death wouldn’t be a great loss to society. It’s harsh, which is why it was very controversial. At the end of his live performance, he explicitly stated that the song is a joke, and that he apologizes before the bloggers tear him apart. Bo also likes to remind people that his on stage persona is an exaggerated, more arrogant version of himself.

Bo struggles with the entertainment industry because he knows that he has to be hypocritical to satirize it. “I fully embrace myself as a hypocrite. I mean, of course, I’m getting up there and making fun of someone like Katy Perry manipulating their fans into liking them. And I’m manipulating my fans into liking me by making fun of it, you know?” (Rolling Stone). An article in the New York Times similarly described this phenomenon: “Mr. Burnham has a large fan base of teenage girls and could benefit commercially from repeating himself, which may be partly why his scorn, which keeps escalating into a kind of babbling insanity, feels genuine and passionate.” (New York Times).

He mainly talks about the entertainment industry in a socio-cultural level, but in his song “Can’t Handle This” from Make Happy, he talks about it in a reductionist level. In a highly confessional song, he discusses his love/hate relationship with his fans and how he needs them, but also fears them. “I want to say what I think / And not care what you think about it”. He wants to be more than just an entertainer, but he’s aware of his personal limitations (“I know I’m not a doctor / I’m a pussy / I put on a silly show / So I should probably just shut up and do my job”). So, in essence, he gives the audience what they want (silly jokes) which makes him apart of the cycle of the very thing he has been satirizing. This is also a key moment where we see his hypocrisy.

To conclude, I think Bo is such a talented comedian who is resetting the rules of comedy and is paving way for future comedians. His shows are filled to the brim with silly jokes and thought-provoking songs, and I hope that he continues to create material and further contribute to social change.




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