Yes, this is the kid who broke through five years ago by trading on his lily-white suburban background, writing and making YouTube videos of precocious hip-hop songs and piano tunes in his bedroom. No doubt to some he remains an awkward high school kid trying to be cool. That sense of being an outcast is still a large part of 21-year-old Burnham’s personality and his act, but his imagination keeps growing, and his attitude has changed.
The progression was evident on last year’s Words Words Words special, recorded at Boston’s House of Blues. The titular nod to Shakespeare was appropriate; Burnham’s wordplay had gotten more clever, his lyrics more personal and introspective. In “Art is Dead,” he even expressed guilt over his sudden fame: “I must be psychotic / I must be demented / To think that I’m worthy of all this attention / Of all of this money you worked hard for / I slept in late while you worked at the drug store.”
Judging by his show at the Wilbur, that progression is continuing. Burnham has developed more unique ways to present his ideas. He opened the show sitting on a stool in a crisp gray hoodie and shiny red track pants, reading his diary as a pre-recorded track representing his conscience chided, “You used to be funny.” He mimed along, dancing pathetically, ripping off one pair of track pants to an identical pair underneath before getting down to his traditional jeans and t-shirt.
Pre-recorded crowd work? Why not? Burnham locked eyes with someone in the first few rows while the speakers blasted the words “uncomfortable eye contact” in an ominous baritone. When the track asked, “Do you want to see a magic trick?” Burnham paced the stage with a splayed deck of cards, then tossed the cards aside when the voice admonished, “Read a book.”
Burnham startled laughter from the crowd by going from silly to wonderful to profane and cruel with breakneck turns. Still during that opening track, the song changed moods, proclaiming, “Bo’s 20-year-old senses are melting with childlike wonder.” Narrated along a whimsical journey, Burnham met a unicorn…and then promptly shot it, forming a mock-pistol with his hands. He emptied the clip, reloaded, and emptied it again. The dizzying sequence ended with Burnham dancing like Godzilla and confessing, “It’s hard to segue.”
Burnham frequently returned to the device of interacting with pre-recorded bits, creating a one-man sketch comedy format he will likely keep developing. Is it cheating to use so many canned bits? Not when Burnham acts them out so effectively and entertainingly. Singing the new songs while sitting at his piano or strumming his guitar wouldn’t be as entertaining as watching him enact a battle between his left and right brain or respond as old high school enemies try to tear him down.
And that’s where something unexpected was seen: real anger. Burnham appeared truly hurt when an agent tells him he should stick to being the YouTube kid in his bedroom, or a detractor calls him “fag” and tells him he’s changed: “I never met you, but…” It’s a big laugh line, but it felt like more than a joke. When Burnham started directing the voice and adding instruments by playing air guitar or drums, the bit bordered on genius. It achieved that status when Burnham waved his hands to edit the distinct voices from saying “We think you’ve changed,” “We know best,” and “You suck,” to repeating, “We think we know you.”
Burnham said he was excited to get to the new stuff, but for the sake of fans who loved the goofy older videos, he revisited songs like “Love Is” and “New Math.” Unfortunately he played them a little too fast and with a bit of a snarl. Some amateurish routines about local furniture stores and a couple of technical problems also cropped up, but they remained the only flat points in a nearly hour-and-a-half show.
His anger returned toward the end in a song sung from the perspective of God, which included the line, “People give me money and I don’t know why / Because my real reflection is in a cup held by a homeless guy.” The emotion reached its peak during the encore, when Burnham dedicated a new and aggressive hip-hop tune called “Nerds” to “people like me.”
There were laugh lines, but again, it didn’t feel like a joke when Burnham sang, “Faggots / The spastic fat chicks who sit in the back with no one to do their lab with / I got your back, kid.” Ending with “I know it’s bad, kid, / But I got your back, kid” felt more effective than any “It Gets Better” video. In that moment, Burnham left behind the awkward wannabe persona and became the Spirit of the Avenging Nerd.
Goddamn, is that kid talented.