Earlier this spring, I spoke with Bo Burnham for The Boston Globe, and the subject of his two-year hiatus between specials came up. Burnham had developed a lot of career momentum when his YouTube videos led to his first EP, Bo Fo Sho, in 2008, on through his second special, Words Words Words in 2010. He has been working on the material for his new special, what., since at least 2011, when he performed much of it at the Wilbur Theatre in Boston, his last show before moving to LA.
For the Globe interview, he said he was advised to get something new to the public to keep his profile high, but didn’t go for it. “Even if I get less fans because of my time off, I’m confident that I’ll have enough to make a living, and that’s all I need,” he said. “I’d much rather wait ‘til my material is up to par, in my opinion, than rush it just so I can stay in the limelight a little longer.”
Burnham’s work is getting better. His comic persona is developing beyond clever but simple juxtapositions (the white kid rapping, the nerd trying to do something cool) to something smarter, and even more heartfelt. True, his TV show Zach Stone never quite gelled on MTV and was canceled after one season. But it was an ambitious self-parody, and Burnham proved he could succeed in other media with his book Egghead. For those who haven’t been able to catch Burnham live, what. is worth the wait.
Burnham is very self-aware, of his image as the nerdy theatre kid who was once picked on in school, and of someone for whom fame came quickly. And he uses all of that in his show and in the five studio tracks. In “Nerds,” he tells all the rejects “I’ve got your back, kid,” and he mentioned in the Globe interview that he hopes kids can see him being silly and odd, and be a bit more comfortable in their own skin. There is “From God’s Perspective,” in which the higher power castigates humans for everything they’ve gotten wrong, going so far as to tell them they’re not going to heaven.
The music is getting more ambitious, musically and lyrically. There are still the faux-earnest piano ballads, like “#deep” and “Sad,” and they still work well. But “Left Brain, Right Brain” moves from Devo to what could be described as Broadway ambient with dizzying speed. And Burnham is of nimble voice and mind on “Hell Of A Ride,” rapping “You got nothing on me, I’m a nihilist.” Though the audio provides a lot of laughs on its own, there are a lot of visual gags in this material, so fans will want to seek out the video of the show on YouTube and Netflix (where it is scheduled for simultaneous release with the record).
Burnham still enjoys silly for its own sake, jabbing profanity and base irony, but those can be effective tools in the right hands, and when there is something in the same show more sophisticated with which to contrast it. It’s going to be fun watching Burnham continue to perfect that combination.