Ready, set … Bo! (Burnham, that is)
Coldplay. Weezer. Alanis Morissette. Bo Burnham?
The last name on the list — a Hamilton 17-year-old who just two years ago only “sort of” knew piano and had yet to pick up a guitar — seems out of place with some of today’s top hit makers, and in a sense it is. After all, what Burnham does isn’t exactly “mainstream.”
Yet that’s the company Burnham found himself keeping in the immediate aftermath of the June 17 release of his six-song EP, “Bo’ Fo’ Sho’.” The album climbed as high as number 6 in the iTunes rankings — vaulting past the Weezer and Morissette releases of a week earlier — and spent its entire first week as the number-one comedy album on Apple’s music service.
Burnham hastens to note that the iTunes ranking reflects merely “over 5,000” downloads the first week, a far cry from “gold” or “platinum” status. Subtract the expenses taken out by Comedy Central Records, and “we are not clearing college bills anytime soon,” said Burnham, who has chosen to enroll this fall in New York University’s renowned Tisch School of the Arts over a couple of Ivy League options — at least, unless a better offer comes along.
Still, the warm reception for the EP represents another step forward for a career launched on YouTube, where Burnham’s 13 videos have amassed over 13.5 million views.
But before you scurry to point your browser in Burnham’s direction, be forewarned. Behind the seemingly innocent opening frame of a baby-faced and T-shirt-clad Burnham sitting on his bed, framed by a navy blue wall and sloped white ceiling, lurks some lyrics that may offend those in adjoining cubicles. Hitler and feminine hygiene products rate multiple mentions in Burnham’s songs, for example.
Then again, so do humorous boasts about his sexual prowess, which are juxtaposed with not-so-exaggerated claims about his skill at manipulating fractions and other things mathematical in songs like “3.14 Apple Pi” and “New Math.” (Bonus points for those who laugh at first listen at lines like, “Santa Claus multiplied by ‘i,’ well, I guess that makes him real,” and “What’s the opposite of lnx? Duraflame, the unnatural log.”)
On this latter front, Burnham clearly has “cred.” A 2000 Winthrop School math league certificate still adorns his bedroom wall, and he once boasted in an interview of being able to solve the 3x3 Rubik’s Cube in under a minute and the 4x4 and the 5x5 version in about 10 minutes each.
While the inventive if inflammatory lyrics are rightfully where Burnham hangs his hat, he seems to underrate his musical ability, saying of his guitar playing, for example, involved learning “a couple of chords.”
“As any guitarist can tell you, after that, you can sort of hack your way through it,” he said.
But unlike the flash-in-the-pan Internet phenomena to which he mockingly compares himself on his own Web site (www.boburnham.com) — namely Chris “Leave Britney Alone” Crocker and “The Chocolate Rain Guy” — Burnham’s tunes hold up to multiple listens.
During a recent sold-out show at the Comedy Connection at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, Burnham joked — one suspects not entirely untruthfully — that the song “Sunday School,” in which he adopts the persona of a, shall we say, “overly exuberant” CCD teacher, was the reason the recent St. John’s Prep grad waited until he had diploma in hand before releasing his EP. But if his former teachers cannot quite endorse all the content, they can at least take solace in the knowledge that their former pupil was paying attention a bit over the past four years.
Drama was also a big part of Burnham’s high school experience, as he was part of a program that won the state festival championship in his freshman and junior years and advanced to the finals the other two years. As a senior, Burnham portrayed Odysseus in “The Odyssey,” and indeed, while links to his YouTube work were included in his application packet, his acceptance to perhaps the most selective drama program in the country likely had more to do with the two live monologues he had to perform than his page-view count.
A gay old time
What Burnham did not learn, however, in a classroom is to traipse along the balance beam on which one side lies offensiveness and the other — equally problematic for a comic — rests being too safe, too subtle and thus not interesting.
If Burnham had a tutor in this regard, it may well have been George Carlin, whose DVD box set could be found strewn on Burnham’s bed during a recent visit. The famed comedian had been dead three days when Burnham took the stage at the Comedy Connection June 25, and Burnham closed his set by rhythmically chanting the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” to the thumping rap beat of his “I’m Bo Yo.” While some in the audience may have been taken aback, somewhere, Carlin was smiling.
But before shocking live audiences, Burnham started at home, or at least it would seem that way. One of his original two videos was “My Whole Family (Thinks I’m Gay),” posted on YouTube Dec. 28, 2006. Though reluctant to over-explain any of his songs, which, after all, are meant to be fun, Burnham suggests it would be unwise to read the song too literally. He is not talking about parents Pattie, until recently a school nurse at St. John’s Prep, father Scott, the owner of a construction company; sister Samm, a law student at Suffolk University, and brother Pete, a student and football player at Cornell who was the original “target audience” of his YouTube uploads.
Rather, the song is a response to “the world,” which was quick to label the rail-thin, 6-foot, 5-inch drama enthusiast “theater queer.” “Whole Family” is Burnham embracing that label, making it his own. There is no Seinfeld-ian disclaimer — “not that there’s anything wrong with that” — nor does there need to be.
“I made sure I crafted [the song] so that it would not come off homophobic,” Burnham said, noting with a laugh that a less-than-enlightened attitude probably would have gotten him off on the wrong foot at NYU. On a more serious note, he said he has been heartened that his fan e-mail crosses lines of race and sexual orientation.
It certainly seems that Burnham is aware that his tender age allows him to push the envelope a little further than he otherwise might. During his Comedy Connection show, he would periodically interrupt songs midstream after particularly offensive lyrics, cringing along with and offering his apologies to his parents’ contemporaries, a new-era Eddie Haskell. But Burnham thinks that another part of the equation is that he turns the searing spotlight on himself.
“Every vice and flaw about myself does not go unnoticed,” he said. In “High School Party,” for example, he confesses to seeking out a romantic “how to” on Wikipedia. This is precisely the type of information most kids his age take great pains to hide, he notes. “Because I’m honest, I’m more likeable.”
His big break.com
Burnham’s big break, fittingly enough, came when break.com, a Web site that culls the choice wheat from vast expanses of YouTube chaff, promoted his videos. Almost overnight, his YouTube counter clicked over into seven figures. Then last fall, an assistant for in the Gersh Agency, which has offices in New York and Beverly Hills, came across his work, showed it to his boss, and just like that, Burnham had an agent.
One of the better gigs he has landed thus far found Burnham flying to London earlier this year to tape a segment for the British television show, “The World Stands Up,” which just aired June 30.
Burnham said his manager has been in discussions with 20th Century Fox over a possible television development deal, and a live tour under the umbrella of Comedy Central is also a possibility. As of now, one place you are sure to find Burnham is Caroline’s in New York City for three shows next weekend with Joel McHale, host of E! TV’s “The Soup.” Then in Montreal on July 16, where he is on the bill for “AMP’D: The Music Comedy Show,” part of the Just for Laughs Festival. (http://www.hahaha.com/en/detail_spectacle/172/750/)
But he also tells fans to keep their eyes on the skies when driving down Route 1, as he hopes to book a show or two closer to home, perhaps at the Kowloon in Saugus, before heading off to college.
Burnham readily admits he is “clearly not a seasoned comedian,” calling his recent Faneuil Hall show “really messy,” though the audience response seemed to indicate the lack of polish only added to his charm.
In his young career, Burnham has already crossed paths with McHale and NBC “Last Comic Standing” veterans Ty Barnett and Chris Porter. Far from being jealous at how quickly doors have opened for him, Burnham said, “Every comic I’ve met has been incredibly helpful, nice and supportive. They say, ‘It’s so great you got your start so early.’”
Perhaps befitting his tender age, Burnham does not feel the need to plan out his seemingly limitless future with precision. He sees himself heading off to NYU in the fall, taking classes during the day and playing shows at night.
He starts, “If things really pick up...” but never finishes the sentence.
“I’m aware I’m very lucky,” he says. “I’m going on a ride no one else gets to go on.”