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Grim introspection in Bo Burnham's 'Make Happy'


June 28, 2016

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    Like his previous material, Bo Burnham’s second Netflix-affiliated stand-up special, Make Happy, is full of clever songs with quippy lyrics, lengthy gags that stretch and deconstruct their premise to unexpected conclusions, and jokes with dark, subversive punchlines. However, despite all his talk about how “honesty is for the birds,” Burnham is painstakingly introspective, raw and cripplingly self-conscious on stage, transcending Make Happy from your average, run-of-the-mill comedy special into a must-see, one-man performance. 
    The backbone of Burnham’s standup material has always been his keyboard-heavy, self-composed comedy songs, which have been a consistent comedic highlight throughout his near-decade long career. The set list for Make Happy includes a song satirically expressing Burnham’s grief over his status and privilege as part of the straight white male demographic, along with a ballad criticizing current dating culture, poking fun at the unrealistic expectations people give themselves in finding a flawless, perfect partner. 
    Burnham also targets current trends in the music industry, using nursery rhymes to point out how recent tracks in the rap genre have decided to throw out lyrical quality in favor of beat-fetishism. Also within his repertoire is a rural jingle parodying the false authenticity of modern country singers who brazenly compose and perform songs aimed at appealing to the working class, all while enjoying luxuries like $5,000 boots and private jet rides. 
    Perhaps the darkest bit in his show is a catchy, faux-inspirational pop anthem telling people to kill themselves, which is actually a cautionary message for people to avoid relying on uplifting pop songs like “Roar” or “Brave” to  bring them happiness and deliver unto them sagely wisdom.  
    At first glance, Burnham, with his cutting condemnations about the entertainment industry, may appear as a curmudgeon; however, unlike an old man yelling at kids to get off his damn lawn, there’s substance beneath his criticisms. There’s genuine alarm and concern in his voice about the toxicity embedded in the relationship between entertainers and fans. In Burnham’s eyes, that type of dependency between celebrities and consumers breeds false intimacy and is ultimately unhealthy for both parties. 
    Burnham closes the last 15 minutes of his show with a bombastic, Kanye West-inspired monologue about Pringles and Chipotle, accompanied with choreographed lights, auto-tuned mics, heavy fog and instrumental background music that wouldn’t be out of place in a megachurch service. In the midst of his Kanye West parody, Burnham nakedly displays his thoughts and anxieties on his own role as an entertainer: “Truth is my biggest problem is you. / A part of me loves you. / A part of me hates you. / A part of me needs you. / A part of me fears you.”
    In Make Happy, Burnham both entertains and provokes, using his off-kilter humor to explore and examine the temporary reprieve entertainment provides us, as well as the transient nature of happiness and how it conflicts with our desire to clutch and cling onto that feeling at all times.

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