Last Updated Sep 17, 2016 1:41 PM EDT
Bo Burnham started putting comedy videos on YouTube back in 2006, when he was just 16. They went viral, and today, Burnham is regarded as the first YouTube star as well as one of the most talented comedians of our time.
But Burnham is also an outspoken critic of the medium that boosted him to the top, reports “CBS This Morning: Saturday” co-host Anthony Mason.
“Do you think of yourself as a comedian?” Mason asked.
“Yeah, totally, I do. I think of myself as a writer-performer, yeah, that’s funny, yeah,” Burnham said.
Burnham has rewritten what it means to do standup in the internet age, combining a theater background with satirical comedic songwriting. He’s been honing his craft for 10 years with the World Wide Web watching.
When Burnham first began posting on YouTube, it was merely to share it with his brother, who was in college.
“It was like a digital snail mail. It wasn’t about anything happening career-wise, and then it just sort of happened and I fell into this weird thing,” Burnham said.
“How quickly did you see it happen?” Mason asked.
“Well like virally it just happens. I mean it got like a million hits in a day and you have you know, 20,000 comments, and your life doesn’t change at all in any way, but... it’s severely, severely weird,” Burnham said.
Burnham’s first video of him singing a satirical song, “My whole family thinks I’m gay” -- released when he was just 16 years old -- was viewed nine million times. He would release 12 more over the next 18 months alone.
Burnham began touring on the weekends while still in high school, opening for comedians like Joel McHale. He skipped college at New York University to pursue comedy full-time.
“There was a distance between what I was interested in, which was theater, and what I was doing, which was standing up and telling silly songs,” Burnham said. “And I think the last six years has been me trying to bridge that gap to bring the elements of theater that I love into my standup act.”
From his parents’ attic, Burnham landed a four-album deal with Comedy Central, becoming the youngest comic to have his own special. By age 19, he was appearing alongside comedians like Garry Shandling, Judd Apatow and Ray Romano.
Now 26, Burnham’s already a veteran stage performer. He said the idea behind his shows is to give his audience “the things that great musicals or concerts give you in the context of a comedy show.”
“I like the idea of conceiving a show and putting on a show, and especially when I got to the place where I could play theaters,” Burnham said. “I wanted a show that could fill a theater, show that actually -- because I went to see comedians in theaters that I loved, and I was in the back row and it’s just this person... and I’m like, I might as well be listening to a CD with 1,200 other people. Like I love the spaces of these things and I want a show that can fill that.”
Burnham’s latest special, “Make Happy,” was released on Netflix in June. It explores the conventions of being a modern-day performer. He explained that there’s a “very strange relationship” between people around his age and the idea of an audience.
“I mean just up until six years ago, this sort of floor fell out, and it felt like everyone was given an audience. It used to be famous people as like this bourgeois class, and then everyone normal,” Burnham said. “But at a certain point, like the floor fell out and then now it starts at like one ‘like’ and ends with Kim Kardashian. It feels like we’re all on this weird continuum. And I feel like people in the crowd relate to the idea of having an audience, of people watching them, of cultivating their own life, of performing their life on social media.”
But 10 years after becoming a viral sensation, Burnham now rages against the social media machine that propelled him to stardom.
“Facebook became ubiquitous when I was 16 so I vaguely formed a sense of myself, a little bit,” Burnham said. “I had kind of learned to think a little bit before the stuff was everywhere. But people that are 21 -- that it happened when they were 12 and 13 I think they have absolutely no chance. People are now like a condensed version of a PR team... so you have artists that are 80 percent branding experts and 20 percent actually making things. And they’re kind of giving people like a steady stream of like an IV drop of mediocre stuff every week that is, you know, not going to last and ages like milk.”
“And you don’t want that?” Mason asked.
“I don’t want that and I had to endure that you know, between specials -- we took like three years -- and by year two I had people tweeting at me ‘Are you dead?’ ‘What happened to you?’ ‘Remember him?’” Burnham said. “And it’s like you can’t take two years to make something. That’s what I worry the most, because I felt the pressure myself... not because I’m above it, it’s because I felt it. For young people creating things, I really worry that to make something good no matter what, it takes retreating away, making something, working on it, refining it, and then giving it to people. And that process has just been obliterated.”
“Because you can broadcast anywhere, anytime, anything. There is this unquenchable appetite for somebody to just keep putting stuff out,” Mason said.
“Absolutely, but I’m of the belief that one hour of something that I worked on for three years is better than 80 hours of things that I worked on for three years that I put out in little chunks, that you just have to be patient,” Burnham said. “I know, I sound like my grandfather... but I think a lot of people feel that way. That’s like the whole point of social media is that like, it’s used and hated. Everyone’s on Facebook, everyone hates it. Everyone’s on Twitter, everyone hates it. Everyone thinks everyone else is being lame on Twitter and they’re being lame because they have to be. It’s like, ‘No, we’re all being lame because we have to be.’ Because it’s horrible.”