Anxiety, Absurdity, and the Postmodernist Millennial: A Bo Burnham Case Study

14423758_10210839747979607_1219339296_oBy Daniella Mazzio, Videographer & Staff Writer
Graphic by Daniella Mazzio


“Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to someone else.” -Will Rogers

In December 2006, Bo Burnham had released his first two videos on YouTube. The very first of the two posted by the then sixteen-year-old musical comedian, titled “My Whole Family…,” is a series of verses on how the singer’s entire family thinks he might be gay. The video almost immediately went viral.

Burnham is now twenty-six years old and has one EP, three albums (with a possible upcoming fourth), four taped comedy specials, a TV show he created, wrote, and starred in, a book of poetry, and a script that made the 2013 blacklist for best unproduced screenplays. The artist’s success is not only impressive but is one of the first of very few success stories about a millennial that other millennials can take ownership of. Bo Burnham indeed can attribute his initial fortune to the internet and video streaming. At the time of his breakout, Burnham was a sixteen-year-old producing hits on a website that had only been around for a little over a year at the time, and his predominantly millennial fanbase was experiencing the first instance of getting to see someone their own age rise to fame right before their very eyes. Bo Burnham isn’t the only case of millennials witnessing rapid fame occurring to one of their peers, but he is one of the earliest examples, and one that occurred before the market for instant fame was truly developed (see: Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and Tumblr).

The millennial generation is one often characterized as a self-centered one. Infamously, Time Magazine released a cover story entitled “Millennials: The Me Me Me Generation,” with a subheading characterizing the generation as “lazy, entitled narcissists.” Millennials can easily appear as overly self-involved with the boom of social media, where each development becomes more and more focused on creating and performing for a personal audience.

To look beyond their self-centered appearance, questions must be posed. What are they creating? What are they performing? What are they watching? Is their content to be taken seriously?

Ten Years Ago

2006 marked the beginning of the housing crisis that occurred in the mid-to-late 2000s. The housing bubble was on its way to a peak number of foreclosures with further developments in the subprime mortgage crisis. One year away from the start of a US recession, there was an economic stress weighing on America — particular upper-middle-class America, which is typically held as the model for American life. This model was heavily represented in the media with sitcoms such as King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Still Standing, 8 Simple Rules, and My Wife and Kids dominating family programming for network television in the early ‘00s. Many of these shows went off the air around the mid-00s — around the economic downturn.

Undoubtedly the crumbling of the American standard took quite the toll on Generation Y, whose way of life was being redefined and was in need of emergency reconstruction. However, the economic context of the 2000s was merely a backdrop to millennials, whom many of which at the time would’ve still been in their formative years. Alongside new economic circumstances, millennials also grew up in a decade that was practically never without war (the War in Afghanistan began in 2001, and both the War in Afghanistan and the Iraq War spanned past 2010). Political, economic, and social disasters were significant events in the lives of those raising families in the 2000s. For millennials, these disasters were a part of everyday life.

In entertainment, there was a sudden stall in new programming about the so-called average American. In the mid-2000s, two important game-changing sitcoms were produced on network television — The Office, and 30 Rock, both of whom played with form and more absurd humor. Instead of the humor being derived from everyday situations gone awry, comedy started being written about larger-than-life characters (typically ones in positions of power) and the normal people who have to put up with them. Both of these shows also put into question whether anyone really conforms to the idea of normal, and often puts the protagonists at the center of the jokes. Whereas a program like Everybody Loves Raymond might provoke laughs at how Ray Romano is constantly at turmoil with the wild forces surrounding him, shows like 30 Rock start to acknowledge that maybe the central character (Liz Lemon) can themselves be flawed and self-critical. Instead of criticizing the outside world, these new shows actively laugh at the self and carry loose narratives that focus on personal growth and motivation.

This is the world context of sixteen-year-old Bo Burnham’s first video. The conventions of typical American life are present in this first bit of content the comedian released dealing with familial expectations (which land on a heteronormative plane). The lyrics themselves tend to rely on gay stereotypes, but the song itself doesn’t focus on how funny gay people are, but instead uses the song to skewer Burnham’s own lack of masculine qualities, while also addressing his family’s conflation between masculinity and sexual orientation.


“Just cause I’m afraid of the snow/Or my favorite color is the rainbow/I don’t mean to yell but I fear I must/Cause I’m losing the people that I thought I could trust.” 

While the content itself is still debatably problematic, the focus of Burnham’s comedy at his very start reflects the changing mentalities in media as created and consumed by millennials — a focus that begins to shift onto the self.

Change, Change, Change — Words, Words, Words

In 2009 Bo Burnham released his first full-length comedy special and album, words, words, words. At this time politically, President Barack Obama has recently been inaugurated into his first term. America is riding on a high of hope for change — a hope throughout the 2008 election that was widely motivated by millennials, internet culture, and young voters. Culturally, cult hit Community made it to network television — a show that didn’t focus on regular people surrounded by chaos but instead painted the world as itself chaotic, and focused on the flawed people that live in it and the positivity that comes from mutual support. While Community wasn’t the first program about a group of friends, it is one of the first that examined the flaws of the protagonists instead of forgiving them as they critique their environment. In the case of the environment, everyone in the Community universe is flawed and eccentric but isn’t so often the butt of the joke. Community’s format also ventured deeper into an absurdist approach — not just featuring a different style of humor, but establishing itself as an auteurist sitcom.

The evolutionary links between the landscape millennials were born into and the content they were creating continued to be easily identifiable in Burnham’s work. One of the final songs in Burnham’s words words words is a song he himself sets up as not exactly being “funny.” “art is dead.” features Burnham posing a problem to himself as an artist, and to the artistic community as a whole.



“I must be psychotic, I must be demented/To think that I’m worthy of all this attention.”


Burnham has self-critiqued before (as in the aforementioned “My Whole Family…”) but the development between this song and his first demonstrates a paradoxical anxiety over personal identity and a frustration with the capitalistic nature of an industry that is supposedly for the betterment of others. Within his first full-length comedy special, Burnham continues focusing the punchline on himself and begins implementing the anxiety of being a young performer into his act.

Surveilled Performance

This anxiety specific to performance and youth is even further explored in his following special, what. (2013). Where the performer’s sophomore hour-long special truly differs in response to his previous work is primarily in structure. Prior to what., Burnham had already managed to incorporate unorthodox forms into his comedy — for instance, the use of poetry — but other than differing mediums, his work was a collection of bits with no thread tying them together. On the occasion of what., Burnham plays with form in a way that doesn’t just celebrate other mediums but transcends the mere idea of a what a comedy special should be. The special is an hour-long theatrical piece — performance art more than anything else. The first five minutes involves Burnham silently interacting with a pre-recorded track, both instigating the recording and responding to it. The rest of the special culminates into a finale called “We Think We Know You,” a piece that doesn’t quite self-critique but does center on the self, and return to Burnham’s anxieties (CW: use of a homophobic slur).



“I once heard that you actually act quiet ’cause you’re shy and introverted in real life, and that people shouldn’t expect you to act the same way offstage as you do onstage. Yeah… that makes no sense.”


Even without self-critique (and the finale isn’t entirely devoid of them — there’s a couple of digs at himself for being “tall,” and “weird”), the finale exemplifies Burnham’s departure from standard joke-telling. Debatably the finale isn’t even much of a joke (or at least isn’t laugh-out-loud funny). The heavy choreography throughout the entire special alongside an interesting focus on spectacle shows the then twenty-three-year-old veering into theatrics. He melds the forms of comedy, music, and theatrical performance art together into one narrative that ultimately commentates once again on the nature of performance.

Young people do not respond to this, you know, ‘introspective’ material, or these ‘challenges-to-the-form’, you know? Young people want jokes they can relate to, okay? So, write a silly song about Facebook, you know?”

In 2013, Edward Snowden leaked NSA information, revealing the amount of surveillance and lack of privacy in the digital age — an age that millennials were raised to depend upon. Perhaps it’s not so crazy to believe that young people understand the anxiety of being constantly watched. Silly as some of Burnham’s work may seem, it indicates a genuine and serious anxiety of constant surveillance.

The Internet As a Gateway for New Art

It is 2016 now. YouTube, a game-changer in content access and creation, is over a decade old and it’s been just short of a decade since Bo Burnham uploaded his first video onto the site. It takes only a few minutes to upload a YouTube video. Burnham did something anyone could’ve done easily and could’ve done with very little thought put into it. That singular action of an initial upload defined the teenager’s life for the ten years that followed the upload and his millennial audience watched his change intimately. Millennials are now in their mid 30s at oldest, and late teens at youngest (or at least for those who can pinpoint when the generation even began). The United States has been involved in war without intermission since 2001. The upcoming 2016 election has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth — millennials overwhelmingly found a candidate they truly believed in through Bernie Sanders, and they lost him.

Bo Burnham isn’t just representational in his relationship to millennials through performance. Burnham’s work demonstrates a shift happening artistically where credit is entirely due to millennials. Examining the work being produced on and by Netflix — a response to YouTube’s access to content that is quickly taking over the entertainment industry — there is a notable change in form occurring within new content being created. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is a highly stylized auteur sitcom that looks and sounds like few shows that have preceded it and is arguably the first designed specifically for a millennial audience. Bojack Horseman is a cartoon with a horse protagonist that begs for suspension of disbelief, and yet has been argued as the best show on television. Comedian Maria Bamford’s show Lady Dynamite is trippy, autobiographical chaos and her most recent comedy special (not produced on Netflix, but now defunct content provider, was filmed at her parents’ house. TV and comedy aren’t the only genres being subverted — Swiss Army Man was an eagerly-anticipated summer film in spite of its surrealist tones and juvenile plot points. Even The SpongeBob Musical’s Chicago premiere ignited waves in its blend of nostalgia, absurdity, and spectacle. Simpsonwave music, a blend of electronic music and meme culture including the hit show The Simpsons, evolved into its own genre of music over the summer with its own rules of artistic merit. Internet memes themselves, while seemingly innocuous, have mirrored the qualities of the dadaist art movement of the early 20th century, particularly as internet memes have involved into a critique of social and political values. The Facebook group Bernie Sanders Dank Meme Stash has nearly half a million members.


Because these new forms are widely driven by young people and internet culture, they’re not being taken seriously as actual developments into an art movement. However, all these developments have two things in common at their core: anxiety and absurdity. This new absurdist/post-modernist movement is a reaction to anxiety over the political and social landscape undoubtedly, but with the additional anxiety that comes with the constant audience of internet culture. Millennials are the first generation to be subjected to the constant expectation of performance, and considering how much of these aforementioned works (especially television and comedy) explicitly deal with mental health — notably anxiety disorders, depression, and bipolar disorder — the distrust in value associated with these absurd genres is inherently linked to the self. Even more notable than the focus on the self in millennial art is the aggressive attempts to diverge focus away from the Other. Though media outlets such as Time Magazine might dub this as a self-centered motivation, perhaps the mentality is more closely related to the motivations of a show like Community, where the focus is the eccentricities of the self as opposed to alienating anyone else who might be different.

Millennials receive criticism for being too sensitive, when in actuality their culture refuses to use art that distracts from the anxieties of life by deferring focus towards others. They take ownership of responsibility for personal and social anxieties, and use their art to examine themselves and the constructs they belong to.

Making Art and Making Happy

Bo Burnham released his most recent special, Make Happy, this past June. Once again, this special focused on performance and culminated into a finale that combines an arena concert, parody of famous figures, a tribute to famous figures, monologue, absurd jokes, and deeply personal confession into a breathless purging of anxiety.



“Come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health/And laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.”


The special (produced by and released directly through Netflix) doesn’t quite conclude with “Can’t Handle This,” but instead with an intimately shot scene at Burnham’s home — without an audience. “Oh good, it’s just us,” he says to the camera. The final song, “Are You Happy?” gives a sense of finality not only to the special, but to a decade-long phase of Burnham’s career. Make Happy and it’s final two pieces bring the question posed in “art is dead.” full circle — a search to find any sense of meaning in life and mental health in a world of constantly performing for others.

In the final frame, Burnham concludes with a final “Are you happy?” and parts ways with his keyboard, microphone, and notebook, greeting his girlfriend and dog, and disappearing out of sight into his house.


Is it comedy? Maybe not. But maybe that’s just not all that young people are trying to achieve.


One response to “Anxiety, Absurdity, and the Postmodernist Millennial: A Bo Burnham Case Study

  1. I think this is a fair analysis of millennial culture. I’d take this a step further and say that the truth that this piece speaks to is generally bad. I think many millennial may feel a lack of meaning in a new way. Perhaps all generations go through this, but there’s the sense that millennials are sort of owning this general lack of certainty. “I don’t know, and that’s okay”.

    While it is important to acknowledge the limits of one’s understanding, this should should be coupled with the knowledge that there are actions one can take to improve one’s understanding.

    Example: “I don’t know what I want to do for a career”. While there may be an inclination towards avoiding thoughts associated with this lack of certainty (which is easily enabled by revolutionary new entertainment mediums, social media, etc.), the more positive, proactive approach would be to try something. “Maybe I’d like teaching, let’s give that a try”.

    Even if this person finds they don’t enjoy teaching, they have progressed towards their goal of finding what they do enjoy.

    I think our generation would benefit from a new understanding of what they can do to solve their problems and find certainty.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s