One of the first things I notice when I walk into any theatre, no matter what type of performance I am there to see, is the theatre itself. But before even rounding the block of Torrington, Connecticut’s bustling Main Street, the bright lights of marquee outside the Warner Theatre is something of a sight to behold. Upon entering the theatre, the Art Deco-style, exquisitely refurbished venue felt like a little piece of Broadway picked up and transplanted 100 miles away, smack dab in the Litchfield Hills. I was in heaven as I settled into my velvet-laden seat.
Now on to the featured act: Bo Burnham on his Make Happy Tour – I might be skewered and ridiculed for this, but neither Wayne nor I initially knew anything about him. I’m the mom and stepmom to seven children, all of whom are in the double digits but under 20. Most of them knew quite well who he was; in fact, Wayne and I piggy-backed their tickets into a night out for us and this comedy review. We consider ourselves well-versed, always on the lookout for what’s new in the business; we are, therefore, voracious guzzlers of everything entertainment. That on top of being regularly saturated with adolescent/young adult culture in our household (I’ve seen more YouTubes, Vines, Snapchats, and assorted Internet memes and GIFs than I care to), we usually pick up countless things by osmosis – but this time we came up blank. (However, in preparation for the night, Wayne did a little YouTube perusing; I waited to be surprised. But if I had investigated, this little nugget on Burnham’s “about me” page on his website, www.boburnham.com, might have told me all I needed to know: “I came out of my mother’s p***y on August 21st, 1990 and I will die on January 2014. Also, I have a dog named Bruce and I love him.” HMMM…) love him.
As soon as Burnham walked onto the stage, the crowd already was uproarious. Made up mostly of teens and twenty-somethings, there also were plenty of parents and even grandparents sprinkled throughout the mostly-packed venue. Burnham came out of the gate running. This gangly and awkward young man was a curious, yet talented mix of raunch, cynicism, apathy, and clinical depression. He spoke of the ills of his generation, addressing a variety of social issues including white privilege, relationship problems, and drugs and alcohol, sounding almost as if he was condoning it all, while more than subtly mocking them.
Stand-up comics always have amazed me – no matter how rehearsed a bit may be, they inject something new into each show, improvising as they go. The frenetic, diarrhea-of-the-mouth stylings of such comics like the late, great Robin Williams and the illustrious Jim Carrey continue to blow my mind whenever I’d see them. But Burnham is different; he brings his unique brand to comedy and he does so intelligently, thought-provokingly, and with an air that is both wry and exceedingly pessimistic; and that kind of shtick just works for him.
Burnham is more than just a stand-up comedian; he’s a performance artist. He puts on a show; one that is well-planned and well-rehearsed. He’s far from the first comedian to play an instrument during a show – but in addition to the keyboard he deftly tickled from time to time, he also used sound effects, dub step, strobe lights, a fog machine and blasts of smoke, lasers, and a scrolling LED sign which displayed only one message that I can recall – one in reference to female genitalia – its use packing quite a crude and memorable punch.
Burnham is at times ironical, at times nearly suicidal, and at times downright vulgar – but always funny. And while the young people may think that they have cornered the market on bawdy, raunchy humor (after all, what generation created Urban Dictionary?) we had Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, George Carlin, among others, who paved the way to allow today’s comics an open road for self-expression.
Burnham rocked the house upending country music, Kanye West, and even peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. He is intelligent enough to make anything funny; his fame is not unlike many others of his generation – it was spurred by accidental internet views and subsequent shares. Hundreds of millions can’t be wrong, as the 25-year-old has launched five tours since 2009. It would appear Burnham only has dipped his toes into his creative depths thus far and I can’t wait to see what else he has in store.
Let’s be totally honest – well maybe not totally. As comedian Bo Burnham said in his Make Happy Tour, the media (and entertainers) lie to their audiences. I am beyond the 18 to 49 demographic range that predetermines what we watch and see in the media. (Maybe well beyond, although I do have a younger, beautiful wife who is still within those all-important demographics.) I also have three teenagers, two of whom introduced to me to the comedy of Bo Burnham via clips on Netflix and YouTube. Nevertheless, I only saw brief pieces out of context, so I had no real idea of who Bo was or what his comedy was all about.
Two of my teenagers acquired tickets to Bo Burnham at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, Connecticut. The theatre is a beautifully restored, historic landmark that rivals many a Broadway theatre currently in existence. By happenstance, a little bit of luck, and much perseverance, my wife and I decided to join them with my two teenage step-daughters who also were familiar with Bo’s comedy. My children’s concerns were that I was a dinosaur and would not enjoy a comic like Bo Burnham. They believed I wouldn’t get his humor; in addition they thought some aspects of his routine that involved sex, toilet jokes, and black comedy would turn me off.
The bottom line was could a straight, white man beyond the 18-49 demographic range, enjoy a 25-year-old Internet-raised comedian like Bo Burnham?
My children were surprised that the answer to the above question was a resounding yes! Not only did I enjoy it, but I loved it! Bo’s humor was fresh, innovative, incisive, ironic, intellectual and, most importantly, funny. Yes, there were gender, racial, toilet and sex jokes, and the F-Bomb. But I found the material to be more mainstream than not (maybe Bo had toned down some of his routines because of censorship issues in the past – or maybe my teenagers are more conservative than I am). I was raised, after all, with the raunchy, crude and downright dirty humor of comedians like Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, John Leguziamo, George Carlin, Don Rickles and countless others who were banned at certain points from radio and television.
Bo reminded me of a young Robin Williams who, like the Energizer Bunny, seemed to have an endless supply of energy and could instantly segue from one routine to another. My children were somewhat fearful when he sang his “Kill Yourself” song. He even made jokes about the audience pulling back and clarified that he was not telling the audience to actually “kill” themselves. I told them about the classic comedy, M*A*S*H and how the theme song to the film and the television series was the satirical “Suicide is Painless.”
His musical talent and songwriting ability transformed the show into a comic, musical variety piece that reminded me of the Smothers Brothers (yes, I dated myself with that one). His country music satire and Kanye West impression were dead on. Like Seinfeld, he killed with the idea that show could be about nothing (or in Bo’s case, the art performing itself). His routine about a hand not being able to fit into the diameter opening of a Pringles can was one of many mundane things that we all take for granted, but in the hands of a skilled comedian, can become an intensely funny moment. The staged light show and dynamic rap pieces added an extra measure of anti-Heine inch salve.
It mostly was a young, hip, college-aged crowd, but I was thankful to see that there were people my age and older in the audience (whew!)
Bo is only twenty-five and already is a multi-hyphenate – actor, comedian, singer, songwriter, musician, poet and whether he wants to admit or not – a crowd pleaser. The standing ovation he received was well-deserved. His Make Happy Tour – at least for me – was a total success. I was indeed happy when I left the theatre.