When you’re a 17-year-old Internet sensation with a potentially career-making opportunity to perform at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, there are certain acts you don’t want to follow. Judd Apatow, Hollywood’s reigning king of comedy, is probably one of them. Last summer, Bo Burnham, a young comic from Hamilton, Mass., found himself in this predicament—onstage, following an impromptu set by the director of Knocked Up and The 40-year-old Virgin. With Apatow watching in the wings, the lanky and baby-faced Burnham took a seat at his keyboard, and launched into a set of musical musings on his usual subjects—painfully awkward teen sex, suburban gangster rap, and Bible camp hijinks—in his signature style: part Haley Joel Osment, part Dennis Leary. Afterwards, Apatow approached him for a meeting. “We talked about this idea I had for a movie,” says Burnham. “He seemed to like it and he was like, ‘all right, let’s do it.’ ”
Burnham’s implausible journey from small-town theatre geek to Hollywood up-and-comer began in late December 2006. Then a 16-year-old junior at an all-boys Catholic school, Burnham posted a video of himself singing a self-penned ditty, called My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay, which he performed on a synthesizer in his bedroom (Every time I go to dinner / It seems I’m getting a little bit thinner). At the time, he was pretty sure his family did figure he was gay (he isn’t). “Well, you know, I was doing theatre in eighth grade,” he says. But he also understood the song was more broadly funny, because it was satirizing the hysteria surrounding the is-he-or-isn’t-he of sexual orientation. “It was joking about things that kids would never joke about,” he says. “Kids make fun of themselves for being skinny or weird or awkward, but never gay.”
The song got picked up by a college site called Break.com, and went overnight from 8,000 hits to over a million. “That’s when I was like, oh, okay,” he says. He brushed up on his piano skills, taught himself to play guitar, and—wielding a precocious gift for cross-referential wordplay—penned a series of increasingly intricate and offensive songs, which he then performed and posted on YouTube. His ballad The Perfect Woman is a love song to the deaf and blind American author and activist Hellen Keller. Klan KooKout is a jaunty tune about a racists’ picnic, sung with all the glee of a teen pastor. To date, he’s had over 20 million views on YouTube.
Mostly, he describes his style as “an 18-year-old trying to be funny.” But Burnham’s concepts are at once sophomoric and wickedly clever: in Rehab Center For Fictional Characters, he sings all five parts in a conversation between Tony the Tiger (suffering from professional ennui), the Easter Bunny (a crack addict) and friends, about life’s disappointments. The other part of his genius is his unlikeliness as a conduit for the kind of cringe-inducing humour that shocks people into re-evaluating their assumptions—in the tradition of Sarah Silverman. He’s also smart enough to know that his material won’t always be funny. “I know how I’m perceived onstage and I play off that,” he says. “But when I hit 25, 26, I won’t be able to rely on that.”
Now 18 and newly graduated (but still living with his parents), Burnham has a Beverly Hills agent, who also reps Dave Chapelle; an upcoming Comedy Central TV special; and a six-song EP, called Bo For Sho’, currently the number two comedy album on iTunes, beating out Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. In October, he became one of the youngest comics to headline in London’s Leicester Square.
Most recently, he signed on with Universal Studios to write the script he pitched last summer to Apatow. The movie is a musical comedy—billed as an anti-High School Musical. “It’s not a parody,” he says. “It’s just my version—what a real high school musical would be.” In his version, the Zac Efron character is named Bo, a none-too-subtle casting hint. Apatow is guiding Burnham through the writing process. “I don’t know what all producers do, but Judd is very hands-on,” he says. “I send him notes and he gives me feedback and all that stuff.”
In his hometown, his success has met with mixed reviews. “It always tends to be all the uptight white people, the ones who have caused all the problems in the first place, who are the first people to say, ‘Oh don’t say that!’ Meanwhile, the gay black people in the back are laughing their asses off,” he says, allowing for the requisite beat: “I’m not saying that all black people are gay.”
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