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YouTube darlings come and go, but Bo Burnham looks to be a new breed of homegrown star—the kind that sticks around. Back in 2006, a teenage Burnham wrote a few satirical songs inspired by his awkward years—“High School Party” chronicles the popular blowouts he wasn’t invited to, and “The Perfect Woman” explores an unrequited love for Helen Keller. He videotaped himself playing them on guitar or piano, and uploaded the final products on YouTube, which was a relatively new phenomenon at the time. To this day, Burnham has racked up more than 35 million hits. Two years later, Comedy Central Records released his EP Bo Fo Sho, then followed it up with last month’s self-titled full-length debut, which includes a DVD of a live show and the original YouTube videos. Its first track, the musical rap ditty “I’m Bo Yo,” perhaps best encapsulates everything there is to like about the 18-year-old comic: The song is catchy as hell, Burnham’s wordplay is on fine display, and he namechecks all sorts of pop-culture icons in an unabashedly sexual way. For example, one part sounds like, “I’m like Doug’s friend Skeeter whenever I meet her / Because I Skeeter so hard, they be callin’ her Patti Mayonnaise.” The A.V. Club called Burnham, one year into his whirlwind tour schedule, to discuss cyber-bullying, the appeal of rap, and what separates him from a dirty old man.
The A.V. Club: How did you first decide to upload your videos to YouTube?
Bo Burnham: I don’t know. I feel like I sort of tell a different story every time I’m asked this, because I don’t really remember. It wasn’t particularly important. I definitely didn’t put it up there as like, “This is my ticket out of this town!” I had written these songs, and I wanted to show them to my brother who’s in college. And at the time, YouTube was nothing, no one knew what it was. It was just like another outlet, and I didn’t think of it as a career move.
AVC: At the time, it was probably strange to broadcast so much of yourself to the world. Suddenly things weren’t personal anymore.
BB: I wasn’t afraid of it not being personal. I’m never too worried about that. If I craft the words, anything my videos say, I’m not worried about people thinking. I appreciate people that like my comedy and everything, but at the end of the day, if a thousand people on the Internet think I’m distasteful, those are a thousand faceless YouTube profiles I don’t really care about. Cyber-bullying is only terrible if you call it and think of it as cyber-bullying.
AVC: How much did the instant feedback of the Internet shape your songwriting?
BB: Not much, because most of it is like “Ha ha,” or “This wasn’t as funny.” It’s very rarely like, “You know, that joke could have used a little more development.” I do see what particular jokes people respond to best, and I might try to create more of that type. But there’s also the thing… I want it to feel very do-it-yourself, almost like voyeurism, just watching some kid experiment with his comedy. I try not to become too crowd-pleasing, because I think one of the appeals is that it’s not.
AVC: In a Boston Globe article, your high-school assistant principal is quoted as saying that the Bo people see at school is different than the Bo on the Internet. What did she mean by that?
BB: Even my Internet personality has changed a bit. It started out much more awkward and shy-kid, and became a little bit more, like—still really awkward, but with a layer of arrogance, to make the awkwardness that much more jarring. I wasn’t the class clown, I wasn’t trying to crack everybody up all the time with, like, my impressions of Borat. I just kind of kept to myself. I dunno. I’m usually just sitting there quietly judging people. I think she was trying to stick up for me, like, “Bo’s not a horrible racist.”
AVC: What appeals to you about gangsta rap?
BB: It’s the whole white-kid-rapper thing. I don’t perform it anymore because I think that’s so tired. It’s like, “Look how ironic it is!” But I think a rap that’s funny just because there were jokes is what I want to do. Rap is a really good medium for packing a lot of jokes and lyrics and witticisms into a short amount of time. Twisting words as much as I can.
AVC: What’s with all the sexual overtones?
BB: I think sexual things are funny. For a young kid to reference it who has no idea really what everything is about, and talk with such confidence, is a good irony. Because when you get too old, it just becomes creepy and dirty. But when you’re young, it can almost be like, a little more mischievous and naughty instead of like, “Yick!” It’s fun to see a little kid play with things that are so out of his head. It’s morbidly entertaining.
AVC: Very little of what you originally wrote for YouTube got changed on the new album. Was that a conscious decision, to keep things as they were?
BB: The songs seem to translate live, and I wanted it to still have this very small, homegrown, kid-in-his-bedroom feel. I wanted to show respect for the online community, that I think what pleases you guys, what you guys like, is good enough for any medium. You couldn’t do a show with just a bunch of puking cats. Some online phenomena don’t work.