In late 2006, a 16 year-old Bo Burnham set a camera on a pile of books, perched at a keyboard in his Smurf-blue bedroom, and recorded a song about how his family thought he was gay. It was just over a year after YouTube was launched, and weeks after Google bought the platform for $1.65 billion, catapulting the site into an everyday utility for cat videos, twerking tutorials, and cringe-inducing confessional videos from across the universe. Over the next few months, Burnham published a handful of silly songs ranging from an acoustic number about dating an 83 year old to a nerdy rap about his lack of gangster cred. Somehow, something clicked, and Burnham was one of YouTube’s first viral hits, earning him millions of views immediately, and subsuming him into the generation of content creators, who showcase talent in rawly produced, but earnestly authentic videos. Primordial YouTube was the folk art of comedy, providing bad lighting, askew angles, and image quality blurrier than pixilated genitals.
Now Burnham flaunts nearly 900,000 subscribers, a million followers on Twitter, and two million followers on Vine. At 18, he was one of Comedy Central’s youngest comics to be given a special. He also released an album on Comedy Central records, and has crossed the country with his live act, a raucous compilation of his musical comedy stylings. By 22, he wrote, executive produced, and starred in Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, which aired for one season in 2013.
Today, Burnham is focused on lunch. He’s snarfling down a sandwich in the living room of his expansive Hollywood house, his glimmering backyard pool rippling under the sun. At 24, his still-boyish looks are disarmed by his towering height and lanky figure. Soon he will be heading out on tour again, bringing his songs to stages around the States. “I have a space now that is interesting,” he says between bites. “I don’t have to go into the comedy clubs. I can do these in weird little rock venues or colleges, and I can kind of work [material] out there.”
Burnham grew up in the Boston area and went to an all-guys high school, where he cultivated the dorkish persona that he says is a hyperbolized version of himself. “There was no coolness there. I was the theater kid. I was obsessed with putting on a show, that is what I wanted to do,” he says. Then his videos exploded. “In high school, I would go open for Joel McHale somewhere, like I would go to Vegas, I would perform at the Mirage, and then I would come to sit in my history class on Monday like, ‘No one knows what I did.’”—DREW TEWKSBURY
He says his exposure online became the scaffolding to build his comedic success. “I had an audience before I had an act,” he says. Just don’t call him a YouTube star. “I have 23 videos on my YouTube channel,” he says. “There are other comedians that have hundreds of videos; they are more YouTube comedian than I am.”
In the time since his first online videos, Burnham says he’s been focusing on creating new material for television and films. He says he’s currently writing scripts that he hopes to direct, and “won’t have my face attached to it.” But for now, Burnham is all about getting onstage.
“It is meant to be an honest simulation of what it feels like to be alive right now for me, which is that, like, shit is changing really quick. You are going from loud to quiet, you are going from huge to intimate, things are flashing in your face and they are big and silly and they are weird. For me as a 24-year-old kid in 2015, that feels honest.” DT