Robert Pickering "Bo" Burnham, who started his stand-up comedy career after a video of him singing a parody song went viral in 2006, was one of the internet's (as well as YouTube's) earliest success stories. What started with a video meant for his family (specifically his brother in college) has culminated into a career of close to 16 years, with him winning 3 Emmy Awards for his comedy-drama special Inside this week.
A theatre enthusiast who is quite evident from his catalog of work, Burnham was a part of the theatre program at school and a state program in Massachusetts. In an interview in 2018, he described theatre as his "first real love" and one of the best experiences of his life. His specials even today have been described as "deeply personal, well-written pieces of theatre." His performances in stand-up specials Words Words Words, what., Make Happy and Inside have been described as performances similar to the ones in one-person theatre shows.
Burnham was just 16 years old when he videotaped himself performing two songs to share with his family, which went super-viral (at least for that era of the internet). YouTube, as well as Break.com, was credited as the reasons behind this unexpected and sudden rise and fame. Bo described his content at that time as "pubescent musical comedy," often parody-ing real-life situations, fictional characters, hip hop culture, white supremacy, and many more subjects. All of Burnham's videos were self-recorded in his family's home in Hamilton, Massachusetts, mostly in his bedroom, which gave the videos a much more personal and unique feel.
After the videos and his YouTube channel went viral and was seen by millions of viewers, he earned offers from Hollywood, a special on Comedy Central, a theatre tour, and a deal with Netflix bypassing the traditional route to stand-up success. Bo gradually found mainstream acclaim and success, going from the "teen YouTube internet sensation" to his comedy specials on streaming services like Netflix.
His climb on the ladder of success is very intriguing as well as unusual for that time, to say the least. In 2006, YouTube wasn't the powerhouse of entertainment that it is now. It hadn't reached the level where creators would make content specifically for consumption by a widespread audience all over the world. Essentially, it hadn't "blown up" yet. Instead, more often than not, it was more like the mechanism by which people would share home movies or informational videos with their families (which is precisely what Bo meant to do). Bo released his content at the perfect time when YouTube was still in its early stages and about to be used by the mainstream audience. Also, the fact that anything remotely funny and unique got you a niche audience obviously helped him.
By 2008, Bo wrote his first album of comedic songs titled "Bo Fo Sho" and was invited to perform at YouTube Live, a massive step in Bo Burnham's career and was a great way to make himself even more well-known. He was only 18 years old at the time and was already making it big in the entertainment industry. It's much more challenging to get your name out there now compared to that era of entertainment because there are so many people with the same ideas in mind. The proliferation of the entertainment industry with many different people doing the same thing doesn't help at all. Being unique at a time when you’re competing with millions of people doing their own thing is extremely difficult. Burnham himself said in an interview that "the system is rigged against you" and that a factor of luck was heavily involved in his rise to fame.
YouTube wasn't the only platform Bo used to reach out and develop a wider audience. Burnham was also one of the early “Vine Stars”. Vine (the TikTok/Reels of 2013-17) was THE entertainment social media app of its time, and Bo used this platform as well to stay relevant as well as further his career in stand-up comedy by making those 6-second videos and even promoting his work. This kept him in the public eye and brought him newer fans, which added to his fame and popularity. People who didn't know him as a former YouTube star knew him as the Vine star (he's still a part of most of the Famous Vine Compilations you search for on YouTube). His use of Twitter and Reddit AMAs (Ask Me Anything) was also essential to maintaining and expanding his fanbase across various platforms. This very strategic utilization of different social media platforms at the right time massively helped him paving a trailblazing path to success.
After his show Make Happy (2016), he transitioned away from being a stand-up comic, and he focused on writing and directing other comedians' specials. This was because Burnham had started experiencing anxiety and panic attacks on stage as his career moved forward and the audiences increased. Something unexpected came out of that expression of anxiety in his live shows (Make Happy)— his younger fans, primarily teenage girls, were coming up to him after the shows to tell him that they could relate. So when he sat down to write his movie script, the protagonist wound up being a 13-year-old girl living in 2018 and making YouTube videos.
Burnham finished writing and directing his first feature film, "Eighth Grade," premiered at Sundance in 2018. The Oscars snubbed the movie, but Burnham won several other awards for writing and directing his first feature film, including top honours at the Writers Guild and Directors Guild of America awards.
And finally in 2021, he returned with a comedy special written, directed, filmed, edited by, and starring Bo Burnham himself. The special received critical acclaim and was described as a piece of art combining many art forms. He included stand-up bits, musical comedy, meta commentary, drama and theatre. He explored his deteriorating mental health stuck inside this one room because of the pandemic, the role of the internet and big co-operations in our lives and commentary about social issues. Critics appreciated the special’s portrayal of the COVID-19 Pandemic and its effect on mental health, even though the pandemic isn’t mentioned by name even once during the entire show.