Bo Burnham’s ‘Make Happy’ deconstructs society with off-kilter, dark humor

Make Happy_Netflix-KC BaileyCourtesy copy
Netflix-KC Bailey/Courtesy

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Bo Burnham’s new Netflix comedy special, “Make Happy,” has the off-kilter humor of someone raised by the dark side of the Internet. But the show is more than a string of unrelated penis jokes and gratuitous self-deprecation. It’s an honest look at what it means to be a performer straddling the line between pleasing the crowd and staying true to yourself, or at least what’s left of it.

Viewers new to Burnham might be thrown off: More than half his show is music and his neurotic, overly self-aware stage presence treads close to anti-humor. “Y’all ain’t ever seen a comedy show like this in your fucking life! And for good reason. It gets old after a few minutes. You’ll see,” Burnham raps to the crowd as a hip-hop beat blares behind him and the opening song comes to an end.

Unfortunately, he’s right. The set unravels at a slow pace. Although Burnham’s comedic songs are one of his trademarks, his tendency to draw humor from beating a joke to death leaves viewers exhausted and confused about what he’s getting at.  

But “Make Happy” gradually pieces itself together as a witty, razor-sharp social critique. In one song titled “Straight White Male,” he laments ironically how the struggle for equality among gender, race and sexual orientation are inconveniencing his existence and ends it with the hilarious line, “We used to have all the money and land / And we still do but it’s not as fun now.”

In a song about lowering romantic expectations, he sings that the perfect woman is real but died last week. Burnham’s penchant for taking things one step further than expected is vital to the set because his humor relies on dark thoughts unexpected for somebody so baby-faced. His happy-go-lucky delivery of something so morbid is a refreshing shock of black humor.

The final part of Burnham’s set is the most powerful, redeeming moment of “Make Happy.” Before his last song, he crouches to address the audience about how we’re imprisoned by our need to seek attention and if we can, try to break away from a life of performance. Burnham’s honesty differs from other comedians’ attempts at edgy half-truths because it’s so incredibly personal. His ability to tap into the uglier, more pathetic side of humanity without insulting it for a cheap laugh is what makes Burnham’s act successful. Rather than relieve us with escapist anecdotes, he challenges us to think about how we should live.

At the end of this conversation, Burnham asks the crowd, “Now you’re thinking, ‘How the fuck are you gonna dig the show out of this weird hole?’” Then, in a parody of a Kanye West rant from the Yeezus tour, Burnham engages in a performance complete with angelic lights and generous Auto-Tune. In some ways he’s just like Kanye, full of grandiosity and undeniable talent. But what makes the song so effective is that he’s unafraid to parody his own ego, showing a heartbreaking level of self-awareness. He sings about hands too large for Pringles cans and overstuffed Chipotle burritos, but as beams of light gravitate toward him, Burnham reveals that the audience and their undeserved attention is his biggest problem.

The song, titled “Can’t Handle This,” is a dark and tender glimpse into Burnham as a person who cannot reconcile why he, of all people, should be allowed to indulge in his narcissism. His struggle to maintain artistic integrity in the tumult of fame and undeserved fortune distinguishes him from other comics because there are few others willing to be so intimately human. The humor of the show doesn’t come from the secret knowledge that you’re just as messed up as the person on stage, but rather its open acknowledgement. Burnham literally gets down on his knees to confess that he, too, is tortured by an overwhelming need for attention. The laughter springs from connection over a genuine, painfully human concern.

“Make Happy” ends by cutting away from the live set to his bedroom, where he asks the viewer directly if they’re truly happy. It’s a tough question, one that rarely receives a straightforward answer. But maybe we’re happier now that we know we’re not alone in our vulnerability. Thanks, Bo.

“Make Happy” is available to stream on Netflix.

Contact Kelvin Mak at [email protected].