Thursday, 19 December 2013

Comedy Special: Bo Burnham And The Battle Of Art VS Comedy

A little while ago, I wrote a special feature on comedies for an online magazine called Splendid Fred. It focused on why comedy films are not considered good films - why jokes are not considered art. Obviously, I am not the only one who has been involved in the art versus comedy argument but I feel like a recent creation brings the two together in a glorious collision of music and laughs. That creation is Bo Burnham's recent stand up show, what. (Available in full on Youtube and Netflix) But this is not the first time Bo has proved himself a master of art and comedy.

Bo started on Youtube with songs such as 'My Whole Family' and '3.14 Apple Pi' in 2006. He then went on to release an EP entitled 'Bo Fo Sho' in 2008, followed by a full length album, 'Bo Burnham', in 2009. From there, it was strength to strength for Burnham as he filmed his own Comedy Central, had small roles in films such as American Virgin and Funny People, released his own live special and album, Words, Words, Words, and secured a TV deal with MTV to air in 2013. This TV series turned out to be the horribly underrated and prematurely cancelled Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, a show that I personally recommend. Despite Zach Stone's cancellation, Bo stayed strong and wrote a poetry book called Egghead: Or, You Can't Survive On Ideas Alone. Most recently, Bo toured with his new show, what., which he then released, for free, online.

Bo's success is undoubtedly thanks to his universal, but ultimately niche, appeal.  This is an oxymoron, a paradox of demographic. His jokes are sometimes as mainstream as they come but they are always, always, layered with heaps of intellect and it is this that pigeon holes him. It is this reason that Zach Stone did not strike well with the contemporary audience that Bo's dick jokes go so well with. The crude side of his jokes, even without the layering of intelligence, still have a basic comedy value but as Burnham has moved forward, he has developed his style so that the crude jokes are now the side bit, the superficial top layer. His social commentary that the jokes cover has moved more into the foreground and his clever wit and performance style has highlighted the satirical nature of his work. But this mainstream/niche appeal leaves him in a perfect position to create a discourse (or blend) between 'art' and comedy.

Words, Words, Words was Bo tipping his toes into the world of the battle of art and comedy. The majority of the show was a combination of clever gags and his usual subversive music, both delving more into the world of politics and social commentary. However, there are two songs that stand out in this debate: 'What's Funny' and ' Art Is Dead'. Their titles even spotlight their insight into the argument. The former simply parodies how easy it is to create comedy and why such simple things are funny, while the latter suggests that it is exactly this attitude that has killed art. He points out that comedians are just the kids who wanted attention and are now being paid to do just that, and can call themselves artists because of it. But this is where Bo is so clever: he is using an art form to criticise the nature of art itself , he uses comedy to point out how easy it is. This meta-comedy routine makes us question our own thoughts on the subject, brings the debate into full-view, and provides a paradoxical answer. This is where what. comes in.

what. is almost a full fledged dedication to art versus comedy. There is still his normal subversive songs and his could-be offensive brand of jokes, but from the very opening of the show he is commenting on the nature of 'art'. After a bit in which he sings about his natural voice whilst heavily auto-tuned, he knocks a bottle of water over followed promptly by a track that says, 'he meant to knock the water over ... art is a lie, nothing is real'. He then goes on to prove that 'art' is a lie with a, crudely beautiful, poem entitled 'I Fuck Sluts'. A masterfully constructed piece of spoken word, an indisputable art form, comically written with highly misogynistic language, the contrast of which brings the humour. It is not the only time that Bo uses this form in what. as he returns to poetry later on to continue what he started in 'I Fuck Sluts' - to completely juxtapose the art form he uses, a lot like 'Art Is Dead' from Words, Words, Words.

But the peak of the debate comes in the form of a skit that, in audio alone sounds like a piece of art, but in visuals alone looks like a very crude, and tasteless, joke. The song is very bluntly titled 'Beating Off In A Minor', which Bo clarifies as the key and not the felony. The music is a delightful, joyous piece of music consisting of a flute, piano, and violin before turning into electric rock, and then after a pause turns to a haunting, harsh keyboard. On stage, we see Bo mime typing on a computer, before seeming content and pulling his trousers down, and the joke becomes clear. To the electro-rock, Bo masturbates furiously, to the haunting track, Bo shamefully washes his hands of his deed. Masturbation jokes are, arguably, one of the lowest forms of comedy but Burnham turns it entirely on its head by combining it with a well composed segment of music creating an intriguing piece of performance. Is it art or is it crass? Or is it both - is comedy art? Who would have thought a young man mime-masturbating would raise such questions?

Finally in what., is 'Repeat Stuff' and 'We Think We Know You', two songs which point out the fickle nature of the music industry, supposedly an industry of art. 'Repeat Stuff' is a song about the production and creation of pop hits, the idea that they must appeal to everyone and be immediately memorable leading the art within to suffer. 'We Think We Know You' carries this on with a conversation between Bo and three others, an agent, a bimbo, and a jock. The bimbo and jock highlight that change that fame can bring, both socially and within the self, whilst the agent shows the corrupting influence the industry can have on the content and quality of art. 'We Think We Know You' ends with Bo remixing the voices, adding a layer of synth and drums, until the audience are completely absorbed into a musical trance. Art made out of the commentary of art - how much more meta can you get?

So in the argument of art versus comedy, or comedy versus quality, Bo Burnham excels in contrasting the two to raise the point, the same point I raised in my last feature on the topic: why can comedy not be considered art or quality? Bo simply answers it can be. He plays with people's expectations of art and makes it hilarious. The majority of Bo Burnham's work can be found on his Youtube, and it is highly recommended by myself and critics alike. what. is available on Netflix and Youtube worldwide and Words, Words, Words is available on UK Netflix or to buy.

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