The Movie of Your Own Life Does Not Suck
A conversation with Bo Burnham, America’s new favorite comedian
Bo Burnham restored my faith in social media. After a meteoric rise on YouTube comparable to Justin Bieber’s, the 20-something comedian went on a national tour, taped two Netflix specials, and just released a feature film called Eighth Grade about a teenager who hopes to find herself via vlog.
While I expected the story of a girl getting catfished or engaging in the self-destructive antics of 13 Reasons Why, I instead got an inspiring vision of how social media companies — no matter their intent — can still provide young people with the platforms they need to experiment with identity, define themselves on their own terms, and offer up the best, most honest things they have to share with one another.
Bo sat down with me for an interview on my Team Human show, where you can listen to the whole conversation. Below, I’ve transcribed one of my favorite moments.
Rushkoff: As I watched the opening of Eighth Grade — a middle school girl looking into lens making a YouTube video — it felt just like the very end of Generation Like [my Frontline documentary], where I show a girl named Dani making videos with almost identical dialogue. Only her mom realized that shots of her showing full body tend to get more likes than just head shots — for some reason…
Burnham: Yeah, for some reason.
Rushkoff: And it becomes something of a cautionary tale to end my movie: look at where this goes. And your movie starts off with a girl just as incoherent, saying “like” every other word, and I thought: oh man, he’s doing a takedown of a girl like Dani. But then the opposite happens. It becomes Dani’s side of the story: the positive possibilities of this medium for teens.
Burnham: I mean, that was the initial impulse for this movie. Watching kids express themselves online. I sorted the videos by date, so I was seeing kids that had just ten subscribers — the ones imitating the ones that were being seen. As someone who went viral on the Internet, we tend to only talk about those who are getting attention — who are actually the least interesting people. The majority are expressing themselves to no one, to something more like God, where there’s this vacuum and they don’t know if it’s there or not.
Rushkoff: There’s some question if she’s even uploading them at all, and if there’s a difference.
The performed version of yourself is not necessarily false. I do think who you hope to be can be a more vulnerable truth than who you are afraid you may be.
Burnham: That’s the question. It was watching these kids speak and going, “if this were a performance in a movie, it would be incredible.” Because when you watch these normal kids talk about their lives, ten things were going on at once: you saw them speaking, imitating the cultural reference speeches they had in their heads, trying to close the gap, reacting to their failure to close the gap, getting bored, starting all over and reasserting themselves. It was just so beautiful and transparent and layered and so different than the traditional voice-over in a teen movie where it’s someone completely in control of their own narrative. I really wanted to talk about someone failing to articulate. The gulf between the idea you have in your head and what comes out of your face. It’s so exaggerated and layered by the medium that these kids engage in. And I do think the performed version of yourself is not necessarily false. I do think who you hope to be can be a more vulnerable truth than who you are afraid you may be. I think people are more quick to admit their deepest fears than their deepest hopes.
Rushkoff: And because everybody’s performing in these spaces, there’s a kind of honesty. “This is how I do it.”
Burnham: Yeah. And there’s just something at that age where the mechanism of how you try to present yourself is so transparent. Who you wish to be, how you are, and how to present that — they’re so clear and visible. And as we get older we smooth that over and make it look like one thing.
Rushkoff: Well, we pick one. At 13 or 14 you’re still picking the character. Trying on this one or that one. But your protagonist, Kayla, she’s so real about this. She admits “I’m using these notes,” and leaves in her mistakes.
Burnham: Yeah, that’s what kids do. They use jump cuts and all this white noise. That’s the most interesting thing, which gives you insight into what they’re actually doing.
Rushkoff: In your Netflix special, Make Happy, you show yourself going back to the stool for your notes. As if you need to check them?
Burnham: Well, that transparency is the structure of the show. As a comedian you’re supposed to be honest on stage, and I couldn’t be honest about laundry; I could only be honest about what the form is, which is so complicated and strange to me. “I can’t get over the fact that you’re all facing this way and I’m standing on stage.” I thought my anxiety as a performer was grounded in my specific experience as a 24-year-old male comedian with an audience. And then 14-year-old girls would come up to me after the show and say, “I feel exactly like you do!” The pressures I had as a D-list celebrity had been democratized to an entire generation. It was like a relief — and oblivion — to realize I was not alone, but I was also very not unique as well.
Rushkoff: It’s interesting because it’s like you’ve “made it.” You’ve got millions of followers and a Netflix special and a movie. But in another way you’re an outsider, riding the long tail with the rest of us.
Burnham. That’s what blows my mind about celebrity culture. It feels like a grassroots movement, now. At a certain point we felt like, okay, celebrity is a sort of Mount Olympus and we’re all down here. And our solution to this is not to obliterate Mount Olympus, but “let’s give everybody access to it!” And you see kids online who are self-made in their bedrooms, but imposing upon themselves the standards of Hollywood and higher culture for no reason. They don’t have to. It’s weird to watch a little show of a 15-year-old kid, who is still adhering to standards of NBC.
Rushkoff: Your character is different than most of the ones I encounter. She’s not desperate for likes. She’s actually trying to express who she is and genuinely help other kids who are in the same situation.
This stuff is changing too rapidly for anyone to have a helicopter view of it. And if they do, that means they’re not participating.
Burnham: I think a lot of them are, until they get a little momentum. My hope was to portray a relationship with the Internet subjectively rather than objectively or with commentary. Douglas, you are one of the few people in the world I will listen to commentary from on the Internet. Everybody else I feel like we haven’t even gathered the raw data to have a conversation, yet. This stuff is changing too rapidly for anyone to have a helicopter view of it. And if they do, that means they’re not participating.
Rushkoff: Ironically, most of them are making the negative commentary for the Likes!
Burnham: That’s my issue with a lot of like sort of ironic dystopian or satire stuff about the Internet. To me it’s talking about the Internet, but playing the Internet game — where the Internet rewards irony and meta-commentary and sort of really quick thinking, fast, sexy jump cut loud stuff. I wanted the movie to be a commentary on the portrayal of the Internet that is operating on the level that the internet doesn’t select for: which is something maybe a little more quiet and a little more long form. Because for me the Internet is self-satirizing, so I don’t know how you ever get ahead of it. How can you be a satirical of a Geico commercial? When Taco Bell is being a satirical as any show on Adult Swim, it feels like the game is over a little to me. What’s the antidote to it?
Rushkoff: Well then, like your movie, or hopefully this podcast — you go human.
Burnham: You know when I read Present Shock it felt like the first real description of something that I hadn’t been able to articulate. What was so important to me about that is that it was a real subjective description of what was going on. I can’t believe the sort of conversations we’re having about the Internet are like cyberbullying and Russia. There’s something a little subtler going on! There’s something interior, something that’s actually changing our own view of ourselves, our relationship between our head and our heart and our stomach. Before we start processing giant social trends I think we have to understand how the internet radicalizes our own relationship to ourselves way more than our relationship to other people.
Rushkoff: Well, we’ve moved from a television media environment to a digital media environment and they’re profoundly different. It’s not just more of the same…
Bo: It’s not just a digital super highway! Everyone thinks it’s just like a digitalized life. It’s a paradigm shift obviously.
Rushkoff: The weird thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how it all happens on memory. All processing is in memory. And that’s why our whole society’s become about memory. It’s like, ‘who were we’ or ‘make America great again’ or ‘when Britain was it’s own thing’. TV was so fun because it just mushed everything together. Land on the Moon. Fell the Berlin Wall. One world, one thing!
Burnham: Maybe it is something to do with the need for the sort of narrative collapse you described in Present Shock. We really do spend so much time building narrative for ourselves and I sense with people that there was a real pressure to view one’s life as something like a movie. “What am I? How good of a character am I in my own life?” That’s part of Kayla’s struggle. She feels like, “the movie of my own life sucks and I’m trying really, really hard to tell my story as I’m living it. And I don’t think it’s that good.” And the idea of the movie is that your struggle to tell that is good, is a good story. Your failure to live up to the cultural standard of what an active agent needs to be in a story, is your story and it is compelling.