An Over-Analysis of Bo Burnham’s “what.” Or, a personal contemplation of comedy.

I’m not quite sure how to introduce this post. I suppose I can just call it a contemplation of comedy inspired by this skit.

I just finished watching Bo Burnham’s “what.” For those of you who do not know, Bo Burnham is generally known for his youtube videos and Vine contributions.

It begins and ends with childhood videos, and the very last skit is, by far, the most powerful “You think you know me.”

His stylistic approach is an interesting blend of insightful rationalism, self-reflection, and detailing of the difficulties of being a teen/young adult, and is often offset by contributions that are regarded as rather adolescent/pop culture/surfacy/shallow. For example, in “what.” there is a scene of mime masturbation.

Enough said.

In watching this, it seems as though he does not allow for simple surface enjoyment of his comedy on a surface level. He reflects in one of his songs about what comedy is, and if being able to joke and laugh about racism, sexism, and major tragedies classifies as a cure for sadness or sociopathic.

It’s this style that forces my brain to shift and shake in ways to evaluate “what just happened here.”

I watched this alone to pass the time on the weekend. During this, I kept thinking thoughts like “Oh, my friend would love that joke! Erm, but none of the rest of this…” “Oh, this segment was perfect for Sally Jo! But not the rest of it.”

I started thinking, “Well, why not the rest of it?” In my own viewing, certainly there were parts of this that made me howl in laughter, but there were definitely bits (ie the majority) where I felt slight twinge of guilt for doing so.

And then the brain began shaking more violently, letting loose a parade of questions all demanding attention and immediate answers- answers that could not be formed until all of the questions were asked. Why not the rest of it? Why did I feel guilt? Would I have laughed if someone I knew was sitting next to me (answer: yes)? What would they think of me? Would their regard for me change due to my amusement at “sociopathic jokes”?

What makes something funny to one person and not another? Am I truly insensitive for laughing at racism, sexism, and depression? Am I a bad person for laughing at gay jokes? If so, how is that possible? I’ve been victim of the majority of these issues in some form or another, and if not me, most definitely someone close to me.

Why can I laugh at it when some others cannot?

Then I began to revisit the jokes I didn’t laugh at. Why didn’t I laugh at them? Why weren’t they funny? Did they offend me? Why did they offend me? Did I feel the need to protect myself in some way?

There is a power struggle that much of deal with, whether it’s about sexism, mental health, relationships, judgment, awkwardness. Anything qualifies. How much power do we give those things though? I noticed that I pause before laughing about body image or depression. It should come as no surprise that I struggle with body image issues and depression.

Have you ever laughed at someone when they were talking to you? Think about when you’ve laughed in an argument with your parents or your boyfriend, or even a boss. For my own experience, laughing at someone or what they are saying when they are all “very serious business” creates a shift in their perceived power dynamic.
Laughter tipped the scales. It took their power away. Being able to joke and laugh about depression, even in it’s extremes, may be easily perceived as cold. I feel it differently, however. I feel that I can gain power over the depression by viewing it in a different, lighter way. It’s not avoidance. It’s not cold cynicism. It’s moving from shaking the brain to shifting perspectives.

Why is it so uncomfortable for people to watch mime masturbation? Why is it that we laugh or don’t laugh at such spectacles?

I think there is a different answer for each person on each issue, but I sense that it’s a power dynamic- even if it’s not with the issue of something like masturbation or fart jokes in and of itself, perhaps it’s societal expectation. For example, slapstick is very unappealing to me because in my upbringing it was very heavily regarded as rude to laugh when someone fell. My gosh, what if they were hurt? What of the embarrassment they have already felt in the act alone, then to add insult to literal injury?
Or maybe the actual issue came down to times I was laughed at for tripping, falling, having a tree fall over on me (true story).

The issue wasn’t the comedy. The issue was fear. Fear of stigma, fear of ridicule, fear of judgment, fear of exposure, and fear of acknowledging that it’s okay to laugh at life’s most uncomfortable and unfortunate circumstances.

I do believe there is a lot to be gained by evaluating what we consider humor and what we consider offensive. Perhaps some politicians and social leaders could take a cue from a young comedians and take time for a little introspection.

Watch it for free on Bo Burnham’s Youtube page here:

Or here:


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