On June 3rd, Netflix released the most recent comedy special by Bo Burnham titled: Make Happy with relatively little fanfare. Since then, however, it has garnered critical acclaim from various news outlets and celebrities alike, and is being regarded by many as one of the best comedy releases on the platform.
Amy Schumer tweeted that Make Happy is the special of the year. Mike Birbiglia shared, “the Bo Burnham special is so good, it made me, sitting alone in a room, say ‘whoa.’” The irony is that this critical acclaim is being lavished on a comedian who ultimately desires to live life without an audience – but more on that later.
Burnham’s brand of comedy relies heavily on challenging the form of traditional stand-up comedy shows. There’s singing. There’s audience participation. There’s social commentary. And there are bits that are seemingly about nothing at all, until a quick misdirection turns them into the most thought provoking pieces of the show.
A primary theme of Make Happy is Burnham’s deconstruction of performing, as he points out the dishonesty of entertainers. He critiques the music industry in particular, as he attacks the concept of “beat fetishism” in the rap world, as well as the meaningless lyrical content of most modern radio hits. His most poignant take may be in regards to country music, where he dissects the popularity of “stadium country”, and explains how it panders to a working class audience despite the artists themselves making so much money off of their hits. Bo – impersonating a country artist – sings, “I write songs for the people who do jobs in the towns I’d never move to.” The show relies on these types of pointed insights – commentary that is ultimately only funny because we know it to be true.
These thoughtful moments are not unexpected, as a staple of Bo’s humor is the incorporation of introspective, often times existential themes and questions into what otherwise would be an hour of ridiculous songs and sketches.
Another of the unique aspects of Make Happy that sets it apart from the typical stand-up special is the amount of focus that Burnham placed on the cinematography of the show. Complex lighting arrangements are frequently used to set a unique tone, and highlight different aspects of the overall message of the performance. Ultimately it feels less like stand-up comedy and more like performance art, where every light, sound, and camera angle have intentionality that yield a polished final product.
The thesis of Make Happy doesn’t become evident until the latter part of the show, where Bo takes a pause in the comedic routine and shares a monologue about the nature of performing. He explains that he believes a show about performing resonates with audiences because much of our modern existence relies on performing our lives for others, primarily through the avenue of social media. He questions whether or not we truly live, or if we simply “want to go to bed each night as a satisfied audience member to our own lives.”
In light of this, Bo’s final plea to the audience is a simple one, yet one that he no longer can attain for himself – “if you can live your life without an audience… you should do it.”
Make Happy isn’t a special you just sit down and watch casually – it sucks you in, provokes thought and introspection, and leaves you seeing the world somewhat differently by the time it is finished. After watching, you may want to discuss it with a friend. You may want to just sit and watch it again. However, you can’t avoid processing the wide array of emotions the show produces in one short hour. This, in a nutshell, is the brilliance of Bo Burnham’s art.
And maybe as we sift through the feelings the show provokes, we will find ourselves one step closer to “making happy”.