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Bo Burnham's growth shows the painfully low bar for white men

INSIDER logo INSIDER 6/18/2021 insider@insider.com (Kim Renfro)
a person wearing a suit and tie: Bo Burnham performing the song "Problematic" in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix © Provided by INSIDER Bo Burnham performing the song "Problematic" in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix
  • Bo Burnham has been critical of his past self for the edgy, offensive comedy he used to make.
  • But he's largely been given a pass by his fans, who praise his self-awareness and new approach.
  • Burnham's growth is admirable, but also revealing of how little we expect from men in the industry.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

When Bo Burnham speaks about social media, or anxiety, or the casual predatory behavior of men, or his own privilege, I can't help but smile.

His persona is drenched in a mix of charming self-awareness and self-loathing, because he seems to know it's wise to get ahead of criticism that will inevitably be lobbed at him.

Burnham's comedy career has included a fair share of offensive jokes. But people (like me) tend to not only give Burnham a "pass," but praise him for acknowledging his past failings.

The success of Burnham's introspective approach to comedy shows just how low the bar is for white male comedians when it comes to problematic jokes, and how easy it is for men to hold themselves accountable.

In his 2021 special 'Inside,' Burnham sings a whole parody song about his past problematic jokes

text, whiteboard: Burnham's comedy flowchart in "Inside" says that if a joke targets "those who have been disenfranchised in a historical, political, social, economic, and/or psychological context" then it's "not funny." Netflix © Netflix Burnham's comedy flowchart in "Inside" says that if a joke targets "those who have been disenfranchised in a historical, political, social, economic, and/or psychological context" then it's "not funny." Netflix

"Inside" is a comedy musical, where Burnham oscillates between different characters in parody songs and seemingly genuine expressions of his experience with mental disorders like anxiety.

In the song "Comedy," Burnham adopts a white-savior persona to parody both himself and other white comedians, deciding that he should heal the world with comedy instead of giving away his money. (The real Burnham posted twice on Instagram last June encouraging his one million followers to donate money to various funds that support racial justice.)

Burnham sings about how he's "a special kinda white guy" who will use his privilege for good, and then seconds later admits that "American white guys [have] had the floor for at least 400 years, so maybe I should just shut the f--- up."

The irony is front and center because of course he's not shutting the f--- up. We're watching him in a Netflix special.

And that meta-commentary only deepens when Burnham addresses his past in a parody song titled "Problematic."

a person sitting in a dark room: Burnham performing "Problematic" in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix © Netflix Burnham performing "Problematic" in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix

"I wrote offensive s--- and I said it," he sings. "Father, please forgive me, for I did not realize what I did or that I'd live to regret it."

"Times are changing and I'm getting old," he continues. "Are you gonna hold me accountable?"

The final shot of the song is him with a cross projected over his body, parodying white people who think that by crucifying themselves first they're somehow freed from the consequences of their actions.

At the same time, there's an earnestness beneath the vapid surface of the song, like he really is wondering if people are going to try and hold him accountable for his past.

Burnham has been criticized about his offensive jokes in the past

a man standing in a dark room: Burnham watching his own YouTube video in "Inside." Netflix © Netflix Burnham watching his own YouTube video in "Inside." Netflix

Before the song "Problematic" starts in the special, Burnham shows himself watching his first viral YouTube video on a projector.

The song from that video, "My Whole Family," was written in 2006. It's about how his whole family thinks he's gay.

Burnham's earlier comedy songs, seemingly designed to shock his listeners into laughing, were full of wordplay and wit.


Video: Bo Burnham: Inside - Coming Soon (Entertainment Weekly)

Replay Video

"Burnham is an equal-opportunity offender," a news report from 2009 said. "Jokes about abortion clinics are told back-to-back with jokes about civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. For the religious crowd, he packed in jokes about pleasuring himself while reading the Bible. He, of course, is playing characters throughout his performance, but for some the irony is thin."

At the time, some students protested Burnham's appearances at their colleges. But others believed his style was effective at exposing "the hypocrisies inherent in contemporary life" and called his comedy "not vitriolic but satirical," as Emily Greenberg of Cornell Daily Sun described it in 2010.

Bo Burnham standing in a dark room: Bo Burnham performing in the 2016 Netflix special "Make Happy." KC Bailey/Netflix © Provided by INSIDER Bo Burnham performing in the 2016 Netflix special "Make Happy." KC Bailey/Netflix

His later comedy specials like 2013's "what." and 2016's "Make Happy" are peppered with the f-slur, in the context of Burnham hearing that word lobbed at him by bullies. He also had a whole bit about racism among white people where he lured the white members of his audience into saying the n-word by doing a series of call and response prompts about things white people like.

"Our favorite chips, salt and vi-" he says, inviting the crowd to finish his sentence.

After people finished the word "vinegar," Burnham has the auditorium house lights go up so he can shame everyone.

"Wow, who said it?" he said. "Get the cameras on them. Your grandkids are gonna see this one and know what kind of a bigot their grandfather or grandmother were."

Bo Burnham, Bo Burnham looking at a laptop: Burnham in a 2006 YouTube video, and his in newest Netflix special "Inside." YouTube and Netflix © YouTube and Netflix Burnham in a 2006 YouTube video, and his in newest Netflix special "Inside." YouTube and Netflix

In a 2018 interview, Burnham said he was "happy to be an example" of someone who once used edgy humor that was a "little homophobic" and "racially insensitive," but then learned better.

When he appeared on NPR's "Fresh Air" in 2018, the host played a clip of "My Whole Family." Burnham took his headphones off because hearing that old material literally made him sweat.

"The cultural standards of what is appropriate comedy and also the inner standards of my own mind have changed rapidly since I was 16," Burnham said at the time.

Gross asked Burnham if people "misinterpreted" the song and thought it was homophobic.

"I don't know that it's not," he said. "I don't defend my 16-year-old comedy at all ... I have a lot of material from back then that I'm not proud of and I think is offensive and I think is not helpful. I do not think my intention was homophobic, but what is the implicit comedy of that song if you chase it all the way down? I don't think it's perfectly morally defendable [sic]."

Burnham's ability to largely evade criticism by acknowledging it first is the bare minimum celebrities in his position could do, and yet it's clearly working in his favor

Bo Burnham smiling for the camera: Burnham. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GQ © Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GQ Burnham. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for GQ

In his 2016 "Make Happy" special, Burnham sings a song called "Straight White Male" that gives a parody spin on the way straight white men will try to deny their privilege and reject pleas to cede some of their power for the betterment of society.

"Can't you just leave us alone, and also 'no' to the things you ask for," he sings.

The songs ends with a simple, hilarious final jab: "We used to have all the money and land, and we still do but it's not as fun now."

I used to watch this video and sit in awe of Burnham's ability to satirize the clear power dynamics of our country well before most of his white peers had caught onto the conversation. He wrote that song before the election of Donald Trump and the #MeToo movement, and was able to needle patriarchal standards.

But is simply being aware of one's privilege enough?

In the "Inside" special, Burnham shows his hand and explains why he stays ahead of criticism in a layered reaction video.

"I'm criticizing my initial reaction for being pretentious, which is honestly a defense mechanism," he says. "I'm so worried that criticism will be levied against me that I levy it against myself before anyone else can."

He continues: "I think that, 'Oh if I'm self-aware about being a douchebag it'll somehow make me less of a douchebag.' But it doesn't. Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything."

If it doesn't, then why are we so fast to absolve Burnham?

Bo Burnham, Bo Burnham, Bo Burnham are posing for a picture: Bo Burnham in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix © Netflix Bo Burnham in his new Netflix special, "Inside." Netflix

Relatively few celebrities, let alone white men, do the work of interrogating their own privilege publicly. So when Burnham comes along, we're eager to reward him.

In virtually every interview Burnham has given in the past few years, it feels clear (to me, at least) that he's not just paying lip service to being "woke," but genuinely thinking about his role in the entertainment world and the privileges he's afforded.

It's an admirable thing to watch happen with an artist you love, and his actions have deepened my appreciation of his latest works like the movie "Eighth Grade" and his new 2021 Netflix special. Both works show that he's capable of creating nuanced, thoughtful comedy and art that no longer punches down but up.

At the same time, I sometimes sit back and realize that my internal praise for that behavior shows just how low the bar is for men like Burnham.

We should be able to recognize and support genuine growth and self-reflection when we see it from the people who make up our entertainment industry, but also keep in mind which standards are being applied to which types of celebrities.

How can we get to a point where women in the same industry, particularly women of color, get handed the same sets of opportunities and repeat Netflix specials even after people have decided they've made career mistakes? You only need to look at entertainers like Mo'Nique and Kathy Griffin to see the double standard that exists.

I don't have answers right now. But the questions are worth asking.

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