By: Brett Slaughenhaupt
Comedy, much like happiness, is not an easy thing to get a handle on. They both involve a lot of work to reach any sort of level of contentment. And even after reaching that point, you can’t just sit back and think that it will last for a lifetime. Bo Burnam has a deep understanding of this in his new comedy special through Netflix, Make Happy. He exhibits a better handle on the talents he is able to offer and creates a more visceral experience for his audience.
Mixing irony, criticism, sentimentality, and comedy into a one hour program is an incredible feat to master. While they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive occurrences, they do ask for a lot of nuance and understanding. Basically, you have to have done your homework and know your stuff. That’s where Make Happy, Bo Burnam’s newest – and in my opinion, greatest – comedy special really sets itself apart from not only his earlier material, but everyone else’s work, as well.
There is a certain levity to his jokes that doesn’t undermine, but elevates the experience. While all comedians perform based off of some sort of personal experience with their material (“This one time I…”), Bo elevates his material to speak to the entire human experience. Of course that is entirely subjective, but when statistics show depression as the most common mental disorder, affecting thousands, and when his songs talk about why you should kill yourself (in a sardonic way, mind you) or how he faces his own anxiety, it’s hard not to connect.
Even if one had no experience with mental health issues, you’ll find some way to connect, and his no-holds-barred approach to performing is utterly transfixing. Every move is choreographed and timed to the second, but it feels as fresh as if he was making it up on the spot. That’s how you can tell the difference between someone doing it for the money and someone doing it out of love, who just so happens to get money from it.
And speaking of money, compared to his earlier specials, there is a huge difference between the level of legitimacy (à la production levels) of Make Happy and his others, like What. Usually this would stink of sellout, but instead of going the route of Fall Out Boy into Generic Town, he followed suit of Paramore and dug deeper into what his art meant (please don’t judge me for this comparison). Bo Burnam is no longer the gangly, dorky kid of years before. He can’t bank off having that persona follow him into the present because with his strong jawline and appeasing countenance, it would only come off as cocky rather than relatable. With this, he is one step ahead of everyone and instantly pushes against this idea of “relatability” by scouring the idea of the “straight, white man”. It works as a brilliant wink at current racial politics in America and around the world, as well as a distancing from the façade of the earlier “Bo Burnam”.
Make Happy is not perfect; it’s only one hour long – certainly not long enough. However, you will still find your way out of the viewing with your eyes opened into his version of American society, what the life of a comedian is like, and what it looks like to still be alive and unhappy. Even if he can’t always find ways to make himself happy, he surely is able to offer that to a lot of others.