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An Interview with Jay Doyle, Author of Bo Burnham: The Funniest Thing

Today's interview is with a person who has pored over every second of Inside even more than I have (is that possible? Haha).

Jay's workspace, including a feline friend named Joker

We first met on Reddit, and I reached out to Jay Doyle when he said he was writing a BOOK analyzing Bo's masterpiece, frame by frame.

This of course was right up my alley (I love dissecting Bo's works if you haven't noticed yet), so I told him to let me know if he needed any help editing the book. I've been an editor/proofreader for almost two decades now, and I wanted to provide my expertise if he needed any assistance.

Luckily, Jay is a total sweetheart, and he jumped at the opportunity to have me review the entire book for him. Called Bo Burnham: The Funniest Thing (Joking at a Time Like This), the work dives deep into Jay's personal relationship with Inside and what he believes Bo was trying to convey via his film.

Jay self-published his book on World Mental Health Day this year (how apropos), and he even sent me a signed copy. I was thrilled to be a part of the project AND he added a lovely acknowledgement that made me verklempt!

My personal copy

The Chicken reference! So sweet 🐔

I never saw this page before he published it, so quite the surprise! (yes, I know there's a small typo, but I'm letting it slide)

After all of our interactions, I still wanted to know why Jay decided to embark on this project, what his background in writing is, and what he's working on next. While we'd had some issues with timing, Jay graciously answered all of my burning questions and provided a great deal of insight into Inside and Bo's potential thought process when making his masterpiece.

Here is my interview with Jay, which has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.

Stand-Up Comedy Historian: Hey, Jay! I'm glad we were able to align our schedules to chat about your excellent book and, of course, your love of Inside.

I had previously used one of your Reddit comments in my post about positivity on social media. I hope you don't mind! I found it to be very powerful personally.

Jay Doyle: Sure, it's no problem. Happy to provide another example of Bo healing the world with his comedy!

SUCH: Oh, that's great news haha.

So let's dive in. First, can you tell me a bit about your background?

JD: So, I’m 29 years old. I live in downtown Ottawa, the capital of Canada, just a fifteen minute walk from the Big Ben-shaped edifice of Parliament. I’ve lived here for eleven years, which is the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere.

I grew up moving every few years because of my dad’s work in the Canadian army. A year in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was born. A couple years near Toronto, where my brother was born. A year and a half in England, three years in a small town in Alberta, and then five years in Ottawa.

Then we were posted to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. I lived there for four years—grades 8 to 11. I went to the American International School of Budapest, a private school attended by kids from over a hundred different countries. It was a dissonant experience because I was surrounded by wealth and privilege in the middle of a relatively poor country.

Also, my family was certainly not wealthy; the government paid for our tuition, which would have been impossible to afford otherwise. But nobody was, like, snooty about it. A good deal of the kids’ parents were diplomats whose own governments shelled out for their tuition. But many of them were also in big business, and had a lot of money, and it showed, with the kinds of parties they would throw and such.

The culture was interesting though, because pretty much everybody moved every few years. People were always leaving, and new people were always arriving. There were friend groups, and people tended to hang out with people from their own countries, but there also weren’t really any cliques. My best friends were Dutch, Israeli, Japanese, Canadian, American, and Bosnian. There were kids who were clearly more, like, the image of popularity, but that didn’t stop them from hanging out with just about anyone.

After four years in Hungary, we moved back to Canada, to a town near Toronto called Barrie, where I finished my last year of high school. After that I moved back to Ottawa to start university. After two years of the English program at uOttawa, I dropped out.

It’s my biggest regret, not working harder at school, but I’m very happy with how my life has turned out, so I also don’t regret it at all. I worked at a restaurant for a few years so as to keep a roof over my head. Then in 2016, when I was 22, my life changed forever when I swiped right on Tinder, and found my other half, Aly.

Four years later, in the middle of 2020, I got married to her, in her mom’s backyard.

Right now, I work at a grocery store called Farm Boy, in the meat and fish department. It’s basically a Canadian version of Whole Foods, although we have those as well. I just got promoted to assistant manager a few months ago, and I’m getting pretty comfortable in the role, though it is hard work.

SUCH: Oh wow, you have been all over the world! That's really cool.

And I'm glad to hear Tinder worked out so well for you and your wife. My sister also met her partner on a dating app (OkCupid). Exciting times we live in that you can find people online quite easily.

So how did you get started with your book? Do you have a background in creative writing?

JD: I’ve been writing and making books since I was seven years old. There’s a series of children’s novels called Captain Underpants, by Dav Pilkey, that I was a huge fan of in first grade.

It’s about a duo of kids named George and Harold who write and draw comic books about a superhero named Captain Underpants. They use the school photocopier to make copies, and sell them on the playground for a quarter. In the first book, they get one of those hypno rings from a magazine and accidentally turn their mean old principal, Mr. Krupp, into a real-life Captain Underpants. Hilarity and adventures ensue, but they also keep on writing and drawing those comics.

I was quite inspired and started to write and draw my own comics. They were not good. I only made a few of them. But it was definitely a formative experience.

I didn’t really write anything outside of school (although I did enjoy doing that) for a while after that. When I was 11 or 12, I started writing fanfiction, mostly about The Legend of Zelda and the Redwall series of books. Then I read Christopher Paolini’s book Eragon. The idea that a 19 year old could become a bestselling fantasy author totally captivated me.

I started writing my own fantasy series, heavily inspired by Zelda, hoping to one day be just like Paolini. I didn’t finish that one. When I was about 14, I started another series, sort of Final Fantasy VII meets The da Vinci Code, the first book that I did actually finish.

By about 17, my interests were more aligned with mythology than swords and sorcery fantasy, and I started a book heavily inspired by Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, with a bit of Percy Jackson and Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason in there too. It was called Time’s Apprentice, and was set in Budapest, which I had just moved away from.

American Gods

Percy Jackson series

Marla Mason in Pratt's works

It was sort of my coming to terms with everything I’d seen and done and felt there, through the lens of an urban fantasy story about a guy working for a magical mafia. I wrote about half of it during National Novel Writing Month 2011 and finished it in NaNoWriMo 2015, after I’d dropped out of university.

Over the next few years, I tried writing other stories set in the Time’s Apprentice world, but none of it is really finished or worth showing to people.

So that’s my creative writing background. I think it’s probably pretty similar to a lot of other people who spend their adolescence wanting to be a writer, but never really making it.

As for my Bo book...

When Inside came out, I wasn’t really working on any projects. I was just working at the grocery store, enjoying being newly married (despite Covid still being in full swing) and consuming various media. I kept trying to start new projects, to produce something, but my lazy streak combined with a lack of good ideas kept everything on page one. I’d sort of accepted that I might not write anything again. Which was a horrific prospect, because even though I am not good at writing often, that’s still my identity. If I’m not a writer, then what am I?

But then Inside came out. I watched it a whole bunch of times. Showed it to all my friends. Then one night, Aly and I watched it again, and it all clicked. I had been fighting a lot with my mom. In fact, I’ve been fighting a lot with my mom basically all my life. It was really bad when I was a teenager and just never got any better.

But I realized all of a sudden what Bo was doing with FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight). I realized that the first step in healing the world, ostensibly Bo’s goal with his special, is to heal the family. I realized that Bo was both mocking, and depicting, the kind of behaviour that families exhibit in this era of political division and misunderstandings. I realized that Bo was trying to get all of us to heal our relationships with our parents. If that’s what we need, anyway.

He starts with FaceTime, of course, where he portrays himself arguing with his mom (who by all accounts is a stunningly lovely lady in real life, like, a true saint), but eventually says “I’m sorry” and “I love you.”

But if that wasn’t enough, in White Woman’s Instagram, he has us step into the shoes of someone who’s already lost their parents. The White Woman in the bridge of that song can’t just call her mom anymore. She’s been gone for a whole decade. So we’re forced to imagine what that’s like.

Then he gets even more extreme. In Welcome To The Internet, in the manic flurry of insane things people say and read online, he says “You should kill your mom.” People have actually done that. And we’re made to think about what that’s like.

Hijacking our empathy, peering into that darkness. Realizing how deeply Bo had thought about how broken some families are prompted me to do two things. I started trying to fix my relationship with my parents, even through our many disagreements. And I started trying to figure out what else Bo was saying with his masterpiece.

SUCH: Ah, that's fascinating! I had never really connected those references to the family, but you're right—it does come up a lot!

I struggle with caring about those parts, personally, because I'm no longer in contact with my narcissistic mother who belittled me all my life. I imagine if you have a positive relationship with your parents those lines hit harder.

I also am well aware of Captain Underpants. Both of my kids loved watching the TV show!

I have two fun facts about that series: Nat Faxon did the voice of Principal Krupp/Captain Underpants in the show (you might know him as The Swede on Our Flag Means Death), and Jordan Peele was the voice of Melvin in the feature film. Bo was on Key and Peele AND he received his DGA award from Jordan for Eighth Grade!

Back to your influences.

Do you have any other authors who inspire you to write?

JD: I already mentioned Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants, and Neil Gaiman, and Dan Brown, and Christopher Paolini.

I really liked Roald Dahl as a kid, especially The Big Friendly Giant. Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was another of my favourites. I remember my dad reading it to me at way too young an age to understand it, but still laughing my ass off. Particularly at the bit about the leopard.

Can’t forget Calvin and Hobbes. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series was also a big deal for me as a teenager, and remains among my favourite stories. Jodi Piccoult had a pretty big influence on me in my teens, particularly Change of Heart and Nineteen Minutes. And I’ve always loved Harry Potter.

Music has played another big role in my life. I was a weird, lame kid. The only songs on my first mp3 player were from Weird Al, Green Day, The Arrogant Worms (a Canadian musical comedy group), and Zelda soundtracks. Eventually I got into metal. DragonForce and Dream Theater mostly. And I branched out into Rise Against, and fun., and Panic! At The Disco, and Pink Floyd.

SUCH: I loved Weird Al as a kid! Such funny lyrics and witty wordplay.

And I don't know if you know this, but Jack Antonoff was the lead guitarist for fun. and he's friends with Bo!

Jack, Bo, Matty Healy, and Jerrod Carmichael

I wanted to also point out as another huge fan of Douglas Adams, I always associate the "Don't panic" line in Comedy with the Hitchhiker's Guide. I consider my Bo sweater to be an homage to both!

So when did you become a fan of Bo? Have you known about him for a long time or did you discover him through Inside?

JD: I first encountered Bo with Make Happy. It was summer of 2016, so that special must have just come out. My brother came over to my apartment and showed it to me. I was completely blown away by how great it was.

I was pretty new to stand-up. I liked George Carlin, Louis CK, and Chelsea Handler, and I think I’d seen some Bill Burr. But I really didn’t understand anything about the art form. This was very naive of me, but I actually thought that the shows were improvised. I thought really funny people just got up on stage and winged it, and that that was stand-up. When the credits would roll, and it would say “Written by so and so, directed by such and such,” it actually confused me, because I just didn’t understand the medium. You’re telling me they rehearse these things? Practice it and memorize it line by line? Like, in front of a mirror? That seemed ridiculous to me. But in hindsight, it’s way more ridiculous to think that they’re improvising.

Anyway, with that as my baseline, Make Happy blew my mind. The way Bo deconstructed the genre, highlighted the artificiality, and was still somehow genuine and authentic and seemingly improvisational...yeah. Plus, I think he was the handsomest dude I ever saw. I watched what. very soon after and enjoyed it just as much.

SUCH: No disagreement here! Make Happy is still my favorite comedy special, and Bo is definitely gorgeous in it.

So when did you first watch Inside? How many times have you watched it? What about The Inside Outtakes? Will you be writing about those as well?

JD: I saw it when it first came out. But the memories are sort of hazy. I don’t know if it was right on May 30th or shortly after. I kept a pretty detailed diary at the time, but I fail to mention Inside until I talk about watching it for like the third time.

I know that around that time, I sat my roommate down to watch what. and Make Happy, since Aly had already seen them. Then the three of us watched Inside together.

I’ll never forget what that was like. Of course my expectations were coloured by the bombast of Bo’s last two shows and the anxious intimacy of Eighth Grade. And then here’s this one Room. Brown hardwood floors. Just the chair and the keyboard, and the eerie ringing sound. That moment hung in the air for an eternity. I remember thinking about how curiosity is the strongest human emotion, maybe more powerful than love or fear, and goddamn was I ever curious, waiting for whatever this would be. And then the show started. I’ve now lost count of how many times I’ve watched it, but it’s more than 50 and less than 55. Not counting the endless hours I’ve spent just in the first eleven minutes, pausing and rewinding and zooming in.

As for the Outtakes, I think I’ve watched them all the way through... more than 12 but less than 15? That sounds right. I don’t know if I’m going to write about them. This first volume only covers the first 11 minutes of Inside. It’s extremely daunting to think about getting all the way through the whole Special, only to then have another solid hour to analyze. But I think about it all the time. I have an idea of what I would want to say about it.

SUCH: What is your general process of writing from concept to the final product? How long do your works typically take to complete?

JD: It’s always different. For Time’s Apprentice, I had a fairly detailed outline of what I wanted to cover for each day of the two NaNoWriMos I spent writing it. And then sometimes I just have an image or a scene that I want to explore.

Outlining is definitely more effective for me. Of course, that makes it sound like I actually know what I’m doing, or that I’ve ever completed something to my satisfaction.

For this book, it was a little all over the place, as you might expect. I definitely didn’t start out planning to do a book. I just started writing notes about what I was noticing about the show. I tried to pinpoint where the act breaks might be.

"A little all over the place," you say?

I made a list of all the golden ratio/spiral imagery I saw, because hypnosis is one of the main lenses through which I analyze the show, and spirals are a stereotypical part of that. But after a while I realized that every single shot in the show is composed with a snailshell/golden ratio/spiral shape. So I just divided it up by scene instead.

This book took two solid years to write, from deciding to actually make my notes into a coherent book, to the final product. It certainly wasn’t my intention at first. At first I just called it an essay. But it kept getting bigger and bigger, and although I’m okay with leaving stuff out and cutting content, I realized there was too much that I needed to keep in.

So I thought, well, I’ve been wanting to do a book again. Here it is.

Once I realized I wanted to write this as a book, I set up a Google Doc with all of the chapter divisions in a list. I never managed a consistent writing schedule, but I did try to get up early so I could work on it before going to my day job.

Then, because it was in a Google Doc, I could work on it throughout the day on my phone, even when I was away from my decrepit laptop. A couple of times I would have a big new idea about the book’s structure, and rewrite the entire thing, line by line, with two windows open.

Once this happened because I had a dream about Bo, telling me that I wasn’t going in the right direction. So I started over from the beginning. This way I was able to refine and crystallize it all, arranging and rewriting and moving sentences and paragraphs until they were in their proper places. For example, a lot of what ended up in the Camera Test was first written for Content, before it found its proper place.

When I decided to cut the project up even further, and divide it into multiple volumes, I did the same thing all over again. I don’t use Microsoft Word, preferring to use the free OpenOffice software. It’s what I used for my first several books, and I’m comfortable with its clunkiness.

So I copied my Google Doc line by line into a .doc (not a .docx) and prepared the margins and spacing and chapters, and then finished writing the first volume. That whole time I would still read and re-read the document up and down, adding and changing and taking stuff out.

SUCH: Wow, you definitely put a lot of thought into your analysis. And your effort really shows!

How do you typically decide on your subject matter for your writing?

JD: Basically, I just write about what interests me. That’s all that anyone does, I think. As for why people are interested in what they’re interested in, that’s hard to say. But I just looked at each shot of Inside, and whatever would pop into my head, I would investigate.

But the main filter through which I analyzed Inside was hypnosis. I’ve learned a lot about hypnosis in the last several years. It’s a fascinating field of study because science doesn’t seem to have really caught up with what hypnotists have known for over a century. About how the mind works, that is. And how our attention and consciousness can be manipulated to produce all sorts of amazing effects. There’s also a lot of misconceptions about what hypnosis is and what it can do. So that’s the main filter through which I view Inside. Beyond that, I just write about what interests me.

One thing that I really delve into with the book is the etymology of different words. I’m very interested in the origins of words and how their meanings change over time, and how they’re carried through the eras from one language to another. So a lot of what I write about is informed by the deeper meanings of words that Bo uses in the Special. I think every word he uses is worthy of deeper investigation.

“Metaphor” is one of them. I make an equivocation between the meaning of the word “Important” (as in the “Important jokes that will help everyone” notebook) and metaphors, because the etymology of both of those words have to do with the idea of “transfer.” The transference of goods and objects, originally, in the ancient Greek, and eventually the transfer and conveyance and movement of ideas and meaning. It’s a little crazy. But every time I think it’s too crazy, I think about the joke about the pirate’s map.

I view Inside as being something like a treasure map. In the Happy, Sad, Confused episode that Bo appears on, while still in the Room and still making Inside, he talks about wanting to make a roadmap (“The road!”) for younger people. So if Bo’s the pirate, and Inside is the treasure map, in this metaphor, what does that mean? He says that the map should be laminated. Well, if you look up the etymology of the word “laminated,” it means “made or arranged in layers.”

You can picture me dropping the mic now.

SUCH: I love etymology as well, and I agree that Bo is precise in his use of language (although maybe not quite to the degree that you see it).

What's your favorite thing that you've written? Least favorite? Are there any items you would rewrite now? Why?

JD: I really empathize with Bo when he talks about moving on from whatever he’s just made. I’m trying to think, but I don’t think I have a favourite thing I’ve written. I mean, I really like this book. I stand by it and I’m proud of it. But it also doesn’t really feel like I wrote it. It just feels like it wrote itself, and my job was to get out of my own way, and let it crystalize and grow organically. That sounds weird, but it’s how I felt the whole time, and it was my criteria for whether I would keep something or cut it.

I have a lot of my own outtakes, and they’re not in the final book because they just didn’t fit the vibe.

That said, I actually have a lot of ideas for how I would rewrite Time’s Apprentice. I might do that one day. I have a lot more distance from what I was like as a teenager, and I’ve been able to process my experiences. I think that now I would be able to write an actual story set in an urban fantasy Budapest that isn’t just a meandering, extended diary of adolescent main-character-syndrome angst.

SUCH: I totally get that impulse, but sometimes it's nice to just have that early work as a time capsule of sorts—it's like a means to return to your younger mind. At least that is the way it is for me and my writing haha.

Have you ever had an idea for a book that just didn't work out for some reason? Why?

JD: Yep. All of them except this one. Because I didn’t work hard enough on them.

SUCH: Understood!

How would you explain your writing to Bo if you were to meet him in person?

JD: You know that girl who made a pair of Rubik’s Cubes with pictures from the Special and the Outtakes? She ran into Bo in New York City and got to give them to him personally. There’s pictures of it. He looks very happy. That’s what I want to do.

My fantasy, which might never come true, is to run into Bo on the street, and pull out a copy of the book, and hand it to him, and say, “A book on getting better, hand delivered by a drone.” I don’t know if he’d laugh at that, or think I’m crazy, but that’s the image I have.

But how would I explain it? I would say that I’m 99.999% sure that I know what he meant by it all, and that I wanted to communicate it to other people, so that they could also see what a wonderful thing he did in 2020. What can I say? I just don’t agree that explaining a joke makes it less funny. I guess that means the joke is on me.

SUCH: Do you think stream-of-consciousness writing like your book is a useful outlet of creative expression, or is it indulging and prolonging a perhaps unhealthy obsession? That's the problem I faced as the Bo Burnham Historian and why I ultimately shifted to SUCH and discussing comedy outside of just Bo.

JD: I hadn’t really thought of this book as being stream-of-consciousness until you mentioned it, but I should have. It’s obvious that that’s what the finished product is. But it’s not because I planned it that way. Genuine stream of consciousness is a great technique for writing practice, but that’s not what this is.

I’m just going through the Special shot by shot and scene by scene, and saying what I can about it. Sometimes in a focused way, and sometimes in a roundabout way, talking about something else that interests me that relates to the particular shot somehow. Because of the stream-of-consciousness nature of Inside, analyzing it that way just naturally turns it into a stream of consciousness as well. I came up with a word to describe that: “Oneirodrome.” I went through a couple of different ideas before I settled on that word, like “hypno-track.” I read A Clockwork Orange early on in the process of making this book, and I saw Inside as being like a benevolent version of the videos used for brainwashing in that story. But I like oneirodrome. It’s from the Greek words “oneiros,” meaning “dream,” and “dromia,” meaning "racetrack." Like a psychic roller coaster. I realized later on that basically every movie tries to create this experience. But Inside does it so well that it deserved a whole new word that wasn’t just “poioumenon.”

But yeah, the book did not start out in such a structured manner. It was all over the place and went through several different versions and rewrites before I decided to just basically replicate my experience of the show in sequence. Once I had a structure in mind, I was able to plan it a lot more effectively and put the pieces where they needed to be.

Most of my time writing it was actually spent going back to older parts and tightening and polishing them, so that, even though the linear narrative is that of a stream of consciousness, recording my thoughts from January 2022 to September 2023, the writing itself was all over the place. Doing it that way made me think even harder about what it was like for Bo to make the Special. Like, for the longest time, my section on the Camera Test was just notes. It wasn’t until I was stuck in “A House Full of Smoke,” earlier this year, that I went back and finished the Camera Test.

Is it indulging and prolonging an obsession? Absolutely it is. But I was already an extremely obsessive person. My life is divided up into eras of obsession. I think I’m only really happy when I’m fixated and obsessed with something. Thomas the Tank Engine, The Magic School Bus and geology, owls, Bionicle, Zelda, Pokémon.

Aly thinks I might be somewhere on the spectrum. I’d accepted that about myself a long time ago. So to find myself obsessed with something that’s had such a positive impact on the world...I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone (being obsessed, that is; obviously I would recommend everyone watch Inside at least once), but there are much worse things I could be obsessed with. So I feel it keeps me out of trouble.

SUCH: I totally empathize with having many hyperfixations that keep you happy—I'm the same way!

So you really dive into the minutiae of each scene of Inside. Do you ever think you are overanalyzing Bo's masterpiece? And how do you separate Bo's persona from who he is in real life? People often forget that comedy is a performance and does not have to be factually honest.

JD: One of the reasons I started writing the book is because I realized I needed to listen to a piece of Bo’s advice, and shut the fuck up. By that I mean, I needed to stop talking to people in my life about Inside. And I needed to stop posting my theories on Reddit. They were not well received. I was constantly told that I was looking too deeply into it. But I didn’t think I was, and I think I had good reason to look even deeper.

Everything in Inside seems to be both true, and a lie, and a joke. So when, in the Reaction Video, Bo says that he has an instinct to imbue everything he writes with deeper meaning, I take that seriously.

I know what he says about the burrito just being a burrito. But deeper meaning still keeps appearing. I realized that if I was going to communicate my experience, it couldn’t be done in a limited way on forums. It had to be a long-form piece of content that said everything I wanted to all at once, in sequence.

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when the main trio are breaking into a Gringotts vault, they encounter a security measure called the Gemino Curse. Every time they pick up an object they think is the Horcrux they’re searching for, it splits into several copies of itself. That’s what it felt like to try to get a grip on Inside.

Every time I thought I had a handle on it, I would read a book or watch a movie or listen to a podcast, and new depths and meaning would suddenly appear. Inside is a reflection of whoever watches it. It’s different for everyone. Some people know about the details and structure of the Hero’s Journey, and so that’s what they see. Others know about music theory (I know absolutely nothing about it) and so they can pick out the neat things that Bo does with that. Others have trauma, and grief, and anxiety, and that’s what they zero in on.

Bo made a mirror, and a magnifying glass, and whatever we get out of it depends on what we put in. So yeah, I’m overanalyzing it. But I also only analyze it to the extent that I’m personally able to.

Given that understanding of the show, I can’t say anything at all about, as I like to call him, “the real Robert.” My book is about the persona. The Bo that we see on the screen. Some people, like Jerrod Carmichael, Phoebe Bridgers, Lorene Scafaria, and obviously Bo’s own family, are lucky enough to know the real Robert. But all we have to go on is what he performs for us. That’s plenty for me.

We’ve seen Bo grow from an irreverent kid on YouTube, to a precocious late teen in Words Words Words, to an absurdist douche in what. to a thoughtful young man in Make Happy. And that’s just the evolution of the character. I suppose we get glimmers of Robert in podcasts and interviews, but we can’t even be sure of that. And isn’t that such fun?

SUCH: Yes, that dichotomy between Bo the performer and Robert the person is what deepens his character in Inside. Is it real? Is it not? I agree...that's part of the fun of his film.

And I love that you brought up how it's a mirror that reflects what we want to see. I'm actually working on a post about Bo and literal mirrors (he has many photos throughout his career featuring them), so that point really excited me!

So you tackle a lot of controversial topics in this book, mainly in your discussion of Comedy. Why did you decide to address this as a young privileged white man? Did you ever think you were out of your depth?

JD: Inside employs what Jordan Peterson calls “minimal necessary force.” It never goes too far or too hard. The absolute maximum force that Bo uses in trying to communicate to us happens right at the end, in All Eyes On Me, when he finally loses his cool and furiously thunders, “I’m talking to you, get the fuck up!” (which sends shivers down my spine literally every single time I hear it).

But other than that, he uses a very delicate touch. So delicate as to say almost nothing at all. We fill in all the blanks for him with our own knowledge and experience.

All that said, 2020 was an extremely contentious time. It was a Gordian knot of controversy, and it’s only gotten worse. A work of art about the experience of 2020 is naturally going to touch on controversy. Despite this, Bo does a fantastic job avoiding anything truly contentious so that the Special can progress and work its magic. It’s a different story when you start to dig into what really happened that year, and the history that led up to it, and everything that’s happened since.

My mom always says that I’ve lived a charmed life. And it’s true. But so has Bo. That didn’t stop him from making the Special and being himself, although it did make him question if he should. But there was nothing else for it. He decided to make a quarantine special, and then everything that happened in 2020 happened. I decided to write about Inside, as deeply as I could, and so I had to take a look at what was going on too. I’ve lived a privileged life, and I wouldn’t begin to deny it. My parents are still together, and love and respect each other, and were great role models for me.

But it’s also been a very difficult life. It was wonderful to live in Europe and have all the experiences I did. I’m also glossing over all the terrible angst in my recollections. I would not wish my adolescence on my worst enemy. The thing about moving all the time is that you never get to put down roots. Humans evolved to stay in one place and be a part of a community. When you need to make a new friend group every three years, need to acclimate to a new town, a new school, or even a new culture, it messes you up in really profound ways. It sets you apart from other people. Aly got married to me in the back garden of the same house she lived in since she was a baby. I can’t imagine what that sort of permanence and sense of continuity is like.

Sob story out of the way.

When I got to the “classroom” section of Comedy, and Bo talks about examining privilege and the history of white people, I sort of bristled. My first, purely unconscious, reaction was something like “Can you lay off the white people just a little?” This is a natural reaction to criticism of one’s group, even if you adamantly resist giving a crap about being part of that group. I’ll give you an example. Having had my most formative years outside of Canada, and being critical of a lot of aspects of my country, I don’t really feel a part of The Team. But so, I became good friends in the last few years with a guy from Nunavut. He’s a straight up Eskimo, if we’re going to use the outdated and offensive (but maybe more familiar) term, one of only 70,000 Inuit people in Canada. And he’s taught me a lot about the history of Indigenous relations with the Canadian government (characterized by malevolence and apathy and outrageously useless bureaucracy, mostly) and the impacts of colonialism. He’s a dear, dear friend, and I respect him and his opinions immensely. But one day I asked him what he was doing for Canada Day (our version of the 4th of July). He said that, like many Indigenous Canadians, he doesn’t celebrate it. And for a split second, even though I agree with him, my lizard brain activated and my team-player instincts turned on. Suddenly he was Other. He wasn’t on the Team. A Team that I don’t even bat for. Just for a millisecond, before my intellectual, rational, anti-establishment side took over again, and I could tell him what happened, and use it as a teachable moment about what human brains are really like underneath the hood.

Anyway. As I got deeper into writing the book, and researching it, and listening to diverse voices, I got to be okay with this discomfort. Why did I decide to address these topics? Because Bo alluded to them, and the book’s job was to expand on them. And I became extremely interested in them. In the history of how Europeans and Americans started calling themselves “white,” and the history of how they’ve had the floor for 400 years. And also, extremely interested in our present quagmire of media manipulation and narrative-spinning. If at any point I felt out of my depth, it just meant I had to do more research.

At the same time, I wasn’t trying to reach any solid conclusions about anything. What I want my readers to take away from anything controversial is curiosity, and to experience the joy and pleasure and pain of doing their own research. I’ve laid out what I read and watched for my own self-teaching, and I hope that they do the same. And I hope they can agree that comedy can be a unifying denominator in times of division, no matter who we are.

SUCH: Yes, comedy can help unite people who are divided for whatever reason (racially, ideologically, etc.). But it's getting harder to have people sit down and listen to the other side, it seems.

I also enjoyed how you brought up Infinite Jest (and that you've read the 1K-page novel FOUR times! Damn...I'm only halfway through it). Do you think Bo was influenced by the works of David Foster Wallace? How? I'm actually working on a piece about Bo and the fantastic writer (RIP), so I'm curious what your thoughts are.

My personal copy, complete with a pencil marking where I am in DFW's masterpiece

JD: In Roald Dahl’s book The Big Friendly Giant, the titular BFG tells the protagonist Sophie about the different lovely dreams that he blows into children’s ears when they’re sleeping. One of those dreams is about a book that’s so compelling you can’t stop reading it. You just keep reading it, walking around town with your nose in the book, reading it over and over again.

Infinite Jest is about a movie like that, but the book itself is like that too. I’ve literally walked to and from work with my nose in that massive tome because I didn’t want to stop reading it. In the world of Infinite Jest, America becomes energy independent because of an arcane process called Annular Fusion, with “annular” meaning “ring.” Basically everything in Infinite Jest revolves around this theme. The more toxic waste you put into an Annular Fusion system, the more energy is created. Cancer is cured by giving the cancer itself cancer.

Everything from the nostalgia for the reruns of broadcast television (“I miss seeing the same thing over and over again”) to the way the book’s prologue is also its epilogue, happening last in the chronology of the convoluted plot, reinforces this circular theme. The first time you read Infinite Jest, you don’t notice any of this. It’s not a difficult book to read, per se, in that the language is actually very clear and funny if you pay attention to it. But it is dense. And verbose. And for the first while, you have no idea what’s going on. But on re-read, you start to see everything in context. You start to appreciate scenes that before were an absolute slog to get through. The more you read the book, the more you cycle through and around the loop, the more you get out of it.

So, ah, yeah, I think Bo might have gotten a few ideas from DFW.

SUCH: Yeah, like I said, I'm halfway through it and am just now understanding sections that were so confusing previously.

I also had the idea in my head that Bo is the only person who could adapt that monster of a book into a film...and he could play the alcoholic dad!

So why did you decide to have your book published on 10/10/23 (World Mental Health Day)? Do you think Bo has helped people address their issues of anxiety and depression through his art? And what has helped you the most in your mental health journey?

JD: I set myself a lot of deadlines since I started this. (To paraphrase Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”) During version 2 (this is version 4), I wanted to reach the first mirror monologue by the time the Special’s first anniversary rolled around. Then the Outtakes came out, and I sort of started over again. That was fine because I figured out soon after what sort of structure I wanted the book to conform to.

This book analyzes the first eleven minutes of the Special, but it started out trying to do the whole thing. That was taking forever. Realizing that the first mirror monologue (“Whatever This Is,” I call it) was a good place to take a break spurred me to work harder, since there was now an end in sight. (“It’s almost over, it’s just begun.”)

There’s still the whole rest of the Special to get through, which I think will take another three books. But I designed this one so that, if anything happens to me, or if I lose interest, people who are interested will still be able to follow Bo’s map in its entirety.

I don’t think Bo has helped people. I know that he has. You yourself have compiled a huge collection of online comments from people talking about what a positive force Bo is for the world [Ed. note: Thanks! It was a labor of love]. I don’t have depression anymore, or anxiety, unlike many of Bo’s fans.

What he did for me was to spur me to be more creative and productive, which is what I needed at the time. My journey of healing began much earlier, shortly after I met Aly. What helped me most in my mental health journey was finding Jordan Peterson and his lectures. I know that most Bo fans will bristle to hear that, but it’s the truth. I’m one of the millions of aimless young men who have been helped by the infamous Canadian psychology professor.

Jordan Peterson does so much more than just “self-help.” He spent his whole life trying to understand how humans tick, and why we fight, and he spent fifteen years writing a book called Maps of Meaning that articulates his findings. That book, published in 1999, explains how humans construct meaning, and how conflict between groups arises when those maps clash and violate each other’s idea of what’s real. It touches on everything from neurology to ancient Babylonian mythology, and forms a coherent theory (not a hypothesis, but a theory, like gravity or evolution) that explains how we orient ourselves in the world as biological creatures with an instinct toward something transcendent. That’s a pretty esoteric answer to the question of how I stopped being sad. The upshot of Jordan’s lessons is that we don’t exist in a vacuum. Our minds are our rooms, which we have to clean in order to feel better. Our minds are our communities, which, for better or worse, we have to be a part of in order to keep our emotions regulated.

Some people genuinely have what we call chemical imbalances in our brains (although your interview with “Lizard,” the scientist who wrote about grief and trauma in Inside, says that is a flawed way of looking at it) and that causes them to have anxiety and depression. But most of us are anxious or depressed for the simple reason that our lives aren’t very good.

And mine and Aly’s life (in case you’re thinking Jordan’s only talking to young men, he’s not; Aly is very vocal about what a positive influence he’s been, and how she’s been able to process her own trauma and anxiety because of him) just wasn’t very good. So we were prompted to do better. To stand up straight with our shoulders back, to clean our house, to tell the truth, and to take on as much responsibility as we could. We live in a really messed-up world, but if you can create an island of stability, you can weather the storms, and come out ahead, and help others to do the same.

Also, ah, I’m not a doctor. And I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do anything illegal. And I wouldn’t recommend that someone under the age of 25 mess with their developing brain. But psilocybin mushrooms have played an equally important role in helping us to get better. I allude to this in the book. Magic mushrooms, properly administered with the right level of respect, are an absolute godsend. It’s like defragging the hard drive of your mind. The subjective experiences that people have when they take mushrooms can allow them to process trauma, understand their own faults and failings, forgive people and themselves, and get in touch with the fundamental benevolence of reality itself. I had a terrible cigarette addiction in my early 20s, and six months after my first trip, I managed to quit. But you’ve got to have the right frame of mind, the right setting, although a bad trip can have very positive consequences if you take the lessons seriously. The key is to actually enact and live out the lessons you take from the mushroom, though. I’m very optimistic for the world because more and more people are taking mushrooms and realizing that we all partake in something universal and human, that there is more that unites us than divides us. And also because so much scientific research is finally being conducted on psilocybin after being stigmatized for so long, and many places are starting to decriminalize them. Gives me hope that we’re all gonna make it.

Oh, sorry, why did I decide to publish on World Mental Health Day? I thought it was cute. At first I wanted to publish on September 10th, which is World Suicide Prevention Day. That didn’t end up working. But it was you yourself who suggested I publish on October 10th instead, and I’m very grateful for such a great idea.

SUCH: I'm no fan of Peterson, but it sounds like he helped you and your wife tremendously.

And I'm glad you took my suggestion—I believe very strongly in mental health education and awareness, topics that continue to lack support in the United States.

My Canva stickers for the occasion this year

Do you appreciate reader feedback? Why or why not?

JD: I do and I don’t. I haven’t gotten very much of it, is the thing. And when I was writing more, when I was a dumb teenager, and I thought I was right about everything, any negative feedback, even if it was constructive, meant that what I had written wasn’t good enough, and there was more work to do.

Nowadays, even though I’m still not very good at receiving it, I appreciate all the constructive criticism I can get. Because it’s the only way I can improve. I have a higher goal now: to explain what I believe about Bo’s work. Anything that can help me be more clear in what I’m trying to express is appreciated.

SUCH: Yes, I struggle with any criticism because I'm a perfectionist, but I'm trying to accept it more—it's a learning process for sure.

Please tell me one fun fact about yourself. Do you have any specific hobbies or interests people don't know about?

JD: I collect coins. I collect books. And I really love to cook. Soup season is here, which means I’m taking a lot of bones home from work so I can make broth with my Instant Pot. It’s great to just sip from a mug, like a cup of meat tea, or to use in all sorts of recipes.

One of mine and Aly’s fantasies is to one day open up a cafe specializing in bone broth. It would be called Mr. Bones’, and the logo would be a smiling skeleton stirring a cauldron with a big femur bone. We would sell soups and sandwiches, with a rotating menu of different broths, and frozen batches for customers to take away and use at home.

SUCH: Oh wow! That sounds really cool. I have had a similar fantasy about opening a restaurant called Sop where you'd have thick stews and bisques and a variety of crunchy breads to dip into the liquids (hence the name). Sopping up soup with bread is one of my favorite mealtime activities, so I think a whole eating experience centered on that would be fun.

What's your favorite Bo song/special? You can name more than one.

JD: Obviously Inside is at the top of the list. My favourite song in the special, if we’re not going to say All Eyes On Me, is Look Who’s Inside Again. And my favourite in the Outtakes is The Future.

But the Bo song that gives me the most joy is Rant from Words Words Words. Apart from my four years at an international school, all of my compulsory education was done at Canadian Catholic schools. I was baptised Catholic.

I now label myself something like a Christo-Hindu Islamo-Gnostic Pantheist (if we absolutely must have labels, I’ll take as many as I can get) because I think all religions contain pieces of the truth that they guard jealously. Even the Mormons. Maybe not the Scientologists. But my background is Catholic. And my temperament is one of healthy rebellion.

Bo’s irreverent rant about the Catholic Church, with its intricate wordplay and astoundingly deep theological nuance, is right up my alley.

SUCH: Awesome choices and, as a former Catholic myself who despises the institution deeply, Rant is incredible haha.

Do you have any upcoming projects?

JD: Well, I’ve got to finish this book. Volume 2 of The Funniest Thing is going to be called This Isn’t About You. I’m going to cover everything from FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight) to the scene where Bo has the knife. I’m excited to see how it turns out, and how it changes me.

Jay has his whiteboard all set up to organize his thoughts on Volume 2—how very Bo of him!

In the meantime, I’m going to be posting Volume 1 chapter by chapter on Substack. I’ve been emailing the PDF of the book to anyone who asks, but I decided that posting it somewhere will be easier and more accessible. And a better front for the brand.

Apart from working on the next part of the book, I do have a little side project going. This isn’t so much something to do with promoting the book, per se. More like promoting Inside itself. Ottawa is a town with a lot of those Little Free Library boxes scattered around. So little by little, I’m buying author copies of the book at printing cost, and distributing them around town for people to find.

Jay's copies in Little Free Library cases

Sort of living out the line from How the World Works: “A bee drinks from a flower, and leaves with its pollen. A squirrel in a tree spreads the seeds that have fallen.” All of us who watch the special and benefit from it are the bee or the squirrel, telling all our friends about it and spreading its seeds.

SUCH: I love that! And what a great idea to spread the wealth by providing copies for your local community.

How can fans best support you? And do you have any social media that you'd like to plug?

JD: You can support me by buying the paperback from Amazon and sharing it with your friends, family, and social media followers.

Especially on TikTok —I don’t have an account there, but for anyone who does, I’d really appreciate you talking about the book on there. Even if you don’t want to buy a copy, maybe you know somebody who would like to. The holidays are right around the corner, after all.

So far, ten people have bought a copy, and only one of those was my mom. But honestly, this isn’t about me. This whole thing is about spreading Bo’s message and getting people to think more deeply about the media they consume. About getting people to read books again. About healing the world with comedy.

That said, I want to start writing about things other than Bo. I want to analyze the power of the Taylor Swift cult. I want to write about the psychology of the Hero’s Journey in other movies. I want to start a YouTube channel one day where I talk about this stuff. But for now, you can subscribe to my Substack, and follow me on Twitter at @joker_jay94.

And most of all, keep watching Inside, and finding good books to read.

SUCH: Excellent points and, yes...this is a terrific gift for the Bo Burnham fan in your life!

Thanks so much, Jay, for taking the time to discuss your book, and I personally can't wait to read the next volume!

JD: It's been my pleasure!

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