An Interview with SnowyOwl, Bo Burnham Fan and Make Happy Tour Audience Member
Today's interview was purely serendipitous. I was checking out the Bo Burnham subreddit, and I came across a post about the anniversary of this Redditor seeing Bo live in Philadelphia in 2015.
Now, this particular tour stop is very meaningful to me because Bo performed at the Keswick Theatre, a medium-sized venue just outside of Philly in Glenside, PA.
I remember seeing the promotional poster in 2020 for the first time and being dumbstruck by the fact Bo had played at one of the few locations I had actually been to before!
Bo entering the Ruhm in full clown gear (including red shoes!)
I have never been a huge live events person, but after giving birth to my son in March 2016, my then-husband and I made a concerted effort to go to more shows and we ended up attending two performances at the Keswick: John Carpenter in July 2016 and Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live! in July 2017.
The tote bag I bought at the John Carpenter show—it's the perfect message, right?
Bo discussing MST3K with Douglas Rushkoff
Bo knows Jonah Ray from The Meltdown and Patton Oswalt is one of his favorite comics
My son and me sleeping, me with my MST3K shirt on and him clutching his Jonah and the Bots blanket
The blanket in question and watching the newer seasons of the program together —what can I say...we're BIG fans lol
Both were incredible shows, and I really enjoyed the atmosphere of the venue and the little town in which it's situated.
So you can imagine how frustrating it was for me to learn Bo had performed my FAVORITE comedy special, lighting rig and everything, just one year prior! As I said to Stucks in his podcast interview, I would have been pregnant at the time though, so maybe it was for the best haha.
Me lamenting missing the Keswick show
Anyway, after reading this anniversary post on Reddit, I decided to reach out to the author of said post so that I could learn more about the amazing show that took place just a half hour from where I lived at the time (and I wanted to experience his impressions vicariously since Bo doesn't seem likely to be touring in Philly again any time soon).
Luckily, SnowyOwl (his preferred alias) was eager to discuss all the specifics of Bo's live performance, how it felt to see Can't Handle This in person, and what he thinks Bo will be doing next.
Here is my interview with SnowyOwl, which has been edited and condensed for clarity purposes.
Stand-Up Comedy Historian: Hey, SnowyOwl! Thanks for agreeing to chat about your experience seeing Bo perform Make Happy at his first stop on the Fall 2015 tour.
SnowyOwl: It's my pleasure!
So let's dive right in since you are maintaining your anonymity for this interview.
Can you provide any details on your background for my readers?
SnowyOwl: Hello! I am 27 years old, and I live in Pennsylvania. I studied English and Digital Humanities in college, so Bo's brand of comedy very much appeals to me! [Ed. note: English and European History minor for me!]
After starting my career in K–12 educational administration, primarily in the Philadelphia area, I moved a bit further southeast. I now work part-time in higher education marketing and part-time running and designing escape rooms in my city.
I also enjoy writing fiction, traveling (particularly to new cities and national parks), and making theatrical/immersive experiences in my spare time.
SUCH: Thanks for providing that information.
Wow, creating theatrical experiences sounds like a really fun pastime! I have only been to one immersive show (albeit three times), but I very much enjoyed the experience haha.
So when did you become a fan of Bo?
SnowyOwl: I had casually come across some of his YouTube videos in the late 2000s, and I remember being very impressed by his clever wordplay.
Words Words Words came out in my freshman year of high school and that tipped me over into becoming a huge fan. Some of my closest friends from high school are also Bo fans, and I fondly remember driving/riding around and singing to WWW as soon as one of us got a learner's permit.
Since then, I have closely followed all of Bo's work and new releases. I have particularly good memories of the Make Happy tour, seeing Eighth Grade at the Philadelphia Film Society's Spring Fest, and the Inside screening at 9:30 pm in downtown Philly.
SUCH: Oh nice! I saw Bo's masterpiece in Philly as well but at the screening right before yours (7:30). Such a great time, and I met my friend Kinja there!
Kinja and me at the Ritz screening...notice my Social Brand Consultant knockoff t-shirt for the occasion?
Had you seen Bo on tour before his performance at the Keswick, or was this your first time seeing him live?
SnowyOwl: This was my first time seeing him live, and it was absolutely fantastic!
SUCH: Cool! So why did you decide to attend Bo's Philly tour stop?
SnowyOwl: By the time tickets went on sale, I was already a big fan. I closely monitored the ticket site and ended up getting seats with 2 of the close friends I mentioned above.
SUCH: Where were you seated? Did you have an obstructed view at all?
SnowyOwl: I was seated on the right-hand side of the orchestra section, about 7 rows back from the stage. The view was only very slightly obstructed by a black curtain on the right, but it didn't affect my experience at all since Bo wasn't on that side of that stage too much.
SnowyOwl's view of the stage
SUCH: Nice seats!
It's so impressive to me that Bo had the exact same lighting setup for the tour as he did in the final comedy special. Were there any surprises with his rig that delighted you in person? I imagine him saying "Stay out of it" to the second cannon was hilarious.
SnowyOwl: Similar to what., I was extremely impressed with how many moods and tones Bo and his team conjured through light and sound.
The setup for both of those shows is minimalist, but the strength of Bo's timing and performance creates so many unique scenarios.
I enjoy theatrical design that feels like a "puzzle box," with new layers and surprises being revealed as the show goes on, and that vibe was very much present in Make Happy.
That moment with the second cannon was indeed very funny in person. The audience was really in stitches during the "making a PB&J sandwich" sequence, especially with the laser-ish lights evoking some kind of spy movie, and the slo-mo feeling particularly hilarious in person as he plodded around the stage.
SUCH: Oh yeah, the juxtaposition of those two scenes is hysterically funny. Bo plays a very convincing drunk person!
By the way, if you're interested in learning more about Bo's favorite sandwich spread, I have a post pertaining to peanut butter and its many appearances in his works—spoiler alert: it is a LOT.
Back to the Keswick show.
So Bo clearly ADORES having fog and a smoky atmosphere in his works (Inside, Rothaniel, and Kate come to mind). Did he have the machines running during this performance as well, or did he save that visual element for the final two shows in New York that were recorded?
SnowyOwl: Yes, fog played a huge role in the Philly performance as well. It was very prominent during Can't Handle This, with the fog almost enveloping him entirely as the intensity of the song ramped up.
It's funny you mention the fog cannons, because the first time they went off during the I'm a Little Teapot bit, I almost jumped out of my seat since I wasn't expecting it! They were very loud in person, but that made it even funnier.
SUCH: I had no idea they made a loud noise! Fascinating...I guess that's why they are called "cannons" lol.
For instance, the shot where Jerrod looks straight at the camera is so moving for the viewing audience, but I had no idea he was doing that from my vantage point (and his shiny watch kept hurting my eyes haha).
Did you have any similar experiences where something hits harder in Make Happy than when you saw him live? I would imagine the powerful close-ups were nonexistent.
SnowyOwl: The song Are You Happy? is one of my favorites from the entire special, and it wasn't present in the live show at all, so that was an unexpected surprise when watching on Netflix.
Yes, seeing some of his facial expressions a little bit closer in the taping made certain moments funnier or more emotionally impactful. Also, the moment when he turns the camera on the audience could only be accomplished in a filmed version and landed like a gut punch when I watched it.
SUCH: Definitely! I love that Bo always keeps the viewing audience in mind for his taped performances. From the editor's joke in what. to the snow in Rothaniel, he creates surprises that delight everyone—even for those people who were at the shows!
So the intro with Bo in his sad clown makeup really sets up his Pagliacci persona in the special.
I know that he had that look for the promo posters, but did you see that part at the Keswick, perhaps as a short film to watch prior to the live performance? Or did he just bound in with Hell Yeah? In other words, how did the show begin?
SnowyOwl: There was no filmed introduction with the clown makeup, but the clown motif was present in some of the other tour merch.
A lucky Redditor's signed poster
He had another comedian on as the opener (his name is escaping me) and after that person finished, Bo came right in with Hell Yeah.
SUCH: Interesting! I've been to comedy shows where they'd played a previously taped introduction, but it sounds like Bo didn't choose to do that.
So what did Bo do at this show that differed from the filmed version on Netflix besides the lack of the intro? Were there any jokes/bits that you wish had made it in?
SnowyOwl: The performance overall was almost exactly the same as the Netflix version. My memory is a little hazy, but I recall a few moments.
He made some Philly-centric jokes and mentioned something about the theater looking like a shipwrecked vessel.
He also acknowledged one of the security guards in the back, which I believe he did at some other venues, and had some additional back-and-forth with the "sound guy."
I do wish some of the little interpersonal moments like that had made it into the special, but I can see how they might not translate as well for an audience who isn't physically present.
As a side note, another wonderful moment was running into a different friend from high school at the show, and I had no idea she was a fellow Bo fan! I really loved the vibe and atmosphere created in the theater—the audience at this show was very respectful and I do not recall any heckling/calling out, which I know Bo has said he isn't fond of.
SUCH: Yeah, I would say the majority of comics hate heckling because it interrupts the rhythm and flow of the performance.
That's so cool that you met up with another Bo fan from your high school! Small world that we live in sometimes haha.
And for anyone (like me) who wants to experience a Bo show with lots of Philly references, you can check out this amazing full-length recording of a Trocadero performance from 2010 (another venue I've visited!).
Back to the show.
I saw on Reddit that someone asked one of my questions about Can't Handle This. So it was a bit awkward to go from that sad song about Bo hating performing to him coming back out and doing an encore? The cognitive dissonance seems overwhelming to me.
SnowyOwl: A little bit, yeah. His performance was so raw that it almost made me feel guilty for being there in the audience, as in, "we're the ones making him feel like this."
So when he came back out to do an encore of Oh Bo, it was fun to witness, but I felt uneasy at the same time. Did he actually enjoy performing that song, or did he feel obligated?
Whatever the case, I hope he's in a better headspace now, because I can only imagine how difficult it would be to face anxiety and panic struggles in a very public setting like that.
SUCH: Oof, my empathy would not be able to take seeing him back on the stage after such a heart-wrenching song and performance.
So I have to ask: did Bo seem like he was having a panic attack during the show? I know he's said in later interviews (and of course in All Eyes On Me) that they started to get worse while he was at the start of this particular tour.
SnowyOwl: I can't say, and I wouldn't want to speculate. However, as someone who has suffered from panic attacks, I can say that the ending really had an effect on me.
I was honestly getting a little panicky myself as he was talking about what he experiences. Obviously, I am not someone with a massive following/audience like Bo has, but I sometimes feel like I am "performing" in day-to-day life and fearing what others think of me—a sentiment I'm sure many others share. I think Bo does an amazing job of causing audiences to reflect on their own anxieties by presenting them through the lens of his own.
SUCH: Absolutely! That's what made me become such a big fan of his works—his authentic portrayal of anxiety in Eighth Grade and Make Happy.
Let's move to a lighter topic now.
Did you meet Bo after the show? Buy any of his tour merch? If so, what did you get and do you still own it?
SnowyOwl: I didn't meet Bo, but I did get an unsigned copy of Egghead.
I had borrowed a copy from a friend before but it felt like a good memory to get my own on the tour, and I still have it! I'm kicking myself for not getting a tour poster or shirt, though.
SUCH: I adore Egghead! Such a witty poetry book with some moving poems as well.
I didn't know he sold copies during the Make Happy tour...that's really cool! I just bought mine from Bezos in 2019.
And I have a post about all the child-friendly poems in it for anyone who wants to see clean poetry from Bo (there's a surprising amount compared to his obscenity-filled music! haha).
So what is your favorite song/bit from Make Happy? Least favorite?
SnowyOwl: Can't Handle This and Are You Happy? are probably tied for first, but close behind is Lower Your Expectations. I think it's an exemplary blend of the empathy, lyricism, and observational humor that makes Bo so unique, plus it's catchy as heck.
The bit with the hip-hop nursery rhymes, while funny in the moment, didn't resonate for me as much as other segments.
I also have to say that the line "If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it" has stuck with me for years and actually influenced a lot of my decision-making, including largely staying off of social media.
I had a brief stage as a teenager where I made some short animated comedy videos that blew up online and gave me a larger following than I ever anticipated. However, as a result of that I felt increasing pressure to please the audience and keep delivering regular content.
I realized what this was doing to my mental health and decided to leave the platform entirely, finishing off with one last video. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I kept going, but I also don't regret the decision, and when I doubt myself that Bo quote will often pop into my head.
SUCH: Yeah, burnout from that kind of pigeonholed content is SO common nowadays. And audiences can be fickle! You need to do what you enjoy, and people will either like it or not.
Good for you for focusing on your mental health, and I totally agree about that line and other discussions of social media in his interviews.
The Internet can be super addictive, but once you're away from it, the spell is broken and you're like, "Why did I care THAT much what some random stranger thought about my post?"
But I digress.
So when I became a fan of Bo in 2019, I was dismayed to find out that there was never a Make Happy album released. I hated the fact that the most recent song I could listen to until Inside came out was Hell of a Ride lol.
Netflix needs to get on this and add a version on streaming, right? I don't care for the argument about losing the visual component (what. is the same way), but I know it's got something to do with Bo's contract per his AMA.
However, I feel like they could easily make a TON of money putting out that and pressing a physical version as well—I know I'd buy it!
SnowyOwl: I would love to see an album release for Make Happy, and I'm still a little confused as to why there isn't one!
I guess Inside was such a cultural phenomenon that it warranted a full release, and maybe Make Happy didn't have the same kind of traction at the time.
SUCH: No, the history of how Inside: The Songs came to be is much more interesting than that! Basically an Imperial Records executive reached out to Bo after he had watched the special and realized the world was clamoring for this music—Bo hadn't even planned to release an album with Inside, and now he's won a Grammy for All Eyes On Me! You can actually read more about the story of Inside: The Songs here.
So what did you think of Bo's works (Eighth Grade, Inside) after you saw him live? Were you surprised he gave up on live performance after that tour (minus some unannounced short sets at the Largo), or was the writing on the wall?
SnowyOwl: I was not too surprised when he stopped doing live shows/touring due to the tone of the show. As always, it's hard to discern where the "onstage character" and Bo differ, but Can't Handle This felt like a finale of sorts. I have been very impressed with Bo's talent behind the camera and thematic continuation of the themes present in his other work, and I think Eighth Grade and Inside are both brilliant.
SUCH: Definitely agree with you on that last point! I've seen Bo direct four separate times, and he seems to be very comfortable behind the scenes for now. Fingers crossed he decides to perform again though!
What was your specific impression of Inside? When did you watch it, and how many times have you seen it? What's your favorite song/bit? Least favorite? And what in the special makes you laugh the hardest?
SnowyOwl: In my opinion, Inside is a masterpiece and Bo's best work yet.
I watched it on release day and it actually took a while for it to grow on me, but suddenly a switch flipped, and I was hooked.
I think it is one of the best artistic representations of mental health in the modern world that I've seen. I saw it twice more on Netflix (before my subscription lapsed, haha) and then again at the screening in Philadelphia, but I have probably listened to the soundtrack 40+ times—it just never gets old.
My favorite song is All Eyes on Me and I guess least favorite is Any Day Now, but there's nothing on the album I'd consider bad or even mediocre.
I think Comedy makes me laugh the hardest, largely due to Bo's facial expressions and some of the background jokes.
In retrospect it's interesting that Inside functions as a follow-up to Make Happy in some ways, since Bo intentionally evoked imagery from the ending of MH in the teaser video.
Seeing that door to the shed/guesthouse opening again got me very hyped because I didn't think we'd see a special like that from Bo ever again, and of course Inside exceeded my expectations.
SUCH: Totally agree with you there! I was SO excited to see that teaser photo on Instagram—I just knew that something BIG was coming haha.
Josh Kingsford's excellent video essay Inside in Context helpfully threads Bo's discussions of the Internet through his works, explaining the connective tissue inherent in Make Happy and Eighth Grade in particular. Do you see similar connections? Was there anything he did at the Keswick performance that you related to Inside?
SnowyOwl: Absolutely. I am someone who gets stressed out about the effects technology has had—or is having—on our collective psychology and mental health, and I often feel like new social networks/gadgets are introduced to the general population before we fully understand how they're going to affect behavior.
I have never seen anyone examine and unpack these concerns in present-day entertainment quite like Bo. Make Happy, Inside, and Eighth Grade all use a single person (Bo/"stage Bo" in MH and Inside, Kayla in EG) on the micro level to speak to broader cultural implications of the Internet and tech on a macro level.
And in all of them, I keep coming back to the central themes of audiences—the real ones physically sitting in front of Bo during Make Happy shows, the unseen ones Kayla is trying to vlog to in Eighth Grade, and the audiences stuck in front of all kinds of screens around the world during Inside's initial release.
As for specifics, there's a moment in Can't Handle This where he tells everyone to get their hands up (something he also did at the Keswick Theatre), which evokes the moment in All Eyes on Me where he tells a nonexistent audience to "get your fucking hands up."
Bo asking the audience to put their hands up (then using delightful misdirection to bring it back to the diameter of Pringles cans)
I've also found it noteworthy that in specials filled with lights and sound effects, Bo always has a few moments where it's just him and a piano, bringing us back to the way it all started.
This was the case at the Keswick, where in the moments when he sat at the piano and sang some songs, he had a bit more casual banter going than the more tightly rehearsed set pieces would allow. In Inside, I feel like some of the most personal songs, such as Look Who's Inside Again, are the simple piano-driven ones.
SUCH: What a great point about Can't Handle This having Bo ask the audience to put their hands up! Really cool connection there.
Oh, I agree about the more personal songs being the most meaningful. My favorites are That Funny Feeling and The Chicken, both stripped-down pieces with one instrument (the guitar and the piano, respectively). I think those songs also make you focus on the lyrics more because they are minimalist compared to the bombastic Welcome to the Internet (which I also love, by the way—I listen to the album every other day, especially if I have to clean or do chores around the house).
Similar to Josh Kingsford's interpretation, Michael Shaw's video essay points out how Bo has discussed his stage fright and the attention economy since 2018 while promoting Eighth Grade. Did you see these elements in his live performance?
I personally wonder when he read Douglas Rushkoff's Present Shock, which is an EXCELLENT breakdown of what's happening in society in terms of social media—Highly recommended!
Bo: "Now it's like I'm in a meta prison of my own mirrored image all the time" (sounds like Inside!)
SnowyOwl: I haven't read Present Shock yet but I will absolutely seek it out—thanks for the recommendation!
Yes, the aspect of stage fright was addressed in his performance and led to some of that unease/uncertainty I mentioned with Can't Handle This.
A lot of performers (and I don't mean this as a critique/fault) focus on "giving the people what they want," but Bo is one of the few comedians who actively challenges the audience and even expresses outright frustration with them [Ed. note: Another two are James Acaster in Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 and John Mulaney in Baby J. "Likability is a jail," indeed!]
Having seen what., I knew he had a knack for addressing those themes, but I'd underestimated how much more effective they would be in an actual theater. He also alluded to having put in months of work for something that might be forgotten about or lost in a sea of content that's made quickly and often without thought/heart.
Maybe that was humility, maybe a broader commentary on the attention economy.
SUCH: Yeah, Bo's been railing against the "I.V. drip of content" that dominates social media for many years now. It is REALLY hard to do long-form concepts like in-depth essays or dense comedy shows because people nowadays just want a clever meme or pithy remark. I sure hope satire can remain alive and well in our current online culture!
Do you think Bo will ever discuss Inside in an interview or podcast, or is he just going to ignore it forever? I guess all we have is the Outtakes for now to understand his mindset while making his masterpiece.
SnowyOwl: If he does, I think it will be a long, long time into the future in sort of a career retrospective kind of way. Perhaps he feels that further discussion or delineation of the themes could affect its intended impact.
Because Inside also has an air of mystique and intentionally blurs the lines between performance and reality, additional commentary might serve to thwart some of the discussions he wants people to be having. I imagine that Inside exploded in popularity far more than he ever anticipated, and that could make it a stressful thing to comment upon as well.
I felt like the Outtakes were a very unique and very Bo way to offer a behind-the-scenes look at his process while maintaining the artistic integrity of the special.
Bo's very sweet posts about Inside's popularity
SUCH: Believe me, I am SO glad he put The Inside Outtakes up on YouTube (especially since I don't have Netflix currently). It helped answer a number of burning questions the diehard fans had about his changing hair length and the staging of various shots, while also giving us new things to obsess over (the complete whiteboard outline, for one haha).
So Bo has not performed live in a named capacity since that final leg of Make Happy. Do you think he will ever get back on the stage again, or will he just remain behind the camera for now? What's your best guess?
SnowyOwl: My best guess is that he will remain behind the camera for a while. However, in the monologue during All Eyes on Me, he does say that he was planning to "re-enter" the performing world before "the funniest thing happened." So if this is true, and I suspect it is, maybe he does want to get back onstage at some point. All I can hope for is that his mental health is in a good place and he's doing whatever makes him comfortable creatively.
SUCH: Yes, that's my thought as well. And, just so you know, he DID have a scheduled show at the Largo for April 9, 2020 that was canceled for obvious reasons.
What's your favorite song/special that Bo has made? You can choose more than one.
SnowyOwl: My overall favorite special is Inside, and my favorite song is All Eyes On Me.
But very close to first place is We Think We Know You from what. I first saw it during a stage of my life where I was struggling with self-expression, feeling understood, and trying to be myself. When Bo launches into the air guitar at the end and drowns out all the competing voices, it was incredibly cathartic, and for that reason it remains my sentimental favorite.
SUCH: Yes, the first of his many epic endings! That part always gives me chills AND pumps me up somehow haha.
Please tell me one fun fact about yourself. Do you have any specific hobbies or interests people don't know about?
Sleep No More
I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with some amazing people on a few smaller-scale immersive experiences, including scavenger hunts, an in-person theater piece that culminated with a performance at Independence Hall, and a walkthrough Halloween show.
Relating back to Bo, I think part of what I love about the immersive art form is its immediacy and tangibility—the complete lack of screens. I have to spend a lot of time on a computer and phone for work, so creating something with props, scents, lights, and sounds is a fantastic break from that.
Thank you for this opportunity and the chance to talk about one of my favorite live experiences!
SUCH: No problem, and definitely let me know if you're working on any new immersive shows in Philly!