Bo Burnham's Comedy Heroes—Part 1: Bo and George Carlin (a deep-dive thread published on 7/3/22)
Updated: May 20
Welcome to the theme for the month of July from #boburnhamhistorian: Bo's comedic influences, past and present.
This deep-dive thread will be focused on the man Bo ALWAYS cites in interviews and songs—George Carlin!
When Bo was starting out and meeting his young fans, he realized that so many of them didn't know the comedy giants he grew up with.
As a response to this lack of knowledge, Bo posted his "favorite comedians" list in 2010:
because so much of what i do is because of my love of stand-up and my oftentimes unhealthy worship (yes, worship) of my favorite comedians. i really wouldn't be where i am now without having been able to look to many of these comedians for inspiration – so i feel like the least i could do is introduce a small portion of the next generation to them.
Side note: Yes, Bo always liked writing in all lowercase letters.
At the top of that list was Carlin and a link to his Seven Words bit:
GEORGE CARLIN a real hero of mine. a philosopher, poet, revolutionary, clown – he covered so much ground and, most impressive to me, he evolved so dramatically over his career.
Speaking of that infamous bit, Bo apparently performed it three days after Carlin's death in 2008:
If Burnham had a tutor in this regard, it may well have been George Carlin, whose DVD box set could be found strewn on Burnham’s bed during a recent visit. The famed comedian had been dead three days when Burnham took the stage at the Comedy Connection June 25, and Burnham closed his set by rhythmically chanting the 'Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television' to the thumping rap beat of his 'I’m Bo Yo.' While some in the audience may have been taken aback, somewhere, Carlin was smiling.
Bo even included Carlin's "Stuff" routine as one of his favorite videos on YouTube!
As any fan of Bo knows, Carlin comes up a LOT in his work.
The first specific reference is in "Art Is Dead," Bo's earliest foray into serious music while performing: "This song isn't funny at all, but it helps me sleep at night."
In the song, Bo claims, "We're rolling in dough while Carlin rolls in his grave," a reference to comedy losing its integrity with the death of the comic two years earlier.
Bo brings up Carlin again in what. with the incredible song, "Left Brain, Right Brain"—a figurative battle between Bo's logical side and his creative side that's resolved by comedy.
Humorously enough, Carlin seems to have influenced more than that line—this album cover portrays the same battle visually!
The final explicit mention of Carlin in Bo's work appears alongside Shel Silverstein in the Acknowledgments of his incredible poetry book Egghead: or, You Can't Survive on Ideas Alone (please read this delightful book if you haven't!).
While these are the three most obvious references, Bo and Carlin actually have a LOT more in common than one would think.
Here are five major similarities between the two comedians!
The most obvious thing Bo has in common with George Carlin is a shared love and passion for language—Bo literally named his first comedy special "Words Words Words" and had screens behind him that included everything he says during the show!
Carlin called himself a "word freak" and words "his babies," and he articulated items about society and life with pinpoint accuracy.
Similarly, Bo always chooses his words carefully to provide as much emotional force as possible.
For example, his satirical Social Brand Consultant bit from Inside is a masterclass in marketing speak and advertising in the social media age.
And, in the Inside Outtakes that Bo posted for free on 5/30/22, Bo includes a hysterical Zoom call for The Dump that has one condescending character talking in a nonsensical manner that would make Carlin proud!
As masters of the English language, both Bo and Carlin know how to wield any term successfully. But they are PARTICULARLY adept at using swears, such as Bo's Carlinesque "Shut the Fuck Up" bit from Inside (the black tee is used perfectly here to evoke the comic!).
And everyone knows Bo's favorite bit by Carlin, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television"!
Funnily enough, one of Bo's favorite items to wear in his earlier days as a teen comic was a graphic t-shirt that features Carlin's face made up of those seven words.
It's quite reminiscent of the cover for Words Words Words!
Bo's even wearing that shirt during the infamous slapping video (in which a fan wanted that instead of an autograph)!
3. Mix of silly and serious topics
If there's one thing Bo is known for, it's providing a gutpunch in his words and lyrics after acting goofy.
Nothing epitomizes this better, imo, than his epic finale to Make Happy: "Can't Handle This"
In this song, Bo shifts from silly topics like Pringles cans and burritos to discussing the performer-audience relationship, all well mimicking Kanye West's rants during the Yeezus tour.
Carlin also included a healthy mix of goofy faces and silly sounds in his comedy.
One of my favorite examples from Apatow's excellent doc is this image of the comic with his butt facing the camera...seem familiar? (JEANS!)
In fact, there are many other instances in the Outtakes where Bo seems to embody the spirit of Carlin in terms of facial expressions and gestures!
Bo also LOVES crossing his eyes!
He does it in almost all of his specials except Make Happy. He even has crossed eyes in Zach Stone and a few of his Vines.
And in the Outtakes, the Google Content Creator parody turns very silly at the end, when Bo says to "act like this" and crosses his eyes in a manner similar to Carlin.
Another fascinating similarity is their common appreciation for Disney, at least in terms of their t-shirt preferences lol
I still need to get that Grumpy For Life shirt!
A final goofy element that both seem to love is a well-placed fart joke.
There's Bo's epic one in Make Happy ("original does *not* mean good" haha) and, most recently, he decided to include himself passing gas before WTTI in the Outtakes.
And per Jon Stewart in the American Dream documentary, Carlin "would treat farting with the same level of scrutiny and language and deconstruction as he would the Pope, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the war machine."
Bo is known as a musical comedian, and his two favorite instruments, the piano/keyboard and guitar, appear throughout his career (but he plays many more!).
However, one fact I never knew before watching the documentary is that Carlin sang and played piano as well!
Here he is serenading the audience by singing "Cherry Pie" on the Arsenio Hall Show in the late '80s.
Both Bo and Carlin have changed DRAMATICALLY throughout their comedy careers.
In Carlin's case, he went from a straight-laced clean comic in the '60s to a counter-culture hero in the '70s to an angry prophet telling us societal truths until his death in 2008.
And Bo has reinvented himself multiple times—first as a cute kid saying dirty words in his bedroom to a theatrical wunderkind making comedy shows cinematic through lighting and camera angles to THE Millennial comedian speaking societal truths about the Internet.
Through it all, both have stayed true to who they are as people, as observers of the world around them.
And, as such, they have transformed the genre of comedy again and again, leading the way for the next generation to further question authority and society.
While we don't know how Carlin would perceive this Internet kid from outside of Boston, his daughter Kelly's opinion of Inside makes me think he would have adored Bo and his metatextual comedy: GENIUS GENIUS GENIUS!
Thanks for reading this deep-dive thread!
The next one later this month will be Bo's second largest comedic influence: Steve Martin. Stay tuned!
For a complete list of Bo's comedic influences, please click here.