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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

Bo Burnham's Comedy Heroes—Part 2: Bo and Steve Martin (published on Twitter on 7/16/22)

Updated: May 26, 2023

As I had mentioned previously, this month I am exploring Bo's idols and how they have influenced his works.

For Part 1 on George Carlin, please click here.

While Bo mentions Carlin in a number of songs and interviews, there is another comic he always cites as one of his greatest inspirations—Steve Martin, particularly his comedy act in the 1970s.

Bo even includes a reference to Steve Martin in his song "Left Brain, Right Brain" (as well as Carlin, obviously).

And he's the second comedian Bo provided in his list of influences back in 2010.

Bo said the following about Steve:

"if you only know steve martin as that dude from cheaper by the dozen or the pink panther, i feel very very bad for you. steve martin is a fucking genius. and is, by far, my favorite stand up of all time. he broke every rule comedians thought they had to follow. an absolute comic nihilist. i can't tell you how many times i've cracked up at an airport urinal while listening to 'let's get small' for the whateverth time."

Bo also included a link to Steve's Sex Jokes bit.

And Bo REALLY loves that award-winning comedy album—he even tweeted about it being his favorite in 2009!

Favorite comedy album? Mine: Steve Martin - let's get small.

Bo also brings up Steve Martin a lot in interviews:

"I loved George Carlin first, then it was Steve Martin, especially when I saw the stuff he was doing in the early-’70s. I felt that was something a little more in my wheelhouse because he was a little sillier and more theatrical and he used props. That was something I wanted to do: A big show that had a bunch of moving parts to it."

And in a 2008 article with The Guardian, Bo said this:

"I grew up listening to Steve Martin and Robin Williams, so I didn't ever intend to be a musical comedian. I sort of stumbled into it."

One of my favorite descriptions of Bo's comedy style appears in this PBS podcast episode:

"His approach to standup is theatrical, frenetic, self-aware… Think Steve Martin spun in a post-internet musical blender."

And this quote from that interview is wonderful and articulates how Steve Martin specifically influenced him:

"Steve Martin though was just like did so much of what I wanted to do was very silly like had no shame, used props, used music, all these things that like when I was starting out and you know the, whenever late ought’s or whatever, it was so hacky to be anything other than someone with like a ruffled notebook onstage working through your thoughts all dirty and everything you know and I was always I came from the world of theater and was like if I do a show I’m going to go up and do a show like I’m going to try."

From these interviews and posts, you start to grasp how significant Steve was to Bo creating his own comedy style.

Specifically, there are 4 ways in which their works and performances are similar.

Let's dive in!

1. Both are musical comedians

As Bo pointed out, he sort of fell into music and wanted to be a comic first and foremost However, he quickly picked up the keyboard/piano and guitar as a teen, learning how to play both by the age of 16. He's even won a Grammy for his music!

In a similar vein, Steve Martin is known as a phenomenal banjo player.

He started playing at the age of 17 and has won multiple Grammys for his bluegrass and American roots music.

And he's still playing!

Steve just posted a video of an original song on Twitter recently—check it out!

2. They use props in their acts

Steve Martin was known for his gimmicks in comedy during the 1970s, such as wearing an arrow or bunny ears on his head, blowing up balloon animals, and being a "wild and crazy guy" on stage.

Similarly, Bo has made props a major part of his act, especially in Words Words Words and what.

Like Steve in his iconic white suit and arrow, Bo typically dons a pair of black pants and white t-shirt for his shows and puts his black joke book on his head while reading poems!

3. Both mock comedy conventions

Bo and Steve take great pleasure in eviscerating stand-up tropes.

Here's Josh Kingsford explaining at 2 minutes in how they are "comedy cousins" in his incredible video essay about Bo and Inside.

In that video, you see Steve subverting expectations (the lighting cue bit, jokes for dogs, etc.) and playing with the idea of a pretentious buffoon stage persona.

These same attributes could easily be applied to Bo's performances, like the mood lighting bit (compilation linked here) and the slow joke in what.

Bo's stage persona in his early specials is equally self-absorbed and ridiculous, proclaiming himself to be a prodigy and genius who can fix Africa in WWW.

4. Both love magic

Despite his famous words in what. ("Magic isn't real, you idiot. Read a book"), Bo does enjoy tricking people in the way a magician would (he actually has cited Penn and Teller as a major influence and made a number of card trick Vines).

And Steve Martin started working as a magician in Disneyland before he became a comic.

"Martin began his show business career working at the Magic Shop at Disney's Fantasyland, honing his skills as a magician, juggler, and balloon animal artist."

“With me, I would deny the punchline, and just keep going, so that the tension would just build and build so much that they would have to start laughing. They would find their own place to laugh, rather than laughing at the place where you told them to laugh.”

Speaking of juggling, Bo has incorporated that skill into many of his own works, first with the Juggler's Wife bit in WWW, then Right Brain wanting to juggle in what., and finally showing off his own juggling abilities on Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous.

The two comics also share an affinity for each other.

While we'll never know what Carlin thought of Bo's works, Steve Martin has been effusive in his praise!

When Bo won the NY Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film, he said this in his acceptance speech:

"So New York intimidated me, film critics intimated me because I’m a sensitive boy who made this brand-new film, and don’t get me started on circles!"

Bo was so excited to see his idol liked the "Steve Martin" joke!

Here's the clip in case you're interested in seeing Bo interact with Steve.

And Steve specifically raved about Bo's masterpiece in a recent interview:

Martin Short: And you were talking about Bo Burnham.

Steve Martin: Bo Burnham’s Netflix special ("Bo Burnham: Inside") is staggering. I didn’t know what to expect and I was riveted for the entire hour and a half. It’s like those comedy breakthrough times, like with Sacha Baron Cohen and now Bo Burnham.

High praise indeed, and I'm sure that news made Bo's day! Haha

The two comics are also acclaimed actors (I first watched Steve in Little Shop of Horrors and Parenthood as a kid), writers, and producers and have even been nominated for awards at the same time!

For example, Bo and Steve were recently nominated for a 2021 Peabody Award, a prestigious honor for any entertainer.

While Steve's hit tv show Only Murders in the Building didn't win, Inside did (hooray!).

And both were just nominated for 2022 Emmys, Steve for OMITB and Bo for directing Rothaniel.

I hope they are able to chat with each other during the ceremony in September—they certainly have a LOT in common! haha

Finally, I just wanted to point out their similar personalities.

In this interview about Steve Martin in 2020 for his 75th birthday, comedian Rose Matafeo articulates Steve's anxiety in a way that reminds me of Bo.

She says, "He has always struck me as a genuine introvert who was programmed wrong and given the unfortunate compulsion to create and perform for millions of people."

Doesn't that description sound EXACTLY like Bo? Lol

I hope that you enjoyed this deep-dive thread into one of Bo's comedy heroes.

Bo seems to be well on his way to having the same career longevity and diversity of talents as the renaissance man himself. Can't wait to see where Bo will be at Steve's age!

Thanks for reading!

The next thread will be a female comic double-header: Maria Bamford (I'm seeing her in Philly on the 21st) and Kate Berlant (I'll be seeing Kate's new one-woman show directed by Bo in the fall)!

For a complete list of Bo's comedic influences, please click here.


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