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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

Bo Burnham's Comedy Heroes—Part 4: Bo and Kate Berlant (published on 7/31/22)

Updated: Sep 16, 2023

Welcome to another installment of Bo's comedic influences, a deep-dive series by #boburnhamhistorian.


Today's thread will be about one of Bo's favorite comics, the woman he posted a tweetstorm about in 2018: the wonderful Kate Berlant!



Yes, Bo used his least favorite app to discuss his current favorite and how she influenced a generation of young comics.


Here's all of the tweets in order, starting with a discussion with Jason Zinoman of the New York Times and leading to Bo writing down ALL of his thoughts on Kate for posterity!


Bo also brought up Kate earlier in his third You Made It Weird podcast episode with Pete Holmes in 2016 after Pete says she has "natural talent" at 45 minutes in:


And Kate really does something conceptually that is uh...so its own, and so new, and so important.

And in 2019, Bo cited Kate as the next big thing in comedy:


"Kate Berlant. I love Kate Berlant, I think she’s going to break out. She’s already kind of broken out but I think she’s on a rocket ship."

As you can see, Bo is a great admirer of Kate (to say the least) and will be directing her play this fall in NYC (you can still get tix here: https://www.kateshow.net/).


As such, I would like to explore five connections between Kate's comedy stylings and Bo's works.


Let's dive in!



1. Performative liberalism


One of Kate's attributes as a comic is that she tackles millennial self-satisfaction and performance with her writing partner John Early in such a powerful way.




To fellow comic Bo Burnham, she is the “most influential/imitated comedian of a generation … a millennial Lenny Bruce”. As anyone who saw her Edinburgh fringe debut last year will know, Kate Berlant is the real deal – a silly/clever impro-comic majoring in how identity and ego are performed in the too-much-information age...On stage, she presents as a precious, preening comedian-cum-savant, hypersensitive to the atmosphere in the room and to every teensy indication of her own fabulousness.


She barely seems to have any actual material, save for her stream-of-consciousness commentary on the gig and her experience of it. The vibe is: it’s our privilege to be in her presence.


Kate does all of this while saying, “I wanted to confuse my legibility onstage. Is it a character, or a real person? Why is the language I use falling apart?” Why indeed?
Because it reflects “the post-internet language that derives from half-reading a million articles, from hearing opinions regurgitated in a couple of sentences. That fragmented access to information that we all have.”

And the way Kate combines these elements is exciting!


Per the article, "Berlant on stage is a 'person cobbled together from internet fragments'. Wellness culture, corporate feminism, academic jargon: it’s all in there."


Fun fact: Kate has a wellness podcast called POOG with Jacqueline Novak!



“I’m playing a person so steeped in the cultural critiques that I’m obliterated. There’s so much commentary on myself that I cease to really exist.”

We can most obviously see Kate's influence in a few of the bits in Inside and Inside Outtakes.


First is, of course, the pompous and ridiculous Social Brand Consultant.



Akin to Kate's caricatures of performative liberalism, Bo's consultant is full of buzzwords (bitingly accurate ones, I might add) and weak attempts at social justice ("JPMorgan is against racism...in theory").



Another character in Bo's works that depicts the ludicrous nature of liberal performance is actually nine (!): the Bos in The Dump.


In this Zoom call parody, Bo plays all of the versions of himself (star, cinematographer, director, etc.).


But what I really want to discuss is the host Bo and the Bo who explains why there are no women or people of color in Inside.


When the host (don't forget—he's the Associate Editorial Cultural Contributor lol) brings up gender and race during the interview, all the Bos go silent.


And then one brave Bo, likely the producer, gives us this stirring nonsensical speech that would make Carlin proud:


"Yeah, so first of all, thank you for asking this question. If you hadn't asked this question, I was going to *ask* you to ask this question because it's so important. So thank you."


"Unfortunately there are systems of power in place that need to be dismantled. Okay? And these systems have been...mantled for too long. And it's on all of us to do better. And we could and would and should have done better."
"And we am and have and shall continue to have done and did and do. Our doing isn't done, and our done-ing isn't did, okay, so know that."

To which the obsequious host says "Well said. Really well said" and they move on, having explained nothing, but feeling better for trying.



There are two more performative characters in the specials: the Moist rant comedian and Bo's kids show host.


Both are satirical indictments of the privileged elite who seek recognition for their brave stances but do nothing to actually help those causes.



In the case of the comic, they get "clapter" when they say the most offensive term to them is not "moist" but "injustice."


Here's an excellent video by Katie Mears about the phenomenon of clapter and why many comedians despise that type of virtue signaling.


And Bo's smug tv host smiles at the sock puppet but changes his tune when Socko proclaims, "This isn't about you!"


At that, he immediately puts the sock back in its place, reaffirming the social structure he said he wanted to help take down initially to become a "better person."



2. Goofy faces/physical comedy


Just like George Carlin, Steve Martin, and Maria Bamford before her, Kate is an expert at combining the silly with the serious in her performances.


Here's her Netflix Presents: The Characters artist persona being goofy. I highly recommend her episode and John Early's episode in that series!


In a number of interviews, Kate says her goal was to be "the next Jim Carrey."


She also told the Guardian, “I don’t think what I’m doing is niche. I can’t stop making faces or crossing my eyes. I’m embarrassingly lowbrow at times.”


And Kate's exaggerated expressions work well with emphasizing the self-important attributes of her characters.


Per GQ:


"Once you see someone 'doing' John and Kate, you will know. A cocked head. A widened eye. A feigned shock. Sharp, exaggerated movements clearly grounded in formal theater training, all delivered with a wink that lets you know they know they’re performing."
"There’s also the language: Berlant especially inhabits a liberal arts persona, wrapping her pettiness and self-obsession in the maddeningly obtuse vocabulary of academia, a trope so recognizable it’s easy to forget she pioneered it."

This Vogue article explains it best:


"Their ability to craft odious characters combining the very worst qualities of millennial narcissism with a specific genre of diva-ish, old-school showbiz egotism leavened with The Office-style awkwardness (the British version) and a willingness to plunge their characters into moments of profound humiliation—has had a bigger influence on comedy today than you might think."

Here's a great example of the two mixing academic language (textbook gaslighting) and a kids' dance class to hilarious effect in their Peacock show Would It Kill You To Laugh—highly recommended!



And Bo is known for "making faces, telling jokes, making little sounds" while incorporating serious social commentary into his works.


Here's a YouTube compilation of all his funny sounds.


He also LOVES to cross his eyes like Kate (and mentions her comedy idol Jim Carrey in the Outtakes)!







Similarly, Bo's mix of physical comedy with societal truths rings true to Kate's views:


"I mean, the way we all are kind of performing authenticity or performing some kind of truth, which is very familiar to any celebrity interview."

3. Famous friends


Bo and Kate have a number of mutual friends and are in the same LA/NY comedy circle.


For example, let's start with John Early, Kate's partner in crime.


John was in Neighbors 2 with Jerrod Carmichael, Bo's close friend and frequent collaborator.



Another friendship Kate and Bo have in common is Reggie Watts.


As the two are musical comedians, Bo and Reggie have interacted many times in the past, including celebrity bowling and a young comics photoshoot!







And Kate was featured with Rory Scovel (whom you might know as Zach Stone's manager) in Reggie's Netflix comedy special Spatial as cast members in an '80s-style sitcom called "Crowe's Nest" within the show (all improvised!)






Watts said in a Fast Company interview that Kate is a "national treasure. I met her in New York, and she just blew me away...There’s no one like her in her physicality, her facial expressions, her intuitive nature. I completely trust her 100%."


Finally, a recent relationship that Bo and Kate share is with Boots Riley, director of the masterful and bizarre satire, Sorry to Bother You.





In the film, Kate plays an oblivious manager named Diana who is showing LaKeith Stanfield's character Cassius the ropes at his new job in telemarketing.



So how does this relate to Bo?


Well, Sorry to Bother You came out in 2018 at the same time a little movie called Eighth Grade premiered.



And Boots Riley and Bo were EVERYWHERE together during that awards season, particularly the DGAs where they were both nominated for First-Time Feature Film (Bo won!) and the Independent Spirit Awards (Bo won Best First Screenplay, while Boots won Best First Feature).





The two were photographed together often and sat next to each other during award events, such as at this Film Independent filmmaker roundtable (they play off of each other really well! Haha).




Boots Riley is also a fan of Bo's music!


He even posted a pic holding his Inside (The Songs) vinyl on Instagram. So cool!



Fun fact: Another connection between Bo and Sorry to Bother You is LaKeith, who starred in Jay-Z's Moonlight video with Jerrod as members of the Black Friends cast...crazy! AND LaKeith handed Bo his Spirit award along with Finn Wolfhard. Crazy!










4. Lorene


But the most fascinating shared relationship of all is Kate's collaboration with none other than Lorene Scafaria (Bo's former long-term girlfriend who appears at the end of Make Happy).








In 2017, Deadline announced that Lorene would direct the pilot for a new John Early/Kate Berlant show called This Is Heaven.


A24, whom Bo worked with on Eighth Grade, was on board and tweeted their support.


Per this article, "Lorene Scafaria, director of 'The Meddler' and 'New Girl,' helmed the episode, with backing from trendy indie studio A24."



Unfortunately, the show was met with the typical studio resistance after Hulu passed on the pilot:


"As Berlant and Early tried to find 'This Is Heaven' another home, they received the same 'coded' feedback on their comedy, almost always from older, white, heterosexual men― the same kind who crossed their arms when she was a young stand-up: 'Make it less gay, make it less women-y and less weird.' That was the only note: It’s too niche."
"It’s like, so we’re supposed to make something that’s appealing to everyone so in turn we can make something that’s appealing to no one? We firmly reject all of that. I don’t think the pilot was perfect — I’m not a freaking idiot. But I would never fundamentally change the DNA of the show we were trying to make. It’s really that simple. If it doesn’t appeal to a couple of fucking dudes or something, it just doesn’t exist."

Because of this animosity toward niche comedy in the industry, the pilot was shelved entirely.


Still, what a coincidence, right? Lorene AND Bo have worked with Kate?! Crazy.



5. Bo directed Kate's comedy special in 2019 and her one-woman play in 2022–2023


Speaking of collaboration with Kate, Bo actually directed her first comedy special!


I read about this initially on Reddit and then found more info in a sponsored post on Vox.


That article says that Kate "was named a Just for Laughs 'New Face of Comedy' and a Variety 'Ten to Watch' and has filmed a one-hour stand-up special directed by Bo Burnham."


John Early also tweeted about it as only he can lol


More recently, Kate confirmed this news on Rick Glassman's podcast and Marc Maron's WTF, saying the anticipated comedy special will likely air this fall on FX. Woo-hoo!


Update: It's out now on FX on Hulu!



And, as we all know, Kate has been workshopping her one-woman show in LA with Bo by her side this summer (and posing for cute pics with fans).





Additionally, a version of the show played in London to massive acclaim, including from the likes of one of my favorite directors, Edgar Wright (LOVE Spaced and the Cornetto Trilogy, particularly Shaun of the Dead!)



Now, Kate and Bo will be in New York City for KATE!


Per TimeOut:


"The queen of bone-piercing absurdist social satire, Kate Berlant—a comedian's comedian whom you might recognize from her appearances on such cult faves as The Characters and Search Party—returns to NYC with a multicharacter solo comedy show. Bo Burnham (Inside), who has long cited Berlant as an influence on his work, directs this limited theatrical run."

Performances begin at the Connelly Theater in the East Village on August 20 ahead of a September 7 opening, and will run through October 8.


You can get tickets here—I will be seeing it twice this fall!


With Kate AND Bo AND Jerrod all living in the Big Apple, here's hoping we get more AMAZING photos like these ones from Circle Jerk in June!





In conclusion, Kate is on a "rocket ship" as Bo had predicted, and she will likely grow in fame with the release of two items soon:


She appears in a reboot of A League of Their Own (available now on Amazon Prime), and she has a role in Don't Worry Darling (9/23)—Bo knows Olivia Wilde too!





I hope you've enjoyed this look into Kate Berlant and her influence on Bo.


Stay tuned for more fun deep-dive threads!


To close out, here's my FAVORITE Kate/John thing ever—a shot-for-shot recreation of the audition scene in Showgirls. It's phenomenal, and I could legit watch it forever!


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



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