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  • Writer's pictureStand-Up Comedy Historian

Rubik’s Cubes Are NOT Toys: A Deep-Dive Thread on Bo Burnham's Favorite Puzzle (8/21/22)

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

Happy Birthday, Bo! You're 2^5 today!


In honor of such a mathematically exciting occasion, I have decided that I would do a special deep-dive thread about Bo's favorite spatial reasoning puzzle: the Rubik's Cube!


My cat Jemima modeling with a solved cube



First, some background.


I had posted a heartfelt item in the Bo Burnham subreddit on my cake day in 2021. This post got very little response from the group (it was June 3rd, so Bo had JUST dropped his masterpiece and there were understandably a ton of threads about the special itself flooding the sub), and I was disheartened by that lack of reaction personally.


However...I thought I would expand on that ill-fated post about how Bo has inspired me for his big 32nd birthday thread. I have LOTS of pics, articles, and fun tidbits about Bo's favorite puzzle.


Here is the original cake day post, slightly modified to fit this new and improved deep-dive thread. Enjoy!


———


Since I first became a fan of Bo after watching Eighth Grade in January 2019, he has definitely made an impact on my life. One way in particular is my newfound love of Rubik’s Cubes!



My son and me in our Rubik's Cube apparel


After hearing Bo reference that they are “not toys” in what. and seeing the incredible video of him solving a cube WHILE rapping “Bo Fo Sho” [Ed.'s note: See specific sections below for links], I decided in 2019 that I would learn how to solve a Rubik’s Cube myself—a New Year’s resolution of sorts.


I have always loved puzzles since I was a child (my paternal grandfather called me “Puzzle Girl” and I enjoy doing Jumbles and crosswords best), but the Cube seemed to be always out of my grasp.


Eventually, after watching many hours of tutorials on YouTube, I was able to solve the first layer by June of that year.


First layer complete!


I next was able to solve the second layer by early August, and—after writing down and referencing the algorithms necessary to complete the Cube—I solved the entire puzzle on August 9, 2019! Woo-hoo!


My trusty algorithms


Second layer complete


My first solved Rubik’s Cube


My pb (personal best) is now under 3 minutes for a standard 3x3 cube!


At 37 years old, I felt proud of myself for learning a new skill (guess you CAN teach an old dog new tricks haha), and I thank Bo for inspiring me to try something new.


My entire collection


My "VOTE" Rubik's Cube sign in 2020


———


So that was the original post on Reddit.


Now, let's explore the many occasions Bo has featured the Cube during his career, including the Inside Outtakes!



1. Childhood/YouTube Years


When Bo was starting first grade, he tested out of math and used his business acumen to make some money in the process.


Per his New Yorker profile, "He had glimmers of Tom Sawyer: after testing out of first-grade math, he charged his friends ten dollars apiece to attend a weeklong 'math camp' at his house. The instruction was minimal, but his mother still remembers him shaking the shoebox for cash as parents dropped their kids off."


When he reached middle school, Bo fell hard for the Rubik's Cube. It combined his two great loves—math and puzzles—in a compelling manner, and he couldn't get enough!


In that same New Yorker profile, the author brings up Bo's interests when he himself was in eighth grade:


He was a budding theatre geek, but also did basketball, math league, and the student council. He liked “Austin Powers” and Rubik’s Cubes and Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5.”


The Guardian mentions the Cube in this interview from the start of Bo's comedy career:


Burnham calls himself an "Aryan librarian at the word Smithsonian" and comes across like a word-bender on a sugar rush. "I have fun with wordplay," he says. "It's almost like maths. I like puzzles and Rubik's Cubes."


Clearly a kindred spirit with his love of words and puzzles (#wordnerd)! Haha


In this 2008 interview, the writer also calls out Bo's dorky hobby:


It wouldn’t be at all surprising if Bo Burnham actually took some form of advanced mathematics since the self-taught musician and 17-year-old YouTube star from Massachusetts seems really smart, or at least geeky (he openly admits to liking Rubik’s Cube, if that tells you anything).


Young Bo with his camera propped up by a solved 5x5 cube


And here he is solving one during a YouTuber event in 2007—amazing speed and he's SO proud of himself!


2. Live shows


As Bo took his YouTube act on the road, he began incorporating the Cube into his performances.


One way he did that was by literally solving a Rubik's Cube while on stage.


As I had mentioned in my Reddit post, the one act that truly inspired me to pursue learning how to solve this puzzle was Bo figuring one out while RAPPING in Williamsburg, VA!


Here is the video (I still can't believe how beautifully he timed it!)



And here is a write-up of that particular performance at William & Mary:


Armed with his Rubik’s Cube and a Red Bull energy drink, Burnham presented his lyrics in a thought-provoking and dry manner.


Bo even had a fan replicate this amazing stunt online (albeit not in front of a crowd). Impressive!


Bo also started adding Rubik's Cube references to his material in the late '00s.


Here he is in 2009 at a Portland show extending the lyrics to "I'm Bo Yo"—did you catch the part about his pb?



If not, here's the (mangled) autogenerated lyrics


Couldn't catch that? I don't blame you.


Bo says he "can do a Rubik's Cube in a minute 20" (impressive!)


In addition to his lyrics, Bo started sporting shirts featuring the Cube on his tours.


Here he is for the Philly Trocadero performance in 2010 (ooh! a large from baby Gap! Lol). If you've never been to one of Bo's shows, I would think this full-set video is the closest approximation to seeing him live!


Anyway, some fans even yelled out "Rubik's Cube" upon seeing Bo's outfit choice. How fitting!





Bo also posed with fans while wearing a Rubik's Cube shirt.



Finally, Bo wore my personal favorite of his Rubik's Cube shirts ("YO I SOLVED IT," a play on Vanilla Ice's lyrics in "Ice Ice Baby") in the music video for "High School Party" (his first professionally made video, but certainly not his last!).





3. what.


Bo's most well-known Rubik's Cube reference to date, though, would be this exchange between Left Brain and Right Brain in his second comedy special (Words Words Words does not mention the puzzle as far as I know).


During the song "Left Brain, Right Brain," the two halves of Bo's mind duke it out over who should control him. As the discussion quickly devolves into childish name-calling with Left Brain calling Right Brain a "quivering pussy," the more emotional half launches into an accusation that is likely how Bo believes people view his hobby:


"I'm the pussy? Well, at least I don't play with toys still, okay?"


Left Brain fires back with Bo's rationalization on why he still enjoys the puzzle:


"Rubik's Cubes are NOT toys. They keep my spatial reasoning skills...sharp."



Right Brain mocks this sentiment and says, "Left Brain plays with toys! Look at you, Johnny fucking...toy player."


While the two eventually decide to settle their differences and do comedy together, I think it's hysterical that Bo thought to include his geeky hobby in Left Brain's list of interests!


4. Make Happy


Bo's next special doesn't have any explicit references to the Cube, but more touring did lead to more fun fan interactions!



One of the best stories about Bo and Rubik's Cubes that I've found online is this Reddit post.


In it, u/Rietard420 details how she met Bo in 2015 after his show. She describes how she was obsessed with him (I know the feeling well!) and gave him 2 unique cubes when she saw him and got a photo.


What she did NOT expect, however, was that one of the cubes (a pentagonal puzzle called a "Megaminx" in the chart above) that she gave him would appear in this behind-the-scenes shot of Bo with the Simple Bagel (a Twitter meme figure)!



You can see the Cube sitting next to Bo's leg in the photo. What incredible luck to know that he has played with the gift YOU gave him!


5. Eighth Grade


This thread started out with me describing how important Bo's directorial debut is to me, and I've already mentioned Bo's profile that references the Rubik's Cube in his own eighth grade experience.


There is another photo though that, similar to the Bagel one, shows Bo still enjoys goofing around with a Cube.


During the grueling press tour, a shot of Bo on an Amtrak train appeared on social media, and keen-eyed fans noticed an object on his table—a Rubik's Cube [Ed.'s note: He also has on his favorite gray hoodie!]



The cubing community picked up on this Cube appearance and posted about Bo being a cuber on that subreddit (really fun read for fans of puzzles AND Bo).


Finally, in my research I came across this A24 newsletter Bo edited himself (cool!). What does a post about the Young Internet have to do with Rubik's Cubes, you might ask?


Well, one of the YouTube creators Bo highlights is known as the Rubik Guru, so I guess that channel jumped out to him (this pic is also VERY old-school Bo and probably made him nostalgic)!



6. Inside/Inside Outtakes/Rothaniel


There are no specific references to Rubik's Cubes in Bo's masterpiece (as far as I can tell).


However, there IS one brief shot of a Cube in the Outtakes during the fake Jeans ad!



While it's easy to miss, especially with Bo modeling his JEANS at the same time, you can see a Rubik's Cube (called a "Square-1" in the chart above) on the floor to the right of his chair.


Bo even tweeted that entire ad (the only item he put on social media from Inside Outtakes that wasn't uploaded on YouTube as well), so you KNOW he wanted us to examine it closely! Haha


If you spot any other appearances, please let me know!


Finally, there was a brief reference to the puzzle in the New Yorker's review of Rothaniel, Jerrod Carmichael's masterpiece that Bo directed and edited:


The set is a Rubik’s Cube of self-revelation that consistently challenges and astounds, even as it toys with the ways in which seeking laughter can conceal.


Crazy how everything Bo touches is associated with the Cube, even other comedy specials!



In conclusion, Bo has made his childhood love of Rubik's Cubes a consistent part of his 16-year career by incorporating the math puzzle into his lyrics and shows as well as in real life.


Here's hoping he continues to do so through the Roaring Twenties (a Rubik's Cube musical, perhaps? Bo would be perfect for it)!


As a final treat, here is a portrait of Bo made out of 493 Rubik's Cubes by an artist called Rubik's Dude.


What better way to celebrate Bo's 32nd birthday than by watching a creator quickly destroy his stunning creation in less than 30 seconds while having "All Eyes on Me" play in the background!


Seems appropriate, yes? Haha


Happy 2^5 Day, Bo! 🥳




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