Director Bo Burnham On Growing Up With Anxiety — And An Audience
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring favorite interviews of the year as chosen by listeners and our producers. Today's interview is with Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed "Eighth Grade," his first feature film. It's, in part, about the generation gap created by social media. The digital gap used to be between those people who grew up before computers and smartphones and those who were digital natives. Now, there's a gap between those who grew up with Facebook and those who grew up with Snapchat and Instagram.
Burnham became one of the first YouTube stars when he was in high school after he performed some of his own satirical songs, put them on YouTube for his family to see, and they went viral. After high school, he had his own MTV series which satirized the compulsion to record and upload every aspect of your life, hoping it will make you famous. He's had two Netflix comedy specials, and he directed the Chris Rock comedy special released earlier this year. All that, and Burnham is still in his 20s.
The main character in his new movie, "Eighth Grade," is Kayla, a girl who's on the verge of graduating from middle school. She's incredibly shy and socially awkward but has her own YouTube blog in which she gives advice as if she's confident and experienced enough to know how to help girls with the same problems she has, the kinds of problems that give her panic attacks. She has a few followers, at best. Here's a scene from early in the film when Kayla is recording one of her videos.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EIGHTH GRADE")
ELSIE FISHER: (As Kayla) OK, so yeah, I hope that basically, you know, like, be yourself and don't care about, like, whatever - what other people think about you. And just, like, you know, ignore them if they're being mean to you about it. And everything will work out if you're just being yourself. OK. Thank you, guys, for watching this video. I hope some of you guys found it helpful. And make sure to subscribe to my channel (laughter). And, yeah, thank you for watching - Gucci.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Bo Burnham, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BO BURNHAM: Thanks for having me, Terry. It's an honor.
GROSS: Thanks for saying that. I love your film, by the way. I just think it's great. You were in high school when you started posting songs on YouTube.
BURNHAM: Yeah, junior in high school, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So your songs on YouTube found a huge audience. You're a guy. So why did you want to make this movie from the point of view of an eighth-grade girl? I mean, you've been through a big YouTube experience much bigger than your character has. Why make it from an eighth-grade girl's point of view?
BURNHAM: You know, I really set out to just make a story about how I was feeling at the time that I was writing it, which was nervous, and sort of wanting to talk about the Internet and how it felt to sort of be alive right now. And I kind of quickly found the world of kids expressing themselves online. I watched hundreds of videos of kids doing vlogs like the vlog you just heard from Kayla. And the boys tended to talk about video games, and the girls tended to talk about their souls. So it was like, OK, I think this is probably going to be a story about a girl.
But also, it was - I wanted to make a story about being young that didn't feel nostalgic and didn't feel like a memory. So it being a girl sort of - I couldn't project my own experience onto her. I had to sort of walk eighth grade for the first time with her 'cause my disconnect from her is twofold, you know? I was never a 13-year-old girl, but I was also never a 13-year-old now. And I just think both of those things lend themselves to a specific experience that I can't know.
GROSS: So you watched a lot of teen vlogs. What are some of the patterns that you saw? What are some of the things that really stuck out to you?
BURNHAM: Well, there's some incredible, like, actual, literal patterns. Like, they all actually open their videos by saying, hey, guys, so today, I'm going to talk to you about - and then they go onto the topic. And then they almost always wrap up with the same phrase, so I hope some of you found this helpful. And then they say, you know, like, and subscribe, and come to my channel.
But it was really just the sort of layering of the performance of themselves. You know, you could see these kids in an instant grasping for a maybe speech, or a type of speech that they had heard, trying to emulate that, failing to, trying to close the gap of that failure, reacting to their own failure of closing that gap, getting bored, getting sidetracked. All of those things were happening at once. And I remember watching these videos thinking, if this were a performance in a movie, it would be incredible. You know, this is so much more complex than the usual sort of teen voiceover that you hear in movies that's just kind of, OK, so I'm going to tell you how I went from being this to being that, you know?
It was really about the failure of them to articulate themselves. And I just found that very fascinating and true. I mean, I just think that is the story of a lot of our lives. And certainly my life is trying to square the sort of vision you have of yourself in your head with what is coming out of the front of your face.
GROSS: Do you think a lot of the teen vlogs that you saw were teenagers presenting false versions of themselves, covering up their real insecurities and pretending to know more and have experienced way more than they actually have?
BURNHAM: I think so, but I wouldn't necessarily say - I mean, I guess it is false, but I don't know. I wouldn't - I don't mean negative false. Sometimes I think the way that we wish we were is almost, like, a deeper and more vulnerable truth than what we're afraid we might actually be, you know? I think sort of the out-loud vision boarding that these kids are doing is a real vulnerable truth.
You know, to admit and project what you want the world to see you as I think is beautiful and not just a lie. It isn't just obfuscation. You know, it's also something very deep and beautiful to try to live out loud first and then, you know, act it in the world.
GROSS: As you pointed out, you were never a 13-year-old girl. So I want to compare some of her anxieties with the ones you had as a boy of her age. She has a panic attack going to a popular girl's pool party, and the panic happens in the bathroom after she's changed into her bathing suit and is preparing to walk outside in it and is incredibly self-conscious about her body. So were you worried about appearing in a bathing suit?
BURNHAM: No. I mean, I wasn't psyched about it. Like, I was sort of a late bloomer and, you know, didn't have hair under my armpits, so I would swim with my shirt on. But really, like, as an eighth-grade boy, I was kind of a hammy loser. And, like, my anxiety didn't really wake up until I was maybe a sophomore in high school and I was, you know, in and out of the hospital with stomach problems thinking I had some gastro issue, and it really was, oh, I'm just nervous.
But truly the panic attacks and things - I relate much more to Kayla emotionally now than I did then, you know? I was having panic attacks, you know, backstage at the Wilbur Theatre instead of in a bathroom before a pool party, but the feelings are the same. So yeah, it really strangely was much more currently personal to me than it was personal then. I was just - as an eighth-grade boy, I was just, like, eating dirt and running around. I don't know what I was doing.
GROSS: What do you think the source of your anxiety was?
BURNHAM: I don't know - maybe, you know, my sister carrying me around, telling me I was the most special little boy on the planet and then going out, needing that validation from everybody in the world. I don't know. That's probably a pretty common one with my generation, but I don't know. I think it's - I do think I just have a sort of chemical disposition for anxiety. I mean, my sister and my mother sort of share the anxiety that I have. It's a fear of authority, fear of the world. Who knows?
GROSS: When you...
BURNHAM: Should I talk to somebody about this?
GROSS: When you were 13 and you had friends who were girls, did you understand anxieties from a girl's point of view? For example, something I think you handle really well in the film is how a 13-year-old girl might deal with it if a boy, you know, just a little bit older than her tries to come on to her and to push her sexually to a place that she's not ready for. It's so uncomfortable and awkward and embarrassing for a young, inexperienced girl to say no.
BURNHAM: Yeah. You know, honestly, I don't think I knew that perspective when I was that age. And I think - I mean, I didn't do anything equivalent to what that boy does in that scene, but, you know, part of the movie for me was trying to go back and investigate that time and realize that there was a whole other population of people experiencing maybe the exact same circumstances I was experiencing from a different perspective.
And even in film, you know, there's this sort of teen sex comedy which is, you know - in hindsight, only men could make teen sex comedies just, you know, that teen sex would only be comedic. Of course that seems like it's from a male perspective. Yeah, and I think there's sort of hopefully a cultural reckoning happening now where we're sort of re-examining that. But, yeah, I hope the movie can sort of open a conversation that doesn't just hopefully portray a reality for girls but also illuminates a reality for young boys in that situation.
GROSS: Your main character has, you know, social anxiety. She doesn't really have close friends. She's very uncomfortable around even kids her own age. What are some of your impressions of how social media is helping and hurting young people with social anxiety?
BURNHAM: You know, I resist the urge to want to riff too much on this stuff 'cause I often feel like the issue in regards to our conversation about social media and technology is we have so much commentary and not a lot of raw information. And, you know, my impulse was the - with the movie was to not want to be too instructive, not to give a TED Talk but rather just to take a...
BURNHAM: ...But really just take emotional inventory of what's going on and sort of just present it because the truth is it isn't just bad. If it was just bad, I'd just tell all the kids to throw their phone in the ocean, and it'd be really easy. The problem is it - we are hyper-connected, and we're lonely. We're overstimulated, and we're numb. We're expressing our self, and we're objectifying ourselves. So I think it just sort of widens and deepens the experiences of what kids are going through.
But in regards to social anxiety, social anxiety - there's a part of social anxiety I think that feels like you're a little bit disassociated from yourself. And it's sort of like you're in a situation, but you're also floating above yourself, watching yourself in that situation, judging it. And social media literally is that. You know, it forces kids to not just live their experience but be nostalgic for their experience while they're living it, watch people watch them, watch people watch them watch them.
My sort of impulse is like when the 13-year-olds of today grow up to be social scientists, I'll be very curious to hear what they have to say about it. But until then, it just feels like we just need to gather the data. And we're just trying to, with this movie, kind of have just an emotional, subjective experience of what it feels like.
GROSS: You had a Netflix special a couple of years ago. And I want to play an excerpt of that because I thought you spoke really well about the need for an - like, the need some people have to record everything they do and to have an audience and to be their own audience. So this is from Bo Burnham's 2016 Netflix special "Make Happy."
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "BO BURNHAM: MAKE HAPPY")
BURNHAM: I was born in 1990, and I was sort of raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression. And I was just taught, you know, express myself. I'd have things to say, and everyone will care about them. And I think everyone was taught that. And most of us found out no one gives a [expletive] what we think.
BURNHAM: So we flock to performers by the thousands because we're the few that have found an audience. And then I'm supposed to get up here and say follow your dreams as if this is a meritocracy. It is not, OK? I had a privileged life, and I got lucky, and I'm unhappy.
BURNHAM: They say it's like the me generation. It's not. It's not. The arrogance is taught, or it was cultivated. It's self-conscious. That's what it is. It's that - it's conscious of self. What the - social media - it's just the market's answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason. It's prison. It's horrific. It is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than just lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.
GROSS: Bo Burnham, do you still stand by everything you said in that?
BURNHAM: Theatrically, sure, yeah (laughter). There was a sort of element of definitely dramatizing the feelings to express them. But yeah, I think so. I mean, what that really sort of expresses is the kind of major revelation I had in my career, which is, you know, I was feeling a very acute anxiety from my job of performing. You know, I was dealing with stage fright. I was having panic attacks on stage. And I felt like, man, my anxiety is so grounded in this specific circumstance of my life. Who is going to understand what I'm going through other than, at the time, another 24-year-old male comedian with an audience?
And then I would talk about those problems in that circumstance on stage. And afterwards, kids, 14, 13-year-old girls would come up to me and say, I know exactly what you're going through; I'm going through it, too. And I'd go, what? You know, it would be so confusing to me. And then I realized that this sort of, like, awful sort of D-list celebrity pressure I had experienced on stage has now been democratized and given to everybody. And everyone is feeling this pressure of having an audience, of having to perform, of having a sort of, like, proper noun version of your own name and then the self in your heart.
So really, if there was a bridge between me and 13-year-old girls that I had to walk in order to write this story, it was built by them to me first. You know, I felt personally understood by 13-year-old girls before I presume to understand them. And that was a big, really freeing revelation for me. It was sort of two sides to the coin that one was terrifying, and the other was alleviating, which was, I'm not unique, and I'm not alone. Like, oh, no, I'm not the most special boy in the world with my own unique problems. But also, these problems are shared, and I'm not alone in whatever I'm going through.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bo Burnham, and he wrote and directed the new movie "Eighth Grade." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS' "SACRIFICE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bo Burnham. He's a comic. He's a satirical songwriter. And now he's written and directed his first feature film. It's called "Eighth Grade." And the main character is an eighth-grade girl on the verge of graduating middle school with a lot of social anxiety but who has a vlog and posts a lot of videos in which she gives advice to other girls (laughter) as if she is more confident than she really is and knows more than she really does.
So there's a scene where Kayla, your main character, walks into a pool party. And, you know, she's really embarrassed. She's had this panic attack in the bathroom after changing into her bathing suit 'cause she doesn't want to be seen in it. And the pool party - it's, you know, being thrown by the popular girl whose mother insisted that Kayla be invited. The girl didn't really want to invite her.
And she walks into the pool party which is already underway, and it's kind of like trying to get onto the on-ramp on a highway where cars are whizzing by because there's, like, so much action going on. Like, one guy's walking - one kid's walking around with a big squirt gun, squirting at everybody. Kids are, like, you know, dancing on the side of the pool. Kids inside are kind of splashing around and jumping into the pool. And it's like, where do you enter the scene? Where do you fit yourself in? And I just - I felt for her so much (laughter) at that moment. And can you give us some insights into directing that scene, into the kind of the highway that she's walking, you know - that she's walking into?
BURNHAM: Well, sort of a big impulse with a lot of the movie and the situations in the movie, that one especially, is trying to approach experiences of that time as she approaches them, which is new and for the first time and not as, like, these cultural standards that we always remember - like, oh, of course a pool party. We've all had pool parties. Try to see it as she does, which is almost as an alien would see it, which is, OK, it's a hole in the ground filled with water surrounded by kids whose bodies are exploding that are half-dressed. Like, what?
Like, if you actually take it as something that you don't - if you actually take it free of its cultural context, it's absolutely insane. So actually directing it was just throwing a pool party. And I very quickly realized that, like, the kids are just going to go for it. And my stress that day was literally making sure kids didn't drown. Like, I was just counting heads and making sure that they were above the water. Like, it was just happening, which is wonderful. It was not a surprise to find that a generation of kids that self-documents is pretty comfortable on camera when you give them permission to be.
GROSS: Oh, interesting point. You know, you're so skeptical of fame even though you're getting more and more of it. But - so you're working with young actors like your lead, Elsie Fisher. And she's so good in this movie. And it's going to really make her famous or kind of famous. I don't know what level exactly she'll be at. But what was your approach to help making the young people in this movie take a big step forward in their acting careers and step closer to fame while also trying to caution them about the downside of achieving it?
BURNHAM: You know, I feel like I have more - honestly, honestly, I feel like I have more to learn from Elsie about that stuff than I have to teach her. I mean, Elsie's biggest stress right now is that everyone thinks she's really good, and she thinks she's not good. Like, that's her worry right now. So I don't have to tell her not to get a big head or to, you know, not become a monster. She is just so deeply humble and intelligent and deep. And my approach really was the same sort of - to the creative stuff that it was to this personal stuff, which is I didn't really think of myself as someone that had been where they've been. And I'll show you the ropes, kid. And trust me. This is how you handle fame.
Like, we would talk about things like, man, I'm anxious. How do you feel? Are you anxious? Yeah. Man, it's weird to put yourself out there, isn't it? Yeah, I struggle with that, too. This movie is going to be seen by people. It's going to be super weird, right? Yeah, totally. Well, at least we have each other. At least we can look to each other during this. And that's what I tell Elsie and all the kids, you know? It's like, yeah, this is weird and strange. And I hope we can keep our feet on the ground. And if you feel weird, you can always reach out to me to talk about it.
But, you know, the belief really is that, as much as we have things to teach children and as much as we can guide them, part of the problem that kids are enduring is just the human condition. Like, they have access to the problems we have access to. So the only thing I encourage her to do is, like, don't worry about the momentum of your career. Like, do whatever you want to do. You're still a kid. You still have all the forks in the road still ahead of you. So just, like - you know, you don't have to deliver anything. You can turn 16 and want to be a vet. Who cares?
GROSS: My guest is Bo Burnham. He wrote and directed the new film "Eighth Grade." After a break, we'll talk about how he became an early YouTube star when he was in his teens and how that altered his life. And our jazz critic, Kevin Whitehead, will remember several of the musicians who died this year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOMINIC MILLER'S "CHAOS THEORY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This week, we're featuring some favorite interviews of the year as chosen by our producers and by listeners. Let's get back to my interview with comic and satirical songwriter Bo Burnham, who wrote and directed "Eighth Grade," which was released over the summer. It's his first feature film. It's about a girl about to graduate from middle school. She's suffering from social anxiety, but she makes YouTubes, recorded in her bedroom, giving advice to other teens about how to be confident and be yourself, things she's incapable of doing. Her videos have very few followers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: You were an early YouTube star. You started making videos of you singing your original satirical songs in, I think, your bedroom. What was the state of YouTube when you started? And how old did you say you were, 15?
BURNHAM: I was 16, yeah. It was 2006. It was just when it started. And I had written some little silly songs and wanted to show them to my brother who was at college. And someone said, you should post it on YouTube. It's this site that you can post videos and share them. And I was like, oh, cool. And really, it was like - YouTube was just a place for where it was like, you got a funny skit or something, post it here. It was, like, that and Myspace - were sort of the things people used. And they were asking very shallow questions.
Myspace was sort of just like, make a little website for yourself. Put your profile picture up. And tell us your top friends and list your interests. And now kids are using Twitter and Instagram, which is basically, what do you look like? What do you think? What do you look like? What do you think - asking base, deep, deep questions of you all the time. So the Internet felt like - when I was 16, felt like a, you know, digital bulletin board. And now it feels like really a place to exist and reflect yourself.
GROSS: So when you started posting videos of your songs for your family, how did they end up going viral?
BURNHAM: They were posted on this site break.com, and it got like 250,000 views in a day. It just sort of happened. It was a website that sort of featured popular videos, and they just snagged it. And it kind of went crazy. And it was very strange 'cause, you know, I saw this giant number. And then I, you know, went to school, and nothing was different. And I think it just sort of started a lifelong journey of these two separate sort of narratives being sort of absolutely incoherent but overlaid on top of each other.
GROSS: Why don't we hear what I think is the first song that you posted, which is...
BURNHAM: Oh, boy.
GROSS: ...(Laughter) which is...
BURNHAM: I'll be checking out for this part (laughter).
GROSS: "My Whole Family" - is that the first one?
BURNHAM: Yeah, sure.
GROSS: So it's called "My Whole Family" or "My Whole Family Thinks I'm Gay," and you posted this in 2006. But your micing (ph) technique wasn't great (laughter). So your piano...
BURNHAM: I would say basically all of my technique wasn't great - my technique for subtlety or writing or performing. But, yeah, let's go with the mic technique (laughter).
GROSS: OK. We'll go with the mic technique. So the piano is, like, drowning out your voice. And I'm afraid our listeners won't be able to hear the lyrics. So instead of going with the original...
BURNHAM: Thank God.
GROSS: Wait. Wait. No, no. Instead...
BURNHAM: Oh, no. Oh, Lord.
GROSS: It's going to be bad again. Instead of going with the original YouTube video, we're going to go with the 2008 recording that you made because it's just clearer. And...
BURNHAM: Oh, thank God.
GROSS: And the lyrics are funny, and I think our audience should be able to hear them. So this is my guest Bo Burnham.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WHOLE FAMILY THINKS I'M GAY")
BURNHAM: (Singing) Every time I go to dinner, seems like I'm getting a little bit thinner. I'll sit down at the breakfast table. I can talk. Well, they're not able. And when I look at them, I find there's a single question on their mind. I wish it could go back to the way it was. It's not easy now because my whole family thinks I'm gay. I guess it's always been that way. Maybe it's 'cause of the way that I walk makes them think I like boys - that I like boys. The damn question just won't go away, and I get asked every single day. But the way they ask it is not a disguise, like how was your day? Do you like to kiss guys?
Oh, yeah. I had the headphones off, and I was in a full body sweat. So I didn't hear most of that.
BURNHAM: Truly, it's like - you know, I - you know, for a 16-year-old kid in 2006, it's not bad. But the cultural standards of what is appropriate comedy and also the inner standards of my own mind have changed rapidly since I was 16.
GROSS: Did people who you know think you were gay at the time...
BURNHAM: Oh, sure. Yeah. And, you know, it was...
GROSS: ...'Cause you were a theater kid?
BURNHAM: Die-hard theater in an all-boys Catholic school. Yeah.
GROSS: And what was your reaction? Like, how did you know people thought you were gay, and what was your reaction to it?
BURNHAM: Oh, you know, it was all cool. Like, you know, a lot of my close friends were gay, and, you know, I wasn't certain I wasn't at that point. But, yeah, like, it didn't mean much to me. You know, I didn't really care. I was going to do experimental theater at ETW, so I had - at Tisch - so I had bigger fish to fry. I was doing butoh dances painted in all white.
BURNHAM: It was bad. Oh, boy.
GROSS: Did people misinterpret it and think, like, that guy's homophobic?
BURNHAM: I don't know that it's not. You know what I mean? I don't know that it's not. I don't defend my 16-year-old comedy at all. And, like, even part of this movie is me going back and, like, trying to forgive myself for what I was expressing at that time. The tact of a 16-year-old comic in 2006, which was like the peak of sort of, like, shock jock humor - yeah, I have a lot of material from back then that I'm not proud of and I think is offensive and I think is not helpful. But also, I can't regret a bit of it, you know, because I deeply believe in the butterfly effect. And I am so grateful to be here right now. I do not think my intention was homophobic, but what is the implicit comedy of that song if you chase it all the way down? I don't think it's perfectly morally defendable.
But the issue is - and it'll be an issue, I think, for a lot of young creative people - my sort of open mic material - you know, the first stuff I wrote - is out there for everybody to see. So I just hope, on my own behalf and other people's behalf, we're still allowed to think out loud and fail publicly and grow because - yeah. We're going to soon have a bunch of - well, you know, at a certain point, there's going to be a - every presidential candidate is going to have every bad joke they made when they were 13 immortalized (laughter) online. So at a certain point, we're going to have to call amnesty and just, you know, get on with it.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Bo Burnham. He wrote and directed his first feature film, and it's called "Eighth Grade." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us my, guest is Bo Burnham. He wrote and directed the new movie "Eighth Grade," which is about an eighth-grade girl on the verge of graduating middle school who's very self-conscious and a lot of social anxiety. She also has a vlog in which she gives advice to other kids her age about how to have confidence and how to make friends and things that she's very uncomfortable doing herself. Bo Burnham became a YouTube star when he was in his mid-teens writing and performing satirical songs. He's also a stand-up comic.
When you started posting videos on YouTube and they started going viral, what was your parents' reaction? And were they concerned about the impact it could have on you?
BURNHAM: Yeah. I mean, I had a decent amount of trust from my parents, but they were scared and freaked out, my mother probably especially just 'cause it was such a new, strange thing. And I was sort of a very studious kid that was very hardworking in school. And maybe the content of the videos seemed at odds with that. And maybe it looked like they could jeopardize that.
GROSS: They did jeopardize that in the sense that you got accepted to NYU's Tisch School of the arts instead of going (laughter) - you went on the road and became a comic.
BURNHAM: Yeah, yeah, but they were pretty supportive, though. It was shocking at first. But once it became something that I sort of cared about, I think they cared about it, too.
GROSS: They probably recognized you actually had a lot of talent.
BURNHAM: Yeah. And they knew I loved theater. And they saw that it was - I think I was engaged in it in a way that was similar to the way I was engaged in theater and that I really cared about it. You know, they're just very attentive, you know, loving people and just very, very supportive. And when they saw that I wanted support, they gave it.
GROSS: You were a theater kid in high school. And you were in something called competitive theater, where different schools...
GROSS: ...Get together and compete for, I guess - what? - the best performances, best direction.
GROSS: Were there different categories?
BURNHAM: Yeah. For Massachusetts - that's how you sell theater to your Massachusetts father. You call it competitive theater, and then maybe he'll show up.
BURNHAM: Yeah, yeah. We - yeah, it's...
GROSS: It's not exactly sports, but it's competition. Yeah.
BURNHAM: Yeah, but - yeah (laughter), exactly. No, it's really, really wonderful. It's the Massachusetts High School Drama Guild. It's - a hundred schools compete, and there's three stages of competition. But, you know, they're all 40-minute plays, which is, like, so nice for high schoolers to only be putting on 40-minute plays. And you all perform them for each other. You know, eight schools in each round or whatever. And you all watch each other's plays. Then you discuss it afterwards. And it's really just very, very beautiful and wonderful, and it's an unbelievable program. And, yeah, it was like my first real love. And, still, one of the greatest times of my life was being a part of that.
GROSS: Did that help you in directing the young actors in your film?
BURNHAM: Yeah. Just to know that the greatest thing you can do for a kid is to empower them to have ownership over the thing they're working on. And that - at that age, you really are ready and hungry to throw yourself into the artistic experience and really grasp beyond yourself. And, you know, I had so many people warning me, oh, my God, you're working with kids. It's going to be a nightmare. You know, and it's that - I think it is a nightmare for people because they think it's going to be a nightmare. And they treat the kids like potential nightmares rather than, like, open wounds who are just so...
BURNHAM: ...Ready to imagine and so ready to throw themselves into something. I was so pleased with the kids in the film. It was actually like the random adults that would be difficult. I'd ask the random adult, can you step over here? And they'd say, like, is the light OK? How am I looking? And with kids, I'd be like, spit in your hand, and they'd be like, which hand?
GROSS: So you're really tall. You're - what? - 6-foot-5 or something.
BURNHAM: Six-foot-six, unfortunately.
GROSS: Oh. What kind of physical...
GROSS: No, no, I'm thinking, like, if you're 6-foot-5, you can, like, slouch and try to cover up your head. You can really, like, own the space. Like, what type of tall person have you been? And has that changed over the years?
BURNHAM: (Laughter) It has changed. That's a great question. I have just recently in the last year tried to stand up straight because I always didn't. I always slouched. It's like a nightmare if I ever go to a theater to watch a play or something and, like, you can just see the people watching me walk down the aisle like, please, no, please, God, no. And I have to give, like, hunched standing ovations. It's all very sad. But yeah - it's - yeah, I'm trying to carry myself just, you know, upright nowadays. But yeah, I was a slouched one for a while.
GROSS: Why were you self-conscious about being tall, leading to slouching?
BURNHAM: Just, like, too much - like, 6'6" is too much. Like, 6'2" - cool. You know, 6'6" is, like, oh, boy. I get a lot of, do you play basketball, which is - the response is, do you play mini golf?
BURNHAM: Or are you a jockey? Or you get is - how's the weather up there? And then you say it's raining, and you spit in their face. You don't do that. But (laughter) no, it's just, like, it's too much. Yeah, it's a lot.
GROSS: (Laughter) Your mother was a nurse at the school that you went to. She was a nurse at St. John's Prep School. You got free tuition there. So you became a student there. You got the tuition through her job. Did it enable you to see a side of her that you otherwise wouldn't have?
BURNHAM: No, I mean, like I felt like - she was a little antsy there. She loved being there - loved, loved being there. You know, she was a nurse practitioner and then went on to become a hospice nurse, so, you know.
GROSS: So your mother became a hospice nurse. And, in fact, she's interviewed - she's followed in part of an episode of This American Life reported by Nancy Updike. And she's - you know, your mother in this episode is dealing with the questions coming from people who are dying. And she's dealing with the questions coming from people whose loved ones are dying. And I have to say, she seems to be handling all of that with such sensitivity. What impact did it have on you when she became so immersed in the process of dying and spending her days with people who are dying and with people who are losing their loved ones to death? You were probably graduated from high school by then.
BURNHAM: Yeah, basically right when I left, she left her job at my school and applied to become a hospice nurse. Yeah, it was - my mother has always been an incredibly emotionally deep person. So as significant as the change was, it made a lot of sense. She doesn't change dispositionally, which is incredible. I mean, she has just sort of stayed the levelheaded, loving, calm person that she's always been.
It's just, you know, once in a while, I'll ask her how work was. And she'll say, do you really want to know? And I'll say, yes. And I just - my jaw's on the floor. Even now, she's, you know, 10 years into it. And still the stories she tells me are absolutely mindblowing. It's pretty truly inconceivable the work she does. And it really helps me when I'm stressed out to violently put in perspective what I do as incredibly insignificant and just totally peripheral.
GROSS: How - what are some other ways it affected you to have your mother so immersed in the process of dying because of her work?
BURNHAM: You know...
GROSS: I mean, because you have a lot of anxiety - and I'm wondering if that presence of death in your family's life, like, added to that anxiety at all.
BURNHAM: No. I mean, the way my mother describes death is relieving. She is the person you want around you when death is in the air. She says she's not scared of it. I believe her. You know, she sees it two to three times a day for the last 10 years. She just provides me and continues to provide me sort of, I think, the bedrock of where I work from, which is if I have any emotional awareness, any emotional intelligence, it's from her. And it's the thing I try to work towards, the thing I try to improve, the thing I try to dig into, which is my mother's empathy, which I think I have a kernel of and she has an ocean of.
GROSS: Well, Bo Burnham, it's been great to talk with you. I love the movie. Thank you so much for coming on our show.
BURNHAM: I appreciate it, Terry. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: My interview with Bo Burnham was recorded in July. Our series of favorite interviews of the year will continue through New Year's Day. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead remembers several jazz musicians who died this year. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE HOLLAND QUINTET'S "NOT FOR NOTHIN'")
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