Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What's On Netflix?: Bo Burnham's MAKE HAPPY

Welcome to another installment of WHAT'S ON NETFLIX?, where we pick out a film or series currently playing on Netflix and review it for the fans.  This week's selection is the Bo Burnham comedy special...MAKE HAPPY.

In my yearly rankings of 2016 releases, I bent the rules to include Netflix comedy specials for the sole purpose of allowing in a release that is currently sitting at #5 on my Top 10. Bo Burnham’s Make Happy, released to Netflix on June 3, 2016, and is an amazing follow-up to the massive viral success of his Comedy Central-released 2013 special, What. Filmed during his 2015 Make Happy tour, this new comedy special brings to the table both Burnham’s signature off-beat, off-color style and a deep, introspective look at the tragedy and pain innate in performing.

Yes, you read that right. This comedy special is an existential examination of the nihilism that comes hand in hand with being funny. This review will be longer and more in-depth than usual because so much of this incredible special deserves to be examined. Let’s start with the fun, though.

“Country Song” stands out for me as the peak moment of Make Happy on a pure funny level. Here, backed by a twanging-guitar and complete with an equal-parts horrible and spot-on Texas accent, Bo Burnham sings about country stadium stars who “write songs about riding tractors/from the comfort of a private jet.” However, even in the midst of his lampooning of a genre, Burnham weaves in commentary on the rape culture attitudes ingrained in a disconcerting amount of country hits and the social subtext to a genre that lies below the surface where the very rich write songs pandering to the very poor.

The standard sex one-liners that make a Bo Burnham show a Bo Burnham show abound. I’ll refrain from going too far into them for the sake of keeping things PG-13, but if you’re at all familiar with his previous work, imagine the ribald hilarity amped up to 11. This is subverted slightly in “Break Up Song,” where Burnham chronicles a couple in the last moments of their relationship, with the girlfriend breaking up with her boyfriend after three unhappy years. Male braggadocio oozes out of Bo’s melodramatic performance and slowly crumbles down into nothingness as the angry, heartbroken boyfriend confesses that his bitter responses to everything are due to his own insecurities and fears.

Have you caught the vibe yet that Bo Burnham doesn’t actually write simple funny songs?

This fact is most evident in “Straight White Man.” Seated at his keyboard without any background effects or flashy lighting, Burnham holds the attention of his audience with a skill he consistently almost reached in his previous special, what. “Straight white man, I know the road looks tough ahead,” he sings, “The women want rights/The gays want kids/Can’t you just leave us alone/Also ‘no’ to the things you asked for.” His self-deprecating, self-aware humor style is what makes Bo Burnham’s comedy so effective and memorable.

It is in this self-loathing that you find the true beauty of Make Happy and the area that truly sets it apart from both Burnham’s stellar history and also from comedy releases of 2016 in general. Woven throughout the entirety of Make Happy, Burnham references his own insecurities and fears. He makes fun of himself brutally for the sake of laughs. However, it is in the final three parts of his set that everything is brought full circle.

First, in “Make Happy Speech,” Burnham turns on the lights in the auditorium and speaks directly to the audience. He delivers a hardened rant about the self-defeating nature of a culture that promises everyone success, knowing that few will reach it. Here, he says, almost as an afterthought, the crux of his comedic ramblings: “I had a privileged life, I got lucky, and I’m unhappy.” Those three things combine to form the emotional core of Burnham. From there, Burnham segues into “Can’t Handle This” where, backed by a beat and warped with auto tune, he begins complaining about the little grievances in life. These tiny issues expand and grow until he is admitting to the audience that, behind all the jokes and the lights, he “can’t handle this right now” -- the endless pressure to be perfect and entertaining without ever letting down the always-watching eyes even as depression and anxiety overwhelm him.

Or, as he puts it, “come and watch the skinny kid with a steadily declining mental health/And laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.”

The lights go out. Burnham walks into a back room and sits at an old, dusty upright piano. There, he plays the final song of Make Happy. In “Are You Happy?” Burnham performs a quiet epilogue to the set, asking his audience “on a scale from one to zero, are you happy/Cuz you’re on your own from here, are you happy?” In this, his final appeal to the people sitting on their couches watching Netflix, Bo turns the performing light back away from him onto the faces of the viewer, at the close of an hour of entertainment and laughs. For in the end, at the finale of a good comedic set that is both funny and relevant, the real question that should be presented is “what are you going to do with what you just heard?”

Since its release, I’ve watched Make Happy at least once a month. In various ways, my life has become much more performance-centered. Little opportunities (and a few big ones) have come up that have placed me firmly in the situation where I have to grit my teeth past how I really feel, put on the appropriate face, and stand before a crowd of people to entertain. Make Happy hit me at the right time in all the right ways. If you’re looking for a fun comedy special, you’ll love this one. If you’re looking for a slightly deeper than usual fun comedy special, you’ll also love this one. And if you’re looking for something that re-examines life in a deep, introspective way that will force you to think deeply about how you’re living your life as a performer, then you’ll probably adore this one.

I can’t wait for Bo Burnham’s next set. I’ll be sure to catch his next tour. And if you’re reading this right now... I hope you’re happy. You deserve to be happy.

Jonathan’s Score: 10/10

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