On the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka, Bo Burnham talks about his new movie “Eighth Grade,” which he wrote to reflect how he feels now, as a 27-year-old in the public eye. He also talks about how he accidentally became a teenage YouTube star and why he has veered away from stand-up conventions in his comedy specials “What” and “Make Happy.” Plus: Burnham explains why the worst kind of fame is, “Where do I know you from?”
You can listen to Recode Media on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited full transcript of the conversation.
Peter Kafka: I am here with Bo Burnham, who’s very tall. He’s also the writer and director of “Eighth Grade.” My script here says he’s a “stand-up comedian and early YouTube star.” I think those things are all technically correct.
Bo Burnham: Sure.
I wanna talk to you about all that stuff. I wanna talk about “Eighth Grade” first. What I wish everyone could do is experience “Eighth Grade” the way I experienced it, which is I showed up at a screening, I knew nothing about the movie other than it was made by a comedian named Bo Burnham, and then I was blown away.
Oh, appreciate it.
So, one thing you might wanna do if you’re listening to this is stop listening to this and then come back and listen to it again.
Yeah, I would ideally like people to know even less than you did.
Just show up? Just, “Where am I?”
Okay. If you’re still listening, you know that “Eighth Grade” is a movie about an eighth grader. I was expecting you to be in the movie, because most people who make movies who are comedians often put themselves in it, and for a while, I was like, “I bet the dad is Bo Burnham.”
Oh, my God.
I came in so cold. You’re not in the movie.
You are someone who became famous on YouTube, you are a stand-up comedian, then you have, at the age of 26, 27, made an indie movie about an eighth-grade girl and did not put yourself in it.
Yes. I am actually very buried in the movie, out of necessity. There’s a buried voice in the puberty video that happens as the kids are doing stuff way, way in the background, and we just couldn’t get a voice actor in, so we put my voice in and then pitched it up a few semitones, so you can’t really tell it’s me.
So I wanna talk about your comedy and your career, but I think, had I known about you prior to watching this movie, I would not have predicted this movie to come out of you. I’m sure I’m one of many people who have told you this. There’s some levity in this movie; There’s humor in it because it’s about a real ... it’s a realistic description of a person, so her life is in some ways funny, just like in that sex ed clip you talked about is funny.
Yeah, yeah. Life is funny sometimes.
But it’s not a comedy.
Yeah, it’s probably not a straight comedy. Yeah, probably not.
So, was this something you have been wanting to do for a long time? Was this something that came up relatively recently for you?
No, I wrote it three years ago or something, but I’ve been wanting to collaborate with people again. I grew up doing theater and that’s what I first fell in love with and then fell into stand-up and tried to drag every element of theater that I loved into stand-up and then by the end, was just very tired of looking to myself only for inspiration and speaking through myself about myself with myself. It was just tiring and unfulfilling. So, yeah, I wanted to get back and work with people again.
The main character in “Eighth Grade” is an eighth-grade girl who’s awkward, pretty normal, I think. She’s a little bit on the outsider-y spectrum, but basically your standard eighth-grade person who’s awkward and insecure, but most people are.
Yeah, I think so.
Is she a proxy for you, or is this someone who’s got no relationship to who you thought you were when you were in eighth grade?
Well, I had no interest in exploring my eighth-grade experience. Like, none. I did not set out to talk about what 13 was to me. I really set out to try to describe how I was feeling when I was writing it, how I feel now. So, in the way that she’s a proxy — which she is. She’s a proxy for how I feel now, how I navigate my own anxiety, how it feels like to navigate the world now, and it just happened to be, for some reason, a 13-year-old eighth-grade girl that felt like the perfect conduit for what I felt like it feels like to be alive right now.
So, a lot of people have written about the movie — I’ve done all my research backwards, right? — have pointed out that the heavy component of social media within the movie, which again, makes sense because it’s modern times, and I was struck by that watching that, but it’s not a movie about social media. It’s a movie about a person who’s 13 or 14 years old.
Yeah, social media’s also not about social media, in the same way.
Right. I mean, there are movies like, “It’s about social media and it’s about this thing that someone does to someone else using a Myspace proxy,” or something else.
Yeah. Right, right, right, right, right.
But that is not the thing that drives the movie. She uses social media in the way someone might have used a phone or a car.
Right. Right. Yeah, totally. But again, I would say that the movies that I think try to make it about social media misunderstand what social media is. That social media is just a forum where emotions express themselves and the actual particulars aren’t as relevant as what’s being expressed through them and what’s being felt because of them.
I wanna talk more about that in a second, but I had a thought on the way here. Had you made this movie ... I’m 30-years-plus out of being in eighth grade. It struck me that this — absent some technological features — that this movie would have been exactly accurate for someone 30 years ago. Do you think there’s a component to being a 15-year-old person in modern America that remains constant, whether or not you’ve got access to Instagram or whatever?
Certainly, certainly. It’s like, 13-14 is sort of the age gap ... ‘cause she’s graduating eighth grade, so around May of your eighth-grade year your kids are 13, 14. Most are 14, some are still 13. I was 13 at the time; I turned 14 the summer going into freshman year. Yeah, I think there are both. I think there are timeless elements, I think that there are cyclical elements, and I think there are brand new elements. There are, of course, timeless elements: Things like puberty, things like, your body’s exploding, your self-awareness is being turned on. There’s brand new elements.
You can’t wait to get away from the place you are and the person you are, but you’re very apprehensive about where you’re gonna go. Yeah, all of that really struck me, and I don’t know if this is intentional for you and maybe just has to do with the age of my kids — who are not 13 or 14 but it’s coming up — but this movie gave me enormous anxiety. Because I kept thinking, “Oh, everything that I’m worried about happening to them ... Bo’s laying this out for me. It’s going to come for them.”
Yeah, I don’t know. The thing I just do believe about that age or about kids is that, yes, part of what they’re going through is the trials and tribulations of coming of age. I don’t like that term, but ...
Yeah, in some ways it’s biological, right? It’s hormonal. Things are happening to your body and your consciousness that just are happening.
And other things are part of the human condition. That’s actually also what’s happening. The thing you have access to is the thing we struggle with until our last breath, which is just, we are human beings on the surface on the Earth walking around trying to be happy. So, I think sometimes all of the young experience is dismissed as “young,” as this just temporary thing that is indicative only of your youth and the journey you’re on. And not also like, you also have access to the deepest questions you’ll ever ask yourself, which is, “Who am I? What am I doing here? What it does it mean to be happy? How do I get that happiness?”
Hopefully, part of the movie is dignifying kids with that, as well, saying ... because I had always just sensed from stories about young people that they were inherently less significant or they ...
Right? “This is something you get over.”
Yes. Exactly. That they don’t have access to just ... that an adult story is of course more meaningful, and I just don’t agree with that.
Yeah. Then again, some of the best stuff is about young people, right? “Catcher in the Rye” is a timeless book and it’s about someone that age.
Yeah, and as an adult, I look back and realize that the deepest things I feel like I’m struggling with I started struggling with then, I think, and maybe that’s because I’m immature. I don’t know. I just think we are maybe able to reach deeper or articulate ... we’re just able to articulate our experiences a little better when we’re older, but the kernel of it is happening there.
So, because I write about social media and technology and media and because I’ve got kids that are starting to engage with this stuff — it’s a couple years out, but they’re warm. One of them’s playing with a Nintendo right now. I think a lot about what their lives are gonna be like when they are introduced to social media and just the internet and the access to all that information and what that’s gonna be like.
And I can project out and definitely see — I think it’s easier because they’re boys, not girls — but I can definitely see lots of downside, right? Social alienation, misconceptions of what the world is like. I can see plenty of upside, right? Finding other like-minded people and going deep down rabbit holes. You’re pretty neutral in this film, right? The phone is attached to the main character. She throws it at one point and the screen cracks and she still clings to it. But you’re not castigating social media.
No, it’d be much easier if it was bad. If it was all bad, it’d be so easy. Just throw your phone into the ocean. That’s the solution. The problem ...
It’s a little bit of a head fake, because at the beginning of the movie you show her speaking to a camera; she’s a vlogger. She’s telling a story about herself. Early on, you realize, “Oh, she’s lying to the camera and this is not who she is. This is who she imagines she is,” and you think this is where this is gonna go, but that’s not the point of the movie.
Yeah, yeah. You might think that, “Oh, this girl’s giving advice about stuff she doesn’t know about. What an idiot. What a fake. What a liar.”
And you’re gonna spend the rest of the movie pointing out the falsity of internet-constructed personalities.
Yeah, and I just don’t totally ... I think that’s just too simple of a definition of what it means to hope. What it means to try to speak something into existence. I really, truly believe that what we hope we might be is a more vulnerable truth than what we wish we were, and there’s a base confessionalism on the internet that I think is seen as a virtue and then a sort of hopeful projection on the internet that’s seen as a vice, and I don’t think that’s true at all.
Again, kind of timeless, right? If you’re a kid without the internet, pre-internet, you draw comics or you do make-believe or ...
Or you write a diary, which is also a performance. If you read a diary from that age, you are performing, even to yourself. You read your own personal diary and you go, “Why was I trying to prove to myself that I was deep?” The truth is, as timeless as it would’ve been, I would never have written a ... I don’t think I would’ve written a story about a 13-year-old if it had not had these elements because it wasn’t ... the element of a public expression of your own narrative to a faceless audience was so interesting to me. And the way that kids are forced, through social media, to hover over themselves and take inventory of their narrative while they’re living their lives and the tension between the cultural standard of what your life should be and the life you actually live, which is actually mostly provided by film and by television, which is you can sense the tension for Kayla is, “The movie of my life sucks. Why don’t I sound like the kids in movies?” And I think of that as a pressure for a lot of kids.
And you think movies more than watching other kids on YouTube or watching Bo Burnham on YouTube presents himself the way you used to do?
Sure. Yes. Not necessarily, but I think if you ... all of those things are products of the initial cultural reflection. So yeah, for sure, but if you chase it all the way down to the origin of where it’s coming from ...
It’s all reflected through the ...
It’s all coming down to ... for the post-John Hughes generations, I being one of them, a really weird thing happens that we don’t talk about, which is that by the time we get to the cultural landmarks of our childhood — our first kiss, our first drink, our first party, our prom — we have seen those things so much in culture. We’ve seen them a hundred times. I remember by the time I got to my first kiss I’m like, “Oh, this is it. Cue music.” I go, “Wait, this should be more significant. Nothing happened.”
I remember very specifically seeing “The Breakfast Club,” and I probably was eighth or ninth grade, and going, “Oh, well, I can pick these various personalities and maybe I can mix and match, but this is the way my life is gonna be like.” It’s reflected through that.
And before that, when it was first presented, it was this huge revelation to dignify kids’ stories as being worthy in the first place. When John Hughes put out his first movies, people would go like, “Why do you care so much about this? Why are you treating kids’ problems like it’s Vietnam?” People would say that. All we’ve done is represent kids meta-narratively, and social media democratizes that, so that kids themselves can represent themselves meta-narratively.
So, I think there’s a huge ... this sounds so stupid and pretentious, and the movie doesn’t function on this level, if this sounds absolutely nauseating. I think the movie is meant to function way more on an emotional level.
The movie is a very straight-ahead story that you watch and absorb and you’re not ... there’s lots of stuff to think about, but it’s a very straight-ahead story.
But that is the danger of social media to me, is not the BS, the cyberbullying ... It’s such a surface-level thing to go, “The problem is like cyberbullying or you’re going to send your naked pictures to the wrong person or to any person.” It’s something way weirder than that, which is there is you and then there is the other you. There is the idea of you. There is the story of you and it’s not ... The danger is not that we’re going to treat the internet like it’s real, the danger is that we’re treating the real world like it’s the internet and you’re walking through an experience as a kid and you’re also hovering over yourself watching your experience from afar because that’s how people will consume it. You watch people watch your experience. You watch other people in the room watch you watch them. You’re nostalgic for the experience as you’re in it because you’re thinking of how it’ll be processed after the fact. It’s dissociative and strange and weird, and that leads to anxiety and weird feelings.
Okay, so the anxiety and weird feelings I felt watching your movie, which is great and you should go watch, you kind of want me to have those feelings?
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, well, sure ...
Or you’re just talking about how the character ...
The movie is not going to punish you. Yeah, the movie is not going to ... Yes, I mean I love cringing, I think cringing is a high form of empathy and is a meaningful thing, but yeah, it’s strange. It’s hard to talk about but there’s something very, very strange about the internet in terms of what it just makes us think of ourselves as commodities and as brands.
And the way I got to this was, I felt a specific pressure of being a comedian, 24-year-old male comedian with a large audience, and I was thinking like, “Man, this experience is an absolute mind-F.” You know what I mean? Like what I am ...
Oh, you can say it.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
I can? Okay, great.
We’re all adults.
Well, not all ... Your son is here.
Except for my kid.
He doesn’t listen.
Like this is a complete mindfuck, and I was having a lot of anxiety from it and I would talk about it onstage, thinking that my anxiety is so specific to my circumstance, once again, being a 24-year-old male comedian performing to 3,000 people every night. I thought, “No one’s going to relate to this ever.” And I would perform my show, 14-year old girls would come up to me and say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” I go, “What?” And I’d realize that this sort of shitty situation, this sort of meta weird mindfuck of you and your relationship to the proper noun version of your name, Bo Burnham, the sort of disassociated sense you have of yourself that was only afforded to shitty, D-list celebrities like me was now afforded to everybody.
It was now democratized.
In the past if you were a professional musician and you had a hit album and your second album was about the trials of going on the road and how difficult things were now you had money, your audience couldn’t relate to that. They might have fantasized about it, they might have enjoyed it, but they didn’t ... It didn’t resonate with them the same way that your stuff does now.
This is as entertaining and heavy and stimulating a conversation as I thought I would be. Doing a deep dive into Bo Burnham over the last week, which is very gratifying ...
I can do a shallow dive any time you want.
We could do that. As you’ve figured out if you’ve been listening to this podcast for the last 15 minutes, the idea about how audiences relate to each other, how media works, letting people interact with each other, how someone who becomes a YouTube star interacts with an audience, these are themes that you’ve been thinking about since you were in your late teens?
Because you started doing this stuff when?
16, that’s your first YouTube video?
Yeah. First YouTube video, 16.
And you’re obviously a performer, you’ve got a theater background ...
What were you doing prior to starting out on YouTube?
Doing theater in high school.
Yeah, and having anxiety, yeah. Sort of concurrently having two weird ... Yeah. Impulses. I’d have the impulse to run and hide, and the impulse to run up and shout.
You can do both things concurrently on the internet.
You can try. Yes, yes, and I think everyone has both of those parts to them.
When you start off on YouTube, what do you think you’re going to do? Is there a model? Is there a, “Oh, I want to replicate what so-and-so is doing”?
No, really, YouTube was so brand-new that I made a video ... I had a song and I wanted to show my brother at college and someone was like, “There’s this place called YouTube where you can post a video.”
So it was like messaging?
It sounds like I’m buying a hamburger for a nickel or something, but truly that was the case. Yeah, there wasn’t much of a model, no.
Those early YouTube stars were people basically who just got to YouTube and showed up and did really weird stuff. There were guys who ...
Really eclectic, yeah.
Guys who ... Eclectic is a polite word in some cases, right? There were people who were famous for intentionally being entertaining, right?
There were guys who lip synced to the Pokémon song.
Yeah, Smosh. They’re still around.
They’re still around. But you were doing these skits and songs from the get-go, right?
Yes, yes. Well, the funny thing is I posted 14 videos.
Fourteen videos over four years.
Full stop? That’s the entirety of your output?
Basically, like ... That’s what’s so funny is like, I am the YouTuber, and I know famous comedians who have hundreds of videos on their YouTube.
Yeah. That style of, “I’m going to write a funny song that is also poking and acerbic and has multiple things going on and is commenting on itself and commenting on the fact of myself while I’m doing it.” There’s a lot of stuff going on. Were you ... “Aping” is the wrong word.
What influenced you ...
“Aping” is the right word.
Who were you thinking about when you were creating that style?
“Aping” is a kind word. Stephen Lynch. I mean, like if Stephen Lynch ...
He was an earlier musical comedian.
Yeah, I loved him, loved Demetri Martin, loved early Steve Martin, loved “Flight of the Conchords.” I mean, there are songs that are just direct Stephen Lynch rip-offs and a direct “Flight of the Conchords” rip off and so I was just finding my feet. I was 16, 17 and stuff, so just like finding what I liked and trying to figure out what it was.
Did you imagine, “This is a thing I’m going to do professionally,” or, “This is a hobby until I do something else that I mean to do”?
No, I felt pretty quickly like I want to probably do this, but I knew very quickly I wanted to do this onstage. I don’t want to do videos, just because that’s what I love doing, I love performing. Very quickly I realized, I would go and I’d perform and then if I was performing songs that people had heard on the internet, they would just sing along or something, but if I performed a song they hadn’t heard, they would laugh because they heard it for the first time, so I pretty quickly realized like, okay, YouTube has to just kind of be a way for me to promote my live shows, just because that’s what I liked. It wasn’t like a judgment on YouTube or anything, I felt more like a live performer than a video maker.
Again, because I’ve been doing the Bo Burnham deep dive backwards, after I watched the movie, I watched the most recent special, which is “Make Happy.”
Which again, I wasn’t prepared for what I saw, which is this ... You think of stand-up comedy, you think of a guy holding a microphone acting as if he’s thinking of jokes for the first time.
Right, right, right.
That’s the sort of the standard convention. And you’re doing a theatrical performance: Lights, choreography, you’re playing with pre-recorded music, again doing ... You’re making commentary about yourself while you’re doing it. The next special before that is “What.” Is that what it’s called?
Yeah, and is that form where you started off ... I mean, you can sort of see you getting more elaborate and more rehearsed and more better at it, but is that again what you were doing when you started off doing stuff live?
No, no. That was discovering comedians, discovering a lot of like European and Australian comedians. Stand-up in Europe and Australia is much more theatrical and sort of ... But it was going like, “I don’t get to do any of this stuff.” I used to love theater and I did theater and I have to just stand up here and talk and sing songs, like that sucks. Then I’d be like ... What I really missed in theater was dialogue, listening. I don’t get to ... One day I was like, “I don’t get to listen onstage anymore, I just talk all the time,” so then I thought of backing vocals, so I’ll have voices speak to me onstage so I can listen, or lights and props and music cues and all that stuff.
How much work does it take to write, rehearse, mount something like “Make Happy?”
Well, it’s an interesting ... That was an interesting one and that was like ... Because what we used to do is, it used to just be me and my tour manager, Chris Scanlon, and we would go around for “What,” that early show, which had like 50 or 60 cues in it. We would go into every venue and just piece the show together the day before ... The day of.
So it was a new show each time around?
It was literally ... Like technically, it was.
It was like, “Okay, what lights do they have? Okay. How can we make this cue work with the setup that’s happening?” It was all just sort of written beforehand. And then with “Make Happy” it was like, I had the show vaguely written. I had like 60 minutes of material and then we brought in ... Like the production of the special is the production that toured with us the whole time. That wasn’t just for the taping, like we had those lights and that setup. I had Joe Werner, my sound guy, Chris Galante, my lighting guy, and what we did is we would ... We toured the full technical show, but we worked the show out and wrote the show out with the lights, so we’d do a show and then we’d all get together after the show and go, “Okay, what worked, what didn’t? Okay, tomorrow let’s try this spot hitting this time, let’s try green.” And then green would get a laugh where blue didn’t.
So you’re building it as you go?
We tested the tech of the show, like you would work out the material of a show.
Right, that’s what I was thinking about watching it, because I’m a comedy nerd. And even if you’re not, I think you might be familiar with the idea now that someone like a Seinfeld or a Louis C.K. or a Chris Rock spends a year developing something and maybe you’re used to the idea that they go to the small comedy club and they try stuff out and over time they build it and it takes a year to build it.
Again, so it looks sort of casual and relaxed but obviously, they’ve thought through every line.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Your thing is, there’s no artifice that it’s casual, right?
Oh yeah, it’s very, very, very rehearsed. Very.
It is a production.
The tough thing is that it was the kind of show where I knew I wanted to build a stand-up show that was meant to be seen in a theater because I would see so many stand-up specials and things and go like, this feels like a comedy club act and why is it in a 2,000-seat room? I wanted to do a show that would make no sense in a 100-seat room. So what was difficult was, I could work out some of the material and the songs in smaller rooms but I really couldn’t work the show out until I was in these big ...
Got to do it on the stage.
In these big rooms because it was built to be of that scale. It was very cool. It was like my first real ... I did get to have some collaboration in stand-up. It was like, by the end of “Make Happy,” those last few months, it was like it really was an absolutely three-headed ... It was three people performing that show, me and my lighting and my sound guy. We were so in sync. We knew the show so well.
Did you ever try the, “I’m going to get up and tell some jokes and work it out at the Improv,” and the standard conventional comedy route?
I did a little, when I was younger. I didn’t like it. I just don’t like the two-drink minimum, like clinking glasses, waiters passing out checks.
Is that the part you don’t like or is it the actual form of it where it’s “joke, joke, joke.”
No, because I’ll put some of that in my act and if I could do it, I would do that. Like I just can’t do ... I’m just not good at that. It’s not like I’m better than that. No, I just hate it ... It’s like comedy clubs are just very masculine, aggro, stupid environments that I don’t like.
I don’t like them.
Doesn’t appeal to you. Then we were touching on this in the first part of this, the ideas you have about media and social media and audiences, this is a throughline through all of your stuff. Your early YouTube stuff definitely and the two shows that I watched now.
Yeah, it was just a weird form of honesty. They say be honest onstage and talk about yourself and I was like ... I was looking at stand-ups going like, “So wait, the honest thing is you get up and you talk about like laundry and your kids?” Like, are you fucking kidding me?
Hang on one second because we have a clip of that. Do we have that ready, guys? Just woke them up.
Bo Burnham in “Make Happy”: They say it’s like the me generation, it’s not. The arrogance is taught or it was cultivated. It’s self-conscious, that’s what it is. It’s conscious of self ... Social media, it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so what 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 to 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. And now you’re thinking, “How the fuck are you going to dig this show out of this weird hole?”
This clever idea I had was to have Bo listen to his comedy and then respond and then that started and Bo took his headphones off, said, “I don’t want to listen to myself.”
Oh, I’ll remember.
But you know the bit.
Yeah, I’ll remember it. Yeah, no, I just can’t listen to my own voice.
So that seemed like, boy, if I wanted to encapsulate Bo Burnham in a 15-second clip, that’s a pretty good attempt.
Yeah, if you like to encapsulate the public, distilled, interesting, trying-very-hard version of me. I’m saying if you want to like encapsulate the true version of me, it’s like, “tired with my dog” or something.
Again, it’s better if you watch it because if you watch it there’s a joke there in the presentation in which he’s talking about responding to an audience and then you cut to a shot of 2,000 people staring at you.
Yeah, but yeah, it’s … Well, I think I already said this, but it was just my big revelation where it was like the two sides of the coin — one obliterated me and the other saved me — which is, “I’m not unique and I’m not alone.”
When you talk to people, do you think they’re responding ... Do you think your fans are responding to those ideas or do you think most of them like the idea that you’re doing funny songs?
Oh, I have no idea. Both. I hope it’s because I’m telling funny songs. I want my show to be funny. That’s what’s so funny about that show is, I wrote the show and I was like, “Oh, man. People are going to be upset because they wanted the ...” But I’m just making a funny show. I’m literally running around doing goofy stuff for 58 minutes.
Yeah. You hold the microphone by your butt and make a fart noise.
Exactly. Then for two minutes, I say, “And I’m sad sometimes.” Then I get tweets for three years, asking if I’m going to kill myself.
You’re not going to kill yourself.
I’m not going to.
Well, you do start off that thing in a sad clown face.
Yeah. I think stand-up is neutered of genuine emotion, that you sneak a little bit into it and people are like, gasp! Most of the show is making fun of country music and running around like a goofball.
I was telling you in my deep dive before we started, I ended up on a ... I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a Showtime show called “The Green Room” or “Inside the Green Room,” where it’s comedians talking to other comedians. There’s an episode with you and a bunch of really successful, much older comedians. The idea is Bo Burnham is 20 years old and here he is with Marc Maron and Ray Romano and I can’t remember who else was there.
Yeah, Gary Shandling.
Oh, Gary Shandling. Of course. Icons. They’re both impressed with you. It seems like they’re not entirely accepting of you, but they’re trying to figure you out in both ways. How do you feel you fit in in the comedy ... What’s the word? Fill in the blank now and later. In the comedy ecosystem.
Yeah. Pantheon is a good word.
I don’t care.
You don’t care?
But nice. I don’t feel like I was ever bullied or anything. I feel like I was blown away by most people’s acceptance of me.
They said, “You are funny. You are good onstage. You’re in.”
They’re just pretty nice. Pretty nice and not territorial. Was there probably shit being talked behind backs? There should be, because that’s life.
There’s no underlying, “Well, you didn’t come up with the clubs. You’re a YouTube guy.” That’s not a thing?
That was my fear the entire time. I found most people to be nice to me, which is pretty nice.
What a surprise.
People in comedy are nice to each other.
Yeah, in general I think. Yeah, I have no ill will towards anybody. I’m saying, Marc Maron has given me some ribbing on that show. He should though. We’re also doing a television show and that’s the correct way to play it.
Right. You’ve got a great zinger where you ... I can’t do it justice. You probably do it better. “I’m sitting here as a younger person with all of you guys and my question is, ‘Who are you?’” which plays very well.
Right. I think Judd [Apatow] might have gave me that one.
It was good.
Yeah. That’s funny.
I’m doing a shitty job of describing your movie and describing your comedy. You’re better off if you’re still listening to this, watching “Eighth Grade,” going to see Bo, checking out the Netflix show.
I appreciate you working backwards. That’s actually how I ideally would like people to look at my stuff.
I can’t say it was intentional, but that’s how I showed up.
Yeah. I think if you work forwards, you might not get to the end.
There are a couple people hanging out here — my producer, Eric Johnson, is one of them — who are incredibly excited that you’re here.
And thanks, Eric, for actually suggesting this interview to begin with.
There are other people who are the same age as Eric and Jelani, who I work with, who do not know who you are and then eventually said, “Oh, was he on ...” They named a sitcom that you might have been in.
Was I on “American Idol” season four?
That’s Bo Bice.
No. I was going through your credits... Do you think there’s something about being either a star in 2018 or a YouTube digital media star in 2018 where the reality is there’s going to be a ... You’re very popular, right? But you’ve got a group of fans that love you, that can fill a 2,000-seat theater, and then a very large group of people who have literally never heard of you. They have no opinion because they don’t know who you are.
You’re comfortable with that?
I’m way more comfortable with that than the opposite, for sure.
An absolute nightmare. I feel incredibly lucky that the only people that know me probably like me, and if they don’t like me, they forgot about me. The worst version of fame in the world is, “Where do I know you from?” Or, “You’re the guy from ...” Or just not knowing you. Yeah, that’s very, very ideal. Yeah, I can be in the world and the vast majority of people have no idea who I am.
You’re a tall person with cool hair and you look like you might be somebody. Do you get stopped on the street by people who say, “Where do I know you?”
No, no. I don’t. I think it literally is like, you either really know me or you have no idea who I am, as opposed to people that are in television and movies. Like, “I saw you on that thing,” which is totally ideal for me. It’s very, very nice. I can walk down the street. Nothing happens. Maybe a couple times a day someone will come up and go, “Hey.” It’s personal. I know people that are much, much more famous than me and that is hell. Hell. For me, it would be absolute hell.
Where you cannot go anywhere. You need people to escort you places or you get stopped.
Yeah. I love being out in the world. I do. I love going to a movie, going to a bookstore, going to ...
Back to your movie, when you’re out there pitching it, assembling it ... It’s a small movie. I assume you had very limited resources to put it together. By the way, a total aside, this is the kind of movie that I’m much happier that I saw in a theater even though there’s no explosion and no gunfire, just because it made me sit and watch it. Had I been sitting on my couch, I know I would have gotten up at one point and come back. I just am so happy I saw it that way.
It’s meant to be seen big and loud. I know it doesn’t seem like it because it’s a story of a 13-year-old girl, but the movie is designed to feel epic. It’s designed to ...
Well, and the score is ...
Yeah. I promise, it’s worth seeing big and loud.
Yeah. Go see it big and loud in a theater. When you’re putting it together, is part of the pitch to whoever is going to finance it and help you make it, “I have an audience. I have a million people on YouTube who follow me or a million Twitter followers and I will bring them to the theater”? Is that an explicit part of the pitch?
Pretty much. For me, I tried to get it sold for three or four years and I couldn’t do it. Then my last special did okay and I literally went to people and I was like, “I sold 150,000 tickets on the road last year. If they all buy a movie ticket, we’re 70 percent back to the budget.” That feels like a minimum of the people that would come. I would at least get the people who paid $40 to see me in the theater pay $10 to see a movie of mine. Yeah, for sure. I definitely felt like, yeah, that was a privilege. I was so lucky to have that.
I think it’s not uncommon for people to explicitly pitch that to people, or now you’ll read about, “Oh, when we’re casting, we only want to cast people who have got a certain social media presence.” That’s a different thing.
Yeah, I think that’s bullshit. I don’t think that adds up in the same way. Maybe it does. I don’t know. I don’t really buy into the metrics.
Were you asking your fans directly, “Support the movie”? It’s only starting to show up in theaters now. Most of them couldn’t see it if they wanted to.
Are you explicitly saying, “Please come see the movie. This is part of a thing. I’m asking you as my fans to support this”?
Yeah, of course. I don’t think I need to say that. I hope there’s actually ... I hate to use the word, but there’s a relationship where it’s like, I don’t put out things all the time, at all. I put out something like once every few years. I think I’ve at least established a pattern for people that like my stuff, that every few years when I put out something, this is something I worked really hard on and I’m proud of. I at least have had ... If they’ve liked the last three things, they’ll see this thing. This is the first thing I’ve done since “Make Happy,” since the last special I’ve done. I tell people, “Please come see it if you want to.”
Do you feel like you have to prep them saying, “By the way, I’m not in it. There are no funny songs. There’s only a few jokes. If you like me, I think you’ll like it, but by the way, this is very different from everything else I’ve created”?
No, I don’t.
Yeah. You trust their intelligence and enthusiasm?
Or not. Or they go and they spend $12 and they don’t ... I go to a bunch of movies I don’t like. You know what I mean? There’s a form of egoism, I would think, to being that worried about people, like, “Oh my God!”
Also, they’re not my fans. They’re people that spend .2 percent of their time watching my stuff, sometimes. If I make something they don’t like, it’s not the end of their world. I have people I’m obsessed with and they put out an album or a movie that I don’t like and I get up the next morning. You know what I mean?
I feel it’s a little flip, though, right? Less so now, but I definitely remember when my favorite band put out an album that I didn’t like. I didn’t feel betrayed, but I was bummed out and I had to spend time thinking about why the album wasn’t good and maybe trying to justify that maybe I did like it. I invested a lot of energy. I was an adult when this was happening.
Yeah, but if your band put out a favorite ... If your favorite band put out a bun cake. You know what I’m saying? It’s a movie called “Eighth Grade.” It’s called “Eighth Grade.” It’s pretty ostensibly presenting itself as something else. I don’t know. I feel good vibes from that thing. I don’t know. I don’t feel — so much of what I’ve said is trying to play against that relationship. You know what I mean? I don’t know. That loaded, insane thing.
Yeah. How does it affect what the next thing is? Do you go back and do more of what you were doing? Do you go take another ... Not 90-degree turn, but do something that’s very different from this?
I would love to do another movie if I have an idea, for sure. I’m definitely not trying to wear hats to wear them, because that’s super annoying to me. People that are just trying to be versatile or whatever. I would love to do stand-up again if I had an idea or I wanted to again. It was really tough for me to do it, but yeah. I’m not a great multi-tasker. You know what I mean? Once this is over, I’ll then have to clear my head and try to think again.
I will state for the record you’ve been very focused in this interview, so I appreciate your time.
Oh, I appreciate you. Well, thank you.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.