Congratulations to the 2018 nominees, many of whom cut their comedy teeth at The Second City.
Bo Burnham is an OG YouTube star. Now he’s a legit film director.
Burnham’s catchy, self-deprecating songs shot him into a comedy career online and beyond, landing him roles in The Big Sick and Parks and Recreation along the way. And with two critically-acclaimed stand-up comedy specials on Netflix already under his belt, the 27-year-old is ready to add another hyphenate to his ever-expanding list of credits: director.
Burnham’s latest project is Eighth Grade, a feature he wrote and directed. The film details in painful accuracy the awkwardness of being a middle schooler in 2018, and it began piling up accolades when it opened at Sundance earlier this year.
In advance of Eighth Grade’s nationwide release on July 13th, Second City’s Maggie Smith, host of The News* with Maggie Smith, sat down with Burnham to talk about internet fame, improv and dealing with people IRL.
Maggie Smith: Why are you telling this story?
Bo Burnham: The initial impulse was wanting to talk about the internet and my own anxiety. And then I sort of stumbled on a voice of this girl and this time…I think on the internet, we’re all sort of eighth graders. Even the culture sort of feels like a bunch of eighth graders. The national conversation kind of feels like an eighth grade conversation.
MS: Were you inspired by someone in particular?
BB: I was actually in a mall, and I saw a little girl taking selfies. Like, she’d take selfies and smile, and then she’d go on her phone, and then she’d take another selfie. And I was like, “Ohhh man. This looks really sad.” It looks like a person that’s really trying to impress the world. But everyone just sees her Instagram account and goes, “Oh, look at this self-obsessed little loser.” But I mean, do you think this kid just, like, invented in her head the idea of needing to look flawless? Or was that completely put on [her] by every single form of culture all the time? And that’s everyone! I mean, I have people I really like in real life that I hate on the internet. People close to me. I hate the way they are on the internet. And it’s never the other way around. There’s never anyone I love on the internet and hate in real life. Everyone’s worse on the internet. Everyone. It isn’t just eighth graders being really embarrassing on the internet.
MS: What role, if any, did improvisation have in this film?
BB: The film is more written than it appears, and it’s a testament to [star Elsie Fisher’s] performance that the lines actually weren’t improvised. But young actors should sort of be encouraged to improv, and then slip in the “acting” behind it, because that impulse to be free and to be open and to be unsure of what’s coming and to be okay with that–or to be NOT okay with that–is important. The film needed to live in the same way improv lives, which is high stakes. It could fall apart at any moment; oh my god, what’s gonna happen? We’re going for the feel of improv…but with written scenes.
MS: The flow of the film is very real, very slice of life. What appealed to you about telling the story in that way?
BB: The movie has a 13-year-old’s attention span, almost. It was important to breathe and not cut the movie up and not to move at the speed of the internet. Part of a kid’s life is sitting. She would love to cut out of a lot of these moments, and part of it is to resist that impulse. To have to sit with her through these things that she wished she could edit out.
MS: You got your start on YouTube. Kayla, the main character, is also doing YouTube videos, albeit in a very different style. So what did YouTube mean for you when you were starting out, versus what it means to her in this film?
BB: Back then, the idea of “going viral” wasn’t a thing. So it was much more impersonal and just felt like a thing that hosts things you make, as opposed to now. To her, I think it’s, like, “yourself.” Be yourself. Reflect yourself. Live in this place. It’s what all the sort of apps do. Twitter: what do you think? Instagram: what do you look like? They just ask more base, primal, deep questions, where I felt like I had a sort of distance from YouTube when I started. It was like, this is a place where I post my little skits! Whereas I think Kayla would think, this is a place where I live and give advice and am seen for who I really am. I think it just has a deeper reach to her. Especially ‘cause she starts at thirteen, or twelve, or maybe even younger. Engaging with the internet at twelve is a lot different than engaging with it at sixteen.
Eighth Grade opens in New York and LA on July 13th and Chicago July 20th.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Follow Maggie Smith on Twitter: @ChiMaggieSmith