Today’s brief lesson in performing arts theory is about German theatre director Bertolt Brecht. His most relevant theoretical invention, Verfremdungseffekt, or “alienation effect,” attempts to replace the emotional manipulation so at home in the world of theatre with an entertaining jolt of surprise. The techniques of doing so, such as breaking the fourth wall or exposing the theatre’s technology to the audience, are meant to hinder spectator identification. Inspiring the audience instead to adopt a critical attitude towards the theatrical performance, constantly reminded that the play to which they are bearing witness is nothing but constructed artifice, audience members are kept at a safe, uncomfortable distance.
Even though Brecht passed away some 60 years ago, Verfremdungseffekt has lived on. Few stage entertainers rely on this alienation effect more than Bo Burnham. He is living proof that you can sell out the Danforth Music Hall two nights in a row and manage to elicit uproarious laughter from a maximum capacity crowd while still keeping them at a distance.
This distance is the main weapon in Burnham’s comedic arsenal, yet his talent actually lies in his ability to both engross you and keep you at bay. He reels you in with his uncanny ability to make you laugh, all the while showing you the artifice of his own performance.
The lights dimmed at the Danforth, bringing with it a flood of melodramatic classical music. “Hello audience,” spoke a robotic voice blaring over the venue’s PA system. “You are here because you want to laugh and you want to forget about your problems. But I cannot allow it. You should not laugh. You should not forget about your problems. The world is not funny.” The hilarious hour-long show that succeeds this hyper-aware introduction, can be summed up in one word: meta.
Anyone who’s seen Burnham’s Netflix special, what., knows exactly what I mean by this. Burnham’s new show as part of his Make Happy tour is just as anarchistic as its predecessor, jumping from vulgar one-liners to jaunty musical numbers to surreal scenes of mime and back to songs once again. Every bit of wordplay comes laced with meta-commentary on why it’s funny or not funny. Every song is either a critique of a pressing social issue or a witty polemic against certain musical genres (the best one being about the ridiculous stereotypes of stadium country music). Every piece of the show is performed in a way that draws attention to the performer (“See this smoke machine,” he asks at one point during the evening, “it cost $200”), bringing out the fact that it is, after all, just a comedy show.
Burnham thrives on this anarchy, and it’s what makes him such an endearing performer. Whether he’s tackling hot topics or sex jokes, he tackles them in innovative ways and with a tremendous personal honesty. Burnham has come a long way since recording YouTube videos in his room; he’s become more self-aware, more willing to shatter the illusions of performance, and, as a result, more funny.