Bo Burnham’s stand up special Make Happy though predominately a comedy act, contains a lot of introspective commentary on what pursuing your passion really should mean in life. Among other things, Bo seems to be critiquing the notion of associating your dreams with your happiness, because he himself has done that to a fault.
Bo Burnham is a comedian who started out making YouTube videos intended for just his family and friends, now having 2 comedy specials on Netflix, the most recent of which is called Make Happy. Bo’s stand-up is unique in how he makes his show more performance than stand up really, including music, flashy lights, and auto-tune effects to transform his act.
The show is called Make Happy though, which I think is especially interesting considering the final song he plays in his special. At the end of the special, Bo sits in his room, the one in which he started it all, and plays a song called Are You Happy? Bo is a guy who – at the relatively young age of 25 – got what he wanted. He became a stand-up comedian, one that is adored by millions of people. He got what he dreamed of as a kid, he got to perform and convey his feelings through comedy. So, he should be happy now. Yet, it’s not as simple as that.
“So if you know or ever knew how to be happy
On a scale from one to two now, are you happy?
You’re everything you hated, are you happy?
Hey, look Ma, I made it, are you happy?”
Bo seems to be telling us the simple fact of life that he has learned from his early career, one that a lot of people aren’t aware of. “Making it” does not bring you happiness. It doesn’t make you contempt. We spend our whole lives working towards this thing, this achievement, like “oh when I get there I’ll be happy.” When I get to high school I’ll be happy. When I get to university I’ll be happy. When I get that job, that promotion, that artistic accomplishment, that fame and fortune, I’ll be happy. But it doesn’t work like that.
Bo’s made it, yet he is still the person that he hates. He’s still anxious, and depressed and lost and not happy. If his dream doesn’t make him happy, then what’s the point?
“I can’t wrap my mind around exactly why I’m here.
I know you paid money, I should be funny,
other than that, don’t know why I’m here. To make you laugh, right? That’s only half right,
look at the world I don’t know why I’m here.”
Bo’s questioning why he’s is even on that stage. Why is he performing? What is the purpose? What does it mean to him? He’s asking himself why he’s even doing it. Why does he continue to do it when it doesn’t make him happy?
Bo realizes that at the end of it all, having an audience doesn’t make him happy. It doesn’t fix all his problems. A person works their whole life to achieve appreciation and acknowledgment from people, and then realizes that it all doesn’t really do anything. It can’t make Bo happy. He even acknowledges the irony in him telling us all how to make ourselves happy, when he himself has no clue:
“Look at them, they’re just staring at me
Like, 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”
He can’t get happiness through his work, even if he loves it with all his heart. Which is why at the end of his special, after playing that final song, Bo walks out his childhood room to his girlfriend and his dog, symbolically ending his stand-up career. That’s what the song means to him. He asks himself if he’s happy where he is, and he finds the answer. So, he knows he must move on, continue to pursue his passion sure, but find happiness through other means.
So, to you I say this: follow your dreams, follow your passions with all your heart, but don’t let it consume you. Don’t attach your self-worth or your happiness to your work, let your work rely on your happiness. As one of my favorite screenwriters says, don’t ride that dragon. Sure, you may not become a best-selling author, or an award-winning actor, or an Oscar-nominated director, but you’ll have tried. You’ll have given it your all, and it will have been fun as hell. Find your happiness instead in your friends, and your family, and other loved ones. Find it in the little things. Work towards your dreams, but keep them separate from your inner-tranquility. That’s what I think happiness should be. And as Bo says, I would know, I just turned 20 years old.