Can I Say My Shit? Lessons from a Fringe encounter
The final night of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2013. 11pm. Bo Burnham was about to take to the stage - whoever he was. He had been recommended by my friend L, who was working at the festival, though she had left it too late to get her own ticket. I yawned as we piled into the arena, trying to hide the steady acceleration of my heart.
We had seen Josh Widdicombe on the first night. Front row: no escape if it wasn’t funny. It was, happily, but also semi-forgettable. Live comedy is a collective consciousness kind-of-deal, with every joke five times funnier than it would be if you were on the couch, slumped over Youtube and two Pringle cans deep. We thrilled in the black magic of live performance.
Our days in Edinburgh were peppered with rainy walks between tiny gigs. We lurched through any doorways we could find to escape the cold and wet, happening upon aerial acrobatics in old chapels and improv shows in student unions. One evening, we delved below arches into an intimate cellar, candles on dark brick, where the top notch comedian promptly left the stage before I could even get a refresher of his name. We left in a fit of delirium, swanning home under the full moon, before excitedly dragging my friend L there the next day, only to discover the comedian had disappeared from the bill. That night's entertainer was his polar opposite and so inert that I withered in my seat, attempting to rearrange the pity on my face. Before ten minutes had passed, he growled 'I don't have to put up with this' and stormed offstage.
That’s the Fringe for you: changeable chaos and sheer chance. It seemed there was little point consulting the mind-boggling schedules - there was too much, all of the time, and too many secrets that could be missed while we were busy planning epic treks to catch the far-flung hotshot shows.
The final day was full of pulled pork buns, which L had been eating for every meal throughout summer because they came free with her job. My not-great comedy knowledge was pushed to its limits when we had to make a choice about how to end the week. It came down to David O’Doherty and Bo Burnham, with Bo being the talk of the town. I had never heard of him. ‘Oh, balls, David O’Doherty has just sold out. But Bo starts at 11pm.' N looked at me questioningly. Behind us, the line was pushing and pulling, eager for last minute tickets. Bo Burnham. I stifled a yawn. Who was this guy again?
The venue was huge and arena-esque, an amphitheatre in the half-round. Once again I had the feeling that I'd missed something, that everyone in the room but me had, at some point in their lives, been handed some kind of compulsory guidebook about what made good comedy and what made bad. The collective excitement was off the charts.
Bo burst onto the stage, cracking three jokes before I even noticed. As usual when you see live performance, what looks crisp and clear at the time becomes a vaguely shifting memory in retrospect, light on water. No matter how much I focused on this chair bathed in blue or that prop under the yellow spotlight, no matter how much I committed this bouncing, bopping man to memory, I knew it would fade by morning light.
Everything was a swirl of colour. Bo reminded me of a guy I barely knew from university, his crown of strawberry-blonde hair bright under the lights, jabbing around the stage like an over-enthusiastic stick. He was, to borrow a phrase from Donna Tartt, as nervy as a racehorse - and funny too. Gags were rolling off too quickly for me to keep up with, but not puns or punches, just a streamlined strain of the absurd humour I grew up on, and which felt like home: Bill Bailey, The Mighty Boosh, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Then he whacked out the keyboard.
Music and laughs - what could be better? The only musical comedy I had ever heard were the above-mentioned: Bill Bailey, delightfully ridiculous, his lack of cynicism refreshing; The Boosh with their sporadic crimps and gloriously inexplicable nonsense; and Charlie Day, whose infrequent keyboard skits in It's Always Sunny stunned me - his was a voice that could lift his woeful, grimy character to the heavens. Musical comedy always hits hard, bringing together two very separate recesses of feeling: the safe and comfortable delight we feel at laughing until our sides split, and the heart-rupture of a song that hits you in just the right place, shocking your soul.
They say tears have different chemical compositions depending on what emotion you’re feeling. What’s trying to get out? My tears didn’t have time to change. I was crying laughing and then just crying, and then laughing again.
It was 2013, long before I would start to encounter the phrase ‘meta’ in every meme and every blog. I couldn’t pinpoint what was happening. I was being shown real life, which was both hilarious and heartbreaking. I can digest this in a film or a book. But it was past midnight and I hadn’t been expecting it from a comedy set. And wasn’t he only my age? I’m sure all good comedy is art, but this was stratospheric. I was wonderstruck.
The show was called What. Well, precisely. I didn’t know what. I came out changed, atomised, posting a grainy Instagram picture of the show poster in a lame attempt to capture what had just happened, to make tribute. I could remember a few bits, a few melodies, but it was already fading, crystallizing into loose memory. Black magic indeed.
Cut to springtime several years later. I’d had a particularly bad season at work. Spring always seemed to bring me bad job luck. I felt confused, wishing I had put my point of view forwards with more clarity, perhaps been a little bolder, a little braver. One night, scared of tiring my friends and needing some comfort, I went back to old Bo.
There was something of his I hadn’t seen before on YouTube - a live recording of Can’t Handle This, from his latest show, Make Happy. It began with a Kanye-style rant: auto-tuned self-aware self-righteousness. ‘Can I say my shit… New York! Can I say my shit? I got lots of shit to say, I got lots of shit to say…’ Bo slid through the octaves, a glissando stolen straight from 808s and Heartbreak. The crowd laughed, but I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.
The rant turns to song. He sings about Pringle cans being too small to get your hand into, and about overstuffed burritos, but of course, that’s not what it’s really about. It’s about fame and mental health, about nothing being what it seems, about how no one tells you until it’s too late - about how maybe they never can. What begins as pure comedy turns on a dime, with Bo's American deadpan delivery - a beautiful patina on the self-deprecating British form - becoming more melodious and metaphorical until he finally says, outright, that he is in a bit of trouble. He’s not coy; he serves it up. The confession is the break in the song before it really breaks down, crescendoing into the moment where the crowd thinks this boy’s not joking around. That’s the beauty of Bo. Everything and nothing is a joke.
He breaks the taboo of sentimentality by being honest about the terrible parts of life. You learn to foil your sincerity with a blast of banter, or follow confessions with comedy in the hope that they will float away. In Can’t Handle This, the confession isn’t shamed, or even followed by jokes half-hidden under layers of subtext. Instead, the confession is the altarpiece before the dénouement that cements all that’s come before it, a plea to the audience for understanding: I can’t carry on doing this, making you laugh, entertaining you, and here’s why.
On this dark, chilly late-evening in early spring, it was Bo’s auto-tuned rant that struck home. Despite all the derision and scorn that follows auto-tune, despite the fact that Kanye West had originally used it with a rye smile at his enemies, and despite the fact that, on top of all this, I knew Bo was adding yet another layer of parody to an already-parodied gimmick, it was his auto-tuned voice that chimed somewhere behind my ribs. All night, and all the next day, his voice rang around my head: can I say my shit…
You see, that’s how I felt. It was what I wanted to shout to my ex-employers, the people I’d clashed with. I wanted to shout it and scream it, even beg for it. Can I say my shit, please? I had gone with grace, and it might have been for the best, but it was too early to tell. I knew I would never be able to gain closure. I had nowhere to send the words, so they continued encircling my every thought, and the longer this went on, the more immature I felt, the more of a failure for not having been able to express myself when it really mattered. Can I say my shit? There was still so much I needed to say. The alternate version of the story, the one where I stood my ground, reverberated round my skull whenever I moved my head. What hurt was not what had happened, but the chance I’d once had, and had failed to take.
That song, Can’t Handle This, and maybe even Bo himself, will forever be tied up with that job, that springtime, and that time of my life. What a strange memory, a strange little slice of life. Good and bad, comedy and sadness, laughing and crying. As the cook Samin Nosrat has said, that’s the shape of my life. Laughing and crying.
- Helen Rowland