Birbiglia, Burnham, and the oddity of comedy

Bo Burnham from his Netflix special Make Happy

Comedy is, on its face, pretty simple. We laugh at funny things and enjoy ourselves. BOOM.

*packs up, publishes article, goes home*


Well, you didn’t think it was that easy, did you?

Comedy, while on its face being pretty simple, is bizarre and definitely not simple. The concept of what you find ‘funny’ and what I find ‘funny’ and what humans in general find ‘funny’ is extraordinarily intricate and personal. If I put a gun to your head (a NERF gun, now, I’m not a monster) and told you to define what makes something funny, I’m guessing that you probably couldn’t find a clear and suitable definition before a pink foam bullet hammered into your skull.

I think good comedy is about pushing boundaries, deliberate timing, presenting the unexpected, and acute self-awareness. Regardless the subject, good jokes always follow those four guidelines.

But the subject matter is extremely important. Why focus on one subject over the other? Are certain subjects ripe for comedy and others taboo?

Mike Birbiglia in Netflix special Thank God for Jokes

Mike Birbiglia

Mike Birbiglia’s Netflix special Thank God for Jokes wrestles with that question. Birbiglia is adept at witty self-depreciation and wields an impressive knack for compelling storytelling. Early on in the special, Birbiglia says that “you should never tell jokes to the people the jokes are about.” One of the key parts about jokes is that they have to be about something, as he explains. You can never truly avoid making people angry forever. The point of jokes is the comedy of somebody or something being funny, and that fact is inescapable.

Extending from that is comedy’s inherent enigma: its purpose is to offer an escape and a laugh at the same time as it directly references the things from which we try to escape in the first place. We joke about the mundane, yes, but the best jokes are about what’s important. The comedy that resonates with people is often about the most important things because it reveals what’s true about those things in a unique and incisive way.

Bo Burnham’s eccentric musicality and penchant for absurdity, channeled through his Netflix special Make Happy, stares directly at the duality of performance and comedy. Burnham is unique, as far removed from mainstream comedy as you can get whilst still being extraordinarily popular. But he uses his uniqueness to great effect in Make Happy, questioning how a performer and audience connect over comedy, both parties interested in something different.

While a lot of comedians explore the full reaches of comedy, Birbiglia and Burnham are fascinating because their work is expressly aware of the oddity of comedy. They know and address comedy itself, and it’s refreshing to see two talented and funny people with fresh and important opinions on comedy itself.

I find commedy immensely important in my life. Often times, we have only two choices: we can either stew about something or make jokes about it. Comedy is a way of finding joy out of nothing, and these days that’s an extremely valuable commodity. Not everything is joyful, or fun, or great. Comedy can help do that in even the darkest situations.

In the words of Birbiglia in his special: jokes are important. They will always be important.



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