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Director Bo Burnham On Growing Up With Anxiety — And An Audience

Writer and director Bo Burnham talks with Elsie Fisher on the set of <em>Eighth Grade. </em>Burnham says the anxiety he felt as a young performer helped him understand the social pressure teenage girls can experience.
Linda Kallerus
Courtesy of A24
Writer and director Bo Burnham talks with Elsie Fisher on the set of Eighth Grade. Burnham says the anxiety he felt as a young performer helped him understand the social pressure teenage girls can experience.

Comic Bo Burnham was still in high school when the satirical songs he posted on the Internet went viral — making him one of YouTube's first stars. Now 27, he's taken a turn behind the camera with a new film, Eighth Grade, that looks at what it's like to grow up in the age of social media.

The film centers on a socially awkward 13-year-old girl named Kayla who's navigating the final year of middle school. Burnham says the character was inspired by a period in his early 20s when he was dealing with panic attacks onstage.

"I was feeling a very acute anxiety from my job of performing," he says. "And then I would talk about those problems in that circumstance onstage and afterwards kids — 14-, 13-year-old girls — would come up to me and say, 'I know exactly what you're going through. I'm going through it, too.' "

That's when Burnham had a realization: "This awful D-list celebrity pressure I had experienced onstage has now been democratized and given to everybody. And everyone is feeling this pressure of having an audience — of having to perform."

As someone who grew up steeped in social media, Burnham says he wanted to make a film that took an "emotional inventory" of what today's adolescents are experiencing.

"I think [social media] widens and deepens the experiences of what kids are going through," he says. "It forces kids to not just live their experience but be nostalgic for their experience while they're living it — [to] watch people watch them."

Interview Highlights

On why he chose to make a film about a 13-year-old girl

I set out to just make a story about how I was feeling at the time that I was writing it — which was nervous and sort of wanting to talk about the Internet and how it felt to be alive right now. And I kind of quickly found the world of kids expressing themselves online.

Elsie Fisher stars as a shy 13-year-old girl who creates YouTube videos about how to be confident in <em>Eighth Grade.</em>
/ A24
Elsie Fisher stars as a shy 13-year-old girl who creates YouTube videos about how to be confident in Eighth Grade.

I watched hundreds of videos of kids doing vlogs ... and the boys tended to talk about videogames and the girls tended to talk about their souls, so it was like, "OK, I think this is probably going to be a story about a girl."

But also, I wanted to make a story about being young that didn't feel nostalgic and didn't feel like a memory. So [the main character] being a girl, I couldn't project my own experience on to her. I had to sort of walk eighth grade for the first time with her, because ... my disconnect from her is twofold: I was never a 13-year-old girl, but I was also never a 13 year old now, and I just think both of those things lend themselves to a specific experience that I can't know.

On having anxiety later in life than Kayla

As an eighth-grade boy I was kind of a hammy loser, and my anxiety didn't really wake up until I was maybe a sophomore in high school. I was in and out of the hospital with stomach problems thinking I had some gastro issue, and it really was, "Oh, I'm just nervous." ...

I relate much more to Kayla emotionally now than I did then. I was having panic attacks backstage at the Wilbur Theater instead of in a bathroom before a pool party, but the feelings are the same. It really strangely was much more currently personal to me than it was personal then.

On the way teens present different versions of themselves online

The way that we wish we were is almost like a deeper and more vulnerable truth than what we're afraid we might actually be. You know, I think the out-loud vision-boarding that these kids are doing is a real vulnerable truth. To admit and project what you want the world to see you as I think is beautiful and not just a lie. It isn't just obfuscation, you know, it's also something very deep and beautiful to try to live out loud first and then act it in the world.

On directing kids

The greatest thing you can do for a kid is to empower them to have ownership over the thing they're working on. At that age you really are ready and hungry to throw yourself into the artistic experience and really grasp beyond yourself. I had so many people warning me, "Oh my god, you're working with kids. It's going to be a nightmare."

I think it is a nightmare for people because they think it's going to be a nightmare and they treat the kids like potential nightmares. ... I was so pleased with the kids in the film. It was actually the random adults that would be difficult. I'd ask the random adult, "Can you step over here?" and they'd say like, "Is the light OK? How am I looking?" And with kids, I'd be like, "Spit in your hand," and they'd be like, "Which hand?"

On his early comedy material being immortalized online

I don't defend my 16-year-old comedy at all. And like, even part of this movie is me going back and trying to forgive myself for what I was expressing at that time. ...

I have a lot of material from back then that I'm not proud of, and I think is offensive and I think is not helpful. But also, I can't regret a bit of it, because I deeply believe in the butterfly effect and I am so grateful to be here right now. I do not think my intention [with my first video, "My Whole Family"] was homophobic, but what is the implicit comedy of that song if you chase it all the way down? I don't think it's perfectly morally defendable.

But the issue is — and it'll be an issue I think for a lot of young creative people — ... [that] the first stuff I wrote is out there for everybody to see. So I just hope on my own behalf and other people's behalf we're still allowed to think out loud and fail publicly and grow. ... At a certain point every presidential candidate is going to have every bad joke they made when they're 13 immortalized on online. So at a certain point, we're gonna have to call amnesty and just get on with it.

On being 6'6" and his evolving relationship to his height

I have just recently, in the last year, tried to stand up straight, because ... I always slouched. It's like a nightmare if I ever go to a theater to watch a play or something and you can just see that people watching me walk down the aisle like, "Please, no. Please, god, no." And I have to give, like, hunched standing ovations. ...

I'm trying to carry myself upright nowadays. But I was a slouched one for a while. I like to think of myself as collapsible. People often, when I stand up, when I've been seated for a while, will say, "Oh, I didn't know you were tall," which is a very, very high compliment for me.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.