Bo Burnham of ‘Promising Young Woman’ on Consent, Comedy, and Cancel Culture
There’s a scene in “Promising Young Woman” when Bo Burnham lip-syncs to Paris Hilton’s flash-in-the-pan hit "Stars Are Blind," kicking off an impromptu dance party in the aisles of a drugstore.
It’s the beginning of a classic romantic-comedy montage, the point at which we know the film’s protagonist, Cassie (Carey Mulligan), is falling in love with Burnham’s character, Ryan.
And the audience falls a little bit in love with him, too.
We almost forget that the movie began as a twisted revenge fantasy –– Cassie’s quest for vengeance on behalf of her childhood friend, who was raped in college. The brightly-lit, candy-colored montage nearly lulls us into thinking she and Ryan will have a happy ending. Spoiler alert: they don’t.
That’s the genius of “Promising Young Woman” –– the “tonal mixing,” says Bo Burnham, whose charming character turns out to have a dark side. But Bo was willing to go there for the sake of writer-director Emerald Fennell’s vision.
“The beauty of being an actor is that you really do subsume your own artistic wants to the vision of someone else,” he says.
That was definitely the case for this project.
He read the script and was “challenged and intrigued,” but was initially unsure how to feel about it. It’s safe to say most audiences felt the same. And yet Fennell, who won the 2020 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, never intended the film (her feature debut) to be uncomplicated. It’s a genre-bending, dark comedy-thriller about the gender politics of consent.
“I didn't really feel like I had a complete hold on what this story was saying,” Bo says in an interview. “But I was very excited by whoever was saying it, I kind of just wanted to be like a chess piece in the game Emerald was playing.”
“Promising Young Woman” was undoubtedly the most talked-about film of 2020. Journalist and pop culture junkie Christina Jeurling Birro calls the movie “a magnificent gut punch.” On an episode of her podcast, Pop Culture Confidential, she interviews Bo about his multilayered role as Ryan, his comedy career, the truth about “cancel culture” and why movies.
‘Flagrantly making mistakes’ is the only way to grow
Bo Burnham has been thinking out loud, publicly, for half his life.
He became a YouTube star at age 16 with a brand of what he then called “pubescent musical comedy.” (To date, his videos have racked up more than 300 million views.) Just two years later he was the youngest person ever to make a solo stand-up special for Comedy Central. And he had his own MTV show right out of high school.
Now 30, does he regret some of the content he’s put out there on the internet? (After all, not all comedians survive their old material, especially in 2021).
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Almost everything until three years ago.”
But he sees plenty of comedians who came on the scene when he did, who are his age now and they're doing the same thing –– which is “horrifying,” he says. “I've been called out ... I have publicly apologized, whatever that means. But I'm just happy to be an example of somebody who has improved and changed over time.”
He doesn’t think there’s been a huge change in our cultural sensibilities over the last decade or so. The big difference now is that the audience now has a platform, too.
“People used to hear your jokes and, and want to tell you they were offensive,” he says. “But they didn't have direct access.”
And although he’s definitely “not nostalgic for the the comedic world of 2007, where everyone was making racially insensitive, sexist, weird homophobic jokes,” he says that “flagrantly making mistakes” is the only way to figure out what works and get better as an artist.
“It's a big, messy conversation I've always been happy to engage with,” says Bo.
But he’s not buying “whatever cancel culture is,” he says. “I don't really believe in that phrase.”
What we call cancel culture is “driven by an out-of-control media complex online, which is driven by a need for more and more content,” he adds. “We’re chopping each other up as fodder for feeding the monster. For me it’s actually much more of an economic issue, disguised as a social one, as most things are.”
From YouTuber to director to ‘promising’ supporting role
Bo’s career has evolved from DIY comedy videos to three Netflix comedy specials, several nationwide tours and dozens of supporting roles in movies and TV.
He directed Chris Rock's 2018 Netflix show “Tambourine,” which was Rock's first stand-up special in 10years. That year he also debuted his first feature film, “Eighth Grade.”
Bo wrote and directed the coming-of-age story of a social-media-obsessed middle school girl who posts chipper motivational content on her YouTube channel, but struggles with anxiety and painful shyness in real life. “Eighth Grade” was the darling of the 2018-9 film festival circuit, winning dozens of accolades, including Best Film and Best First Screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Now, he’s getting critics’ attention for his charming, funny and nuanced performance in “Promising Young Woman.” Writer/director Emerald Fennell has said Bo and castmates like Adam Brody, Max Greenfeld and Chris Lowell were exactly the type she wanted: well-liked, handsome, clean-cut. It’s all the more devastating when these “nice” guys are revealed to have a sinister side.
Fennell walks a “tricky line, harshly interrogating certain heterosexual male behavior, while also letting men like myself recognize themselves,” Bo says.
He thinks the best cultural criticism makes its targets relatable.
“Also, it was just deeply funny to criticize these gentle, nice men [like the ones Cassie meets] who think, just because they're bookish, or just because they listen to Alanis Morissette, they can't be terrible people or misogynists.”
Great movies spark uncomfortable conversations
Bo says Fennell intentionally “didn't over-discuss” his character’s motivations on set. He thinks she wanted the male actors to own what they were feeling –– after all, their characters wouldn’t overthink or over-intellectualize their behavior.
“Ryan certainly thinks he is a good guy,” Bo says. “And the question of whether he is a good guy, to me, is not totally relevant.”
That’s because they can be complicit in misogyny even if they’re “nice” to their core.
But Bo points out that “Promising Young Woman” isn’t suggesting “all men are secretly evil” or “that guy might seem nice, but close the door, and he's twiddling his moustache.”
Even though the film plays with a lot of exploitation-thriller tropes (right down to its retro, pulpy title sequence), the guys Carrie interacts with are, for the most part, not threatening. They’re sweet, even awkward, until they’re confronted with her true intentions.
“Niceness in general is pretty overrated,” Bo says. “Being nice is a pretty weak, easy virtue to be.”
That’s often one of the most difficult things for men to accept. From the high-profile fallout of the #MeToo movement to the testimonies of Brett Kavenaugh and Christine Blasey Ford and the depiction of drunken hookups in this film, there are plenty of nice guys who are struggling with their own behavior or even just their complicity.
Bo tells Christina that he isn’t surprised that some guys justify their actions by claiming they didn’t understand they were doing anything wrong. Maybe they didn’t, but they do now. Those guys should watch this movie –– and maybe it can be “the first step to chipping away at that thought,” he says.
The conversations that “Promising Young Woman” has sparked are like the film itself –– a bit messy and often uncomfortable.
“A movie can externalize a thing that would be too difficult to talk about if you were literally talking about yourself,” Bo says. “You can debate it within the safe confines of a story … This movie gets people wanting to talk and wanting to condemn and wanting to defend, and I think that's what Emerald wanted.”
This is based on an episode of Pop Culture Confidential, a podcast about the most innovative and influential people working in television, film, entertainment and pop culture, hosted by Christina Jeurling Birro.