Exploring Unhappiness in the Millennial Generation through Bo Burnham’s Make Happy Stand-Up Comedy Special
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of followers: millennials, are you happy yet? Meet Bo Burnham, the 25-year-old, internet sensation turned stand-up comedian. His young age, relatable life experience, and mixed form of self-indulgent/self-deprecating humor make him the perfect candidate to lead the millennial generation to self-awareness. In his 2016 Netflix stand-up comedy special, Make Happy, Burnham depicts himself as a troubled and unhappy person who by, performing this set, is giving his last shred of happiness to us. While his performance is a stark commentary on millennial unhappiness, it never sparked the national conversation it truly warranted. Why are millennials so unhappy? Ultimately, Burnham depicts a rather hedonistic society that is beyond what he can handle as a performer. In Burnham’s autobiographical hour of stand-up comedy, he implores millennials to consider the negative effects of social media and performance culture in the pursuit of a more tangible form of happiness.
The millennial generation has been publicly characterized as selfish, but how accurate is this depiction actually? In a chapter entitled “Social Media, Friendship, and Happiness in the Millennial Generation” from the book Friendship and Happiness, Adriana Manago and Lanen Vaughn note that one such reason for this widespread “self-centered, narcissistic occupation with the self and decreased well-being” is that millennials are able to customize their social environments through technology (189). Millennials are inherently influenced by social media’s ability to create a personal presence, and this presence has led us to believe ourselves to be more significant than we really are. In his special, Burnham reflects, “I was born in 1990 and I was sort of raised in America when it was a cult of self-expression.” He further explains a logical fallacy that millennials have come to believe: if you do what you love and say what you think, people will care what you have to say. At some point, however, most of us have had to learn the hard way that people don’t really care about what we do or say. The lesson Burnham references here was not taught to millennials by our parents or teachers but rather was taught to us by a third party. The hard truth: For the first time in history, an entire generation was raised by the internet, and just as we inherit certain traits and mannerisms from our caregivers, the internet has made indelible marks on who we are. Burnham reflects, ”They say it’s like the ‘me-generation.’ It’s not. The arrogance is taught or it was cultivated. It’s self-conscious.”
According to Alan Waterman, writer of “The relevance of Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia for the psychological study of happiness” for the book Theoretical & Philosophical Psychology, contemporary happiness is hedonic in nature. Hedonic happiness is self-serving and can lead to an endless cycle of greater desire. This is called the ‘hedonic treadmill’ or the idea that people continuously want more even once they receive what they previously desired. (Chace). This phenomenon occurs when people believe that happiness lies at the end of their journey towards ‘wanting more’ (Diener et al.). What these people fail to realize is that this journey is not linear; it’s cyclical. This is the kind of happiness we see in social media culture: post a picture, get likes, feel satisfied, repeat. Social media offers two avenues of expression: a place to perform and a place to hide.
Though Burnham became famous through the internet, he has come to loathe the same culture that is responsible for his success. After all, he was only a 16-year-old when his first Youtube song parody went viral and has steadily gained popularity with millennials ever since. The most famous phrase in comedy writing is ‘talk about what you know’ and for Burnham, a lot of what he knew boiled down to performing. “But I worried that making a show about performing would be too meta. It wouldn’t be relatable to people that aren’t performers. But what I found is that I don’t think anyone isn’t.” Millennials are an entire generation of performers. Each of us knows the exact angle to best take a selfie, the optimal posting time and platform for every detail of daily life, profound thought, or important cause. In the essay “Comedy Makes Me Cry: Seeing Myself in Mediated Disclosures of Mental Illness,” Darren J. Valenta recounts his personal reaction to Bo Burnham’s stand-up comedy special and describes how the special “represents a turning point, an opportunity to stop hinting and add a thesis statement of sorts to his more subtle critiques of popular and Internet culture.” That thesis is (in Burnham’s own words): “Social media is just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform. So the market said, ‘Here, perform everything to each other all the time for no reason.’” He’s right. In fact, there is a whole industry capitalizing off of private happiness. “The happiness business is booming in America, and it seems to have entered a new phase of hype and strain. Driven, like every going concern, by consumer demand” (Delbanco). In this culture, the currency of happiness is likes, follows, and user interaction, and this is the true crux of the internet: “It is performer and audience melded together” (Burnham).
Further frustration for Burnham derives from celebrity and pop culture worship. “I don’t love my fans. You don’t want that desperate, sort of cloying thing from an entertainer. Do not stick with me through thick.” Burnham suggests to his audience that if they are no longer entertained by him, they move on — the same way they would if they were dissatisfied with their mechanic or anyone else in the service industry. Audiences connect with his transparency and value his cultural insights. The cause of this celebrity and pop culture worship for Burnham goes back to his feelings performance culture. “We flock to performers by the thousands ’cause we’re the few that have found an audience.” We, as a generation supervised by the internet, are guilty of correlating this form of attention with personal happiness. “Because attention to the self is very much experienced and sought after on social networking sites, youth may be socialized to seek attention and feedback from others in order to feel happy about who they are“ (Manago 190). We individually seek out an audience of our own in the attempt to prove ourselves as worthy.
On the other hand, if you choose to partake in social media and are unable to build an adequate following for yourself, the result is feelings of unworthiness. This is, in part, due to the idea that we believe “we are meant to be ‘exceptional’” (Chace 2016) or that we are meant to exceed our peers and create a more outstanding life. This insurmountable pressure ultimately leads to disappointment. Yet, having a large following is not enough to secure one’s personal happiness. Burnham reflects on the fact that he himself was able to create a following for himself and is no happier. “I’m supposed to get up here and say, ‘Follow your dreams,’ as if this is a meritocracy? It is not, okay? I had a privileged life, and I got lucky, and I’m unhappy.” In this vulnerable moment, he confirms the greatest millennial fear: your social presence is not enough ammunition in the battle for happiness.
Thus, social media becomes the ideal place to put on a facade and mask the unhappiness felt. In the introduction package preluding his special, Burnham wakes up and goes about his day dressed normally, except he has clown paint and red nose on his face. It is my interpretation that Burnham chose this idea to demonstrate how his public persona directly impacts his everyday life; people expect him to be a ‘clown’ all of the time. In general, millennials mask our unhappiness through social media by attempting to depict ourselves in the best light. Research support that portraying one’s self positively does enhance one’s sense of self. “College students who report presenting themselves favorably using status updates (i.e. ‘I only show the happy side of me’), also report feeling good about themselves and their live” (Mangano 194). But social media is not the only place to mask unhappiness through the art of facade as Burnham demonstrates throughout his special. In his final song, Burnham breaks down: “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.” Burnham exposes his facade once and for all, and for the audience, this is a surreal moment. What happened, from the time Burnham was 16-year-old to nearly a decade later, that has made him so unbearably unhappy? Perhaps the gratification and sense of purpose he once received from his work wore off. “Gratification of needs may support positive affect and life satisfaction in the short term, but perhaps the question moving forward is whether this form of happiness is sustainable” (Manago). Burnham demonstrates here that it is not.
The song finishes. Through heavy breath, a physically and emotionally exhausted Burnham pleads, “Thank you. Good night.” and leaves us with the final phrase, “I hope you’re happy“ This emotional send-off is delivered with an unparalleled level of sincerity that leaves audiences questioning their own happiness post-credits. So, fellow millennials, I ask you, are you happy? If not, consider ditching the hedonistic tendencies of our culture and take a more eudaimonic approach. Eudaimonism is the idea that one is living the best, most authentic version of their lives (Waterman).The difference between hedonic and eudaimonic happiness is that eudaimonic happiness was founded on the principle of living authentically and honoring a central daimon or ‘true self’” (Waterman). A symbiotic relationship does exist between the two, meaning happiness occurs when we lead our lives in a way that brings joy and satisfaction to not only ourselves but, our true selves and also connects us with our reason for being. Above all, live for yourself and not for the validation of others. Towards the end of his special Burnham states, “I know very little about anything, but what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience… you should do it.” You are both individually and collectively worth more than your internet presence.
Chace, William M. “The Unhappiness of Happiness.” The Hedgehog Review, no. 2, 2016, p. 98.
Delbanco, A. (2000, May 7). The Way We Live Now: 5–7–00: Close Reading; Are You Happy Yet? The New York Times.
Diener, Ed, et al. “Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-Being.” American Psychologist, vol. 61, no. 4, May 2006, pp. 305–314. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/0003–066X.61.4.305.
Manago, Adriana M., and Lanen Vaughn. “Social Media, Friendship, and Happiness in the Millennial Generation.” Friendship and Happiness (2015): 187–206. Web.
Valenta, Darren J. “Comedy Makes Me Cry: Seeing Myself in Mediated Disclosures of Mental Illness.” Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research, vol. 17, Fall 2018, pp. 1–9.
Alan S., Waterman. “The Relevance of Aristotleʼs Conception of Eudaimonia for the Psychological Study of Happiness.” Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, no. 1, 1990, p. 39. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/h0091489.