It’s jarring to hear from a man who is still years shy of turning 30, yet it may be irrefutably true. “I’m like the elderly man of the internet right now,” Bo Burnham tells me. “I’m like the oldest person who grew up on the internet.”
Driving the point home is the fact that Burnham, who became a viral YouTube comedy star at 16, spends much of our interview goofing around with Elsie Fisher, the 14-year-old star of his raved about first film, Eighth Grade, which he wrote and directed. Precocious without aging out of her giggly innocence, Fisher plays Kayla, an endearing and impossible cauldron of anxieties and hormones who attempts to find her own self-confidence and worth by posting a series of YouTube vlogs coaching others on how to find theirs.
There’s something both timeless and crucially of-the-now in Kayla’s journey to find herself. She’s at an age when the smallest hiccup in a day can register as a seismic catastrophe, but in an era when technology demands teenagers manufacture an identity before they’ve had time to develop their own.
Kayla is hardly a YouTube a star, but that she’s exploring the same medium that birthed Burnham’s career a decade ago—which might as well be an eternity in internet years—makes Burnham perhaps uniquely qualified to tell a story about, in the simplest terms, what it is like to grow up today. The wonder, then, is just how this wisecracking, unmarried, childless YouTube bro from Boston told the story with such aching authenticity from the perspective of a teenage girl.
“I was very, very aware of my position as a man telling this story,” Burnham says. “Not only as a man, but as an adult. I was never a 13-year-old girl, and I was never a 13-year-old right now. I tried to approach both of those things very humbly.”
“I wasn’t like Kayla in middle school,” he continues, glancing over and smiling at Fisher, who is doing that teenage girl thing of fidgeting her long sleeves up over her hands. “But I see myself in her personally now. And I hope people do as well.”
Burnham grew up just outside of Boston. He was an honor roll student at St. John’s Preparatory School, and part of the theatre program—his senior year, he played Odysseus in The Odyssey—and campus ministry. In 2006, he started posting videos of himself singing and playing guitar in his bedroom to YouTube, softly R-rated, pun-filled ditties with titles like “Bo Fo’ Sho” and “My Whole Family (Thinks I’m Gay).”
When humor website Break.com picked up his videos, his YouTube viewership count instantly skyrocketed to the seven digits, as did his career. (Currently he has 1.4 million YouTube subscribers.) Soon Gersh called, he had an agent, released an EP, and was charting on iTunes. There was a mischievous irreverence to the lyrics—covering everything from Helen Keller to white supremacy to sexual angst—and a DIY aesthetic to the videos shot in his childhood bedroom, perhaps forecasting the culture of memes and vlogs.
Before he was 20, he taped his first one-hour stand-up special for Comedy Central. His first Netflix special came just three years later, heralding Burnham as the future of comedy, elevating him to the ranks of veterans far his senior.
Here was this 6’5” gangly construction of bony elbows topped with a mop of Justin Bieber hair, with youthful confidence compensating where age and muscles did not. It all afforded him the ability to, say, hold his own in a comedy roundtable with Judd Apatow, Garry Shandling, Ray Romano, and Marc Maron.
All remnants of that look and personality are gone when an imposing 27-year-old man seemingly walks out of the pages of a J. Crew catalog and into a Park City café the morning after his film’s Sundance Film Festival premiere. He sheds his envy-inducing stylish winterwear, tousles his meticulously-casually styled hair, and waxes both wisely and humbly about what he learned about that time in his career, the internet, and how it shaped him and led him to make Eighth Grade.
He has the age, energy, and handsomeness a young man usually arms himself with to head into and take on the world for the first time, but with more than 10 years of job experience, a bit of world-weariness, and the unique position of actually embarking on his big second act. More, he’s doing it at a time when the very thing that made him and the topic he’s so acutely exploring—the internet—is at the center of a cacophonous, meandering debate over its value in culture.
But much like his teenage comedy career, few second acts launch with as much promise as Burnham’s does with Eighth Grade.
Basically, Burnham wanted to write about the internet.
In his mind, it would be some grand Magnolia-like narrative making sweeping points about the medium and the culture. But then, combing through hours and hours of YouTube footage, he stumbled on this recurring voice, the voice of the young girl stuttering and stumbling her way through an energetic vlog, performing confidence but masking innocence. These girls said everything he was feeling, but more intensely and meaningfully.
“I wanted to do something about young people, because young people experience the internet purely,” he says. “My sort of stresses and my anxiety are at the end of the day peripheral because I have a job and I have taxes to pay. But for a kid, it’s everything.”
He centered Eighth Grade around a young girl’s experience in part so that he wouldn’t pollute the character’s story with his own experience. But the decision was also born from a certain disparity he observed in all those videos he watched.
“Not to be cruel to the boys but at 13, girls, in general, tend to cut a little deeper,” he says. “So the videos that tended to draw me in were from girls that age, talking deeply about their own mind, their own feelings, who they were, who they were to other people. Just really deep questions that I ask myself all the time. The boys were like [makes doofy fart noises] and couldn’t get the words out to talk about themselves.”
As reviewers marvel at how specifically he got the very peculiar yet very recognizable (torturous) experience of being a 13-year-old girl in Eighth Grade, he makes it clear again that he doesn’t know—and can’t know—the circumstances that these girls go through. “But I also have to trust that as much as I am a man making a story about a girl, I am a very anxious person making a story about a very anxious person.”
Maybe that’s at the heart of what Eighth Grade is about. There is something profound about the anxieties we feel at that age, but adults rarely lend those feelings the dignity and the gravity they require.
Kayla isn’t bullied, per se, but she is lonely. She has the same interests as everyone else. She talks in the same stuttering machine-gun speech of “likes” and “ums,” with that teenage enthusiasm that the tongue sometimes struggles to catch up to. But she’s not as thin, her skin not as clear, her confidence not as effortless as some of her peers.
She’s not some sad sack, or the sweetest girl in the world. Like any girl her age, she’s moody and kind of snotty to her doting dad (Josh Hamilton). She’s so real, and Fisher’s portrayal so authentic and unmannered, that your heart bleeds for her, your feet soaked in a pool of red by the film’s gut-wrenching finale. Middle school is a hormonal whirlpool of Big Feelings, and, watching Eighth Grade, they all hit you like a tsunami all over again.
Especially today, there’s something that hits home about Kayla.
“I think right now it’s really confusing and really scary as a time,” Burnham says. “So to see someone who is really confused and really scared and to try hard to power through that is amazing. This is the fucking world we sowed for these kids. So to see someone so genuinely try to conquer it, and yet feel all of the road blocks…”
That Burnham’s emotional intelligence trumps the irreverence that made him famous is most evident during these impassioned responses to our questions.
“I just think, for me, it’s like, there’s obviously a very sexist narrative to art that the only stories about the human condition have to be about male comedians being sad in New York City,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything more American [than Kayla]. She’s as valid a conduit for everything as anybody. The real violence and fragility of the moment we’re in right now, and just the kind of landscape that we’ve built in the culture and the people who are out there. Everyone’s nervous. Everyone’s scared. She’s just a pure version of something. Not pure as uncomplicated, but distilled. She feels very intensely.”
Burnham knows about feeling intensely. He started having panic attacks while writing this script at age 23. He had an acute one onstage that same year during a stand-up set, and each performance after was met with pure dread, leading him to eventually stop stand-up comedy altogether in 2016. He had one in the dressing room before his film’s Sundance premiere.
“It’s a very adult thing for me,” he says. “She’s having this realization earlier in her life, and I hope she’s better for it, because she can put a name on it. That’s the intensity of it. It is just the level of actually literal anxiety, not just anxiousness.”
That compassion is why the film works, Fisher says. “Honestly when I look at it, I don’t picture it, you know, this 27-year-old man born in a different generation making a story about someone like me. It’s about who you are as a person making a story about someone else as a person.”
A week after Fisher graduated from middle school, she started shooting the film. A week after production wrapped, she started high school. In order to premiere the movie at Sundance, she had to request special permission to take her final exams early. After a week or so of navigating the unfamiliar territory of being the toast of Park City, she was headed back to Thousands Oaks, California for the second half of the school year.
She auditioned for Burnham with the film’s opening scene, in which Kayla sits down to record one of her YouTube vlogs, but stumbles her opening and nervously starts over again. The subject of the vlog: Being yourself.
“That exact first beat I remember so clearly,” Burnham says. “She came in and she had the sides, the piece of paper and goes ‘hey guys!’ and knocks the paper off and goes red. ‘I’m sorry! I’m sorry!’ I’m like, ‘It’s perfect! The worst thing you could do was do this perfectly.’”
It could never have been anyone else after that, he says. They auditioned her again and again, to make sure she could handle the film’s peculiar challenges. Kayla starts the movie with a four-minute monologue and then doesn’t say a word for the next 10 minutes, despite the camera being trained on her face for the entire film. Burnham says he was almost more relieved when he gave her the role than she and her family were.
That the two developed an easy dynamic while shooting is immediately evident. He goads her into telling “the best story ever,” which they eventually tell in tandem, as if it’s a two-hander they’ve been rehearsing for weeks—which, in essence, they have. During the intimate 27-day Eighth Grade shoot, they basically became extensions of each other.
Burnham and the crew had been urging Fisher to join her school’s theater program. “It changed my life!” Burnham insisted. So she did. “It was fun and cool or whatever,” Fisher says, talking in that teenager’s cadence where the words rush to keep up with the speed they’re being said. “Then auditions for the school play came around and I didn’t get a part.”
“There were like 90 parts, and she didn’t get one,” Burnham marvels. He can’t stop laughing, taking the story over: “Throughout the audition the theater teacher was going, like, ‘Louder!’ She told me this story and I was like, ‘I’m really sorry for you, but this is perfect.’”
The promotional tour for Eighth Grade has been long and grueling. Burnham has spent some time trying out new stand-up material. But in terms of future work, he is less concerned with attaining multi-hyphenate status than he is with doing what you might expect from someone now emerging as the voice of not one, but two generations: following his passions, and getting good at things.
Still, the lion’s share of the last few months have been spent talking about Eighth Grade and, in turn, this internet phenomenon that he grew out of and now observes as a self-described elder statesman.
The internet today is almost unrecognizable from the one he got his start in. Young people’s entire existence is tied to it. For people like Kayla, that can both provide solace from a certain kind of loneliness, but also exacerbate it. What happens when you turn to the internet as an emotional support-vehicle, but you aren’t getting the likes, the attention, or nailing the “persona” that you trade in for validation?
There’s something that merits exploration about that. The internet is directly shaping the next generation, yet its effects are still woefully misunderstood, if not dismissed entirely. In some respects, that’s what led Burnham to Eighth Grade.
“As someone who spends a lot of time on the internet, it only confuses me more,” he says. “So when someone speaks with a lot of authority about the internet, I’m almost certain they know nothing about the internet. Or spent no personal time on the internet. Just read studies about how it affects kids, or whatever.”
He sighs, looking at Fisher. “It’s a thing that I don’t think we’ve even given a name to, what it does. We wanted to just capture something that is just like, ‘This is how it is feels to us. We’re not making judgments on it, we’re not being descriptive. We’re just saying this is the feeling of it, which is weird and sad and exciting and numbing and hyperactive and weird.’ It’s weird. It’s very weird, and it’s very, very new.”
At the very least, or perhaps most importantly, he’s heartened that so many people are struck by Kayla.
“If we can see ourselves in Kayla maybe we can forgive ourselves for being delusional people online. We just want to be loved, like she does. That was the other thing. I’m trying to see the internet through a prism that isn’t just satirical and ironic and cranked up to 10. A little subtler, more human. Spoofing the internet to me is just always like fire with fire.”
With Eighth Grade, there are plenty of tears, wrung so beautifully by Burnham, to extinguish those fires.