Unmake Happy: Bo Burnham’s Madly Deviant DIY Identity Play
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This paper explores DIY comedian Bo Burnham’s playfully depressed comedy as a multimodal form of Mad life writing, one that articulates a resistant mode of living under and against sanist neoliberal narratives of self-improvement, cure, and prescriptive/restrictive happiness. Employing Mary Flanagan’s (2009) theory of “critical play,” this paper considers the transgressive potential of play and playfulness in emerging Mad digital autobiographical practices. Burnham is an active YouTuber and social media user, and his identity performances are therefore situated within an emerging set of web 2.0 life writing practices that entangle online and offline lives, rely on audience interaction and collaboration, and struggle to work with, through, against, and around normative and normalizing neoliberal digital structures. Social media platforms increasingly coax autobiographical acts as a method of transforming online lives into marketable/saleable products (Taylor 2014; Fuchs 2014; Morrison 2014). Depressive bodies, or bodies in the midst of a panic attack, are not productive capitalist tools, and these autobiographical acts are discouraged in spaces of online identity performance— even as the pressure to perform the self online produces mass anxiety, particularly among younger users (millennials) (McNeill and Zuern 2015). As millennial Bo Burnham plays with depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide in his highly performative and self-reflexive comedy, he embodies Ann Cvetkovich’s (2012) call for creative practice as a mode of living with depression. Discussing two of his shows, what. (2013) and Make Happy (2016), I identify three potential tactics of madly resistant identity performance: 1) irony/satire, 2) play, and 3) new media. Through these tactics, Burnham enacts depressive agency by counter-storying dominant narratives of mental illness, critiquing sanist/ableist digital structures and practices, and embodying empathy and playfulness as modes of relating to and with Mad bodies. Mad social media users can adopt these modes of willful resistance in our own identity performances.