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Courtesy of Focus Features

Acting Up: Bo Burnham

Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.
The Snapshot: Bo Burnham plays a charismatic pediatric surgeon who reconnects with a vengeful former med-school classmate in the dark comedy Promising Young Woman. (The film debuted in theaters on December 25th and then Video on Demand, January 15th.)
The Performer:  Bo Burnham
The Film:  Promising Young Woman
The Performance: 
When Ryan Cooper (Bo Burnham) bumps into former med-school classmate Cassandra (Carey Mulligan) working at a coffee shop, he accidentally insults her by asking why she’s working there. In his charmingly disarming way, Ryan’s back-pedaling begins immediately and he jokingly encourages her to spit in his coffee. She does. He drinks it, slowly. Then asks her out.
Ryan returns to the coffee shop days later wondering why she gave him a fake number – even though he “spent hours composing a witty, romantic text” to “an oil rig worker called Red.” In an emotional plea, he confesses: “I can’t stop thinking about you spitting in my coffee. Go out with me. Please. If you hate it, we can have a safe word and you can leave, no questions asked.”
The seeds of romance are planted and they begin to date. The courtship feels rather conventional at first. Coffee, dinner, movie, a modest dance sequence in a pharmacy to a Paris Hilton song. Ryan even gets a chance to meet Cassie’s parents (Jennifer Coolidge and Clancy Brown) in a hilarious scene that shows how embarrassing parents can actually be. This is the rom-com part of Promising Young Woman. But this Jekyll and Hyde film is mostly Hyde, so there’s a lot more to this rather brilliant statement of a movie. After all, Cassie has been moonlighting as a woman who visits nightclubs pretending to be blackout drunk before surprising “nice guys” by instantly sobering up before they can take advantage of her, teaching them a lesson. So there’s that. 
Throughout it all, Burnham delivers one of the freshest performances I can remember this year – or last. In bringing writer/director Emerald Fennell’s words to the screen, Burnham brings a wittiness and authenticity to a character who seems to have adulted well since his school days. 
But a question lingers, a big one that lives at the heart of the film’s creamy, morality tale center. That is: How culpable are people for actions they committed many years prior? It’s one that fuels Cassie’s vengeful pursuits and a question that resonates particularly well in a culture of Me Too. 
In this regard, Burnham brings it as Ryan throughout the courtship, and beyond. It’s a character and role that will be remembered for a long time – not to mention, a breakthrough performance that should catapult Burnham to that next strata of Hollywood fame. And well-deserved.
The Career:
Writer. Stand-up comedian. Musician. Director. Now, actor of note.
Prior to Promising Young Woman, you might’ve only brushed-up to Burnham through a Netflix carousel scroll. First, there was the special that made him the youngest ever to net an hour-long Comedy Central special: Bo Burnham. Words. Words. Words. (2010). Then came Bo Burnham: what. (2013), a Netflix special spotlighting his edgy brand of observational humor and set pieces.
Then, Burnham solidified his relationship with the phrase “artistic genius” with Make Happy (2016), which contemplated everything from teen angst to how Pringles canisters are virtually impossible to squeeze a human hand into. Make Happy is performance art at its finest.
Much in the way of Flight of the Conchords and Ben Folds, Bo Burnham has a way with words (and pianos) and knows how to create ingenious musical stylings that comment on culture and the human condition. Most of it actually leaves you in awe of his talents, which began to reveal themselves when he was 16 years old in an all-boys Catholic high school. That’s when the now-30-year-old Burnham began posting videos to YouTube back in 2006 from his bedroom, quickly accumulating the kind of fan following that 99.9% of other YouTube video posters dream of. 
Why? Because the 6-foot, 5-inch actor isn’t just huge, but hugely talented – which is reflected by the fact that his videos have been viewed over 295 million times in proof that cream rises to the top. If hundreds of millions of views wasn’t enough of a “break,” Judd Apatow also caught a glimpse of Burnham at the Montreal Comedy Festival in 2008 and cast Burnham in Yo Teach!, the fake sitcom that appeared in Apatow’s comedy Funny People (2019). It helped propel Burnham a little further along and after a few years of writing day and night, he got a greenlight to do an MTV series called Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (2013), a mockumentary of sorts. 
Despite the show lasting only one season, it helped give Burnham further visibility and heat for the comedy specials that ensued, introducing his talent to a more mainstream audience. 
Other than the comedy specials, Burnham – the actor – would go on to make appearances in Parks & Recreation (2014), Key & Peele (2015) and Kroll Show (2015) before his career hit next level. That’s when Burnham would write/direct the critically praised indie film, Eighth Grade (2018), which would go on to win many accolades for himself, the film and actress Elsie Fisher. 
Now, with a lead role in one of 2020-2021’s top films, Burnham seems to be on the road to becoming a more mainstream actor, where he can put his multitude of talents on display.
One of Burnham’s next stops? 
Sesame Street.


Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.
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Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.