Digital Anxieties: A Conversation with Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun by Cami M. '23
i cried for ten minutes after watching eighth grade
I have so many things and so little space, but I’ll try my best to communicate it.
I just walked out of an event called “Digital Anxieties: A Conversation with Bo Burnham and Jonny Sun” and I shit you not when I say it’s probably one of the most influential and life-changing talks I’ve ever sat on.
As a long-time fan of Bo Burnham, it was absolutely surreal to see him in person. I don’t remember exactly how I stumbled upon him, but I just have strong memories of 7th-grade-Cami curling up on the couch, watching “what.” for the fifth time in a row. By that point, I had already memorized all the bits and just recited them along. There was something about the crassness of his jokes, paired with his funny, charming, awkward and, most important of all, genuine stage presence that immediately hooked me. I continued to follow all of his stuff after that. I was a bit too shy to go up after the talk to say hi, and I’m sure a small part of myself will always regret that, but regardless, the feeling is still the same. I am utterly in awe of everything he does.
When I read Jonny Sun’s name, nothing quite clicked immediately. After a quick Google search, I was almost vibrating with anticipation for the event, to hear everything he had to say. Jonny is a PhD candidate at MIT and a writer for Bojack Horseman. Bojack Horseman quite literally changed my life. I was in a really dark place when I found the show and I binged what was available on Netflix (seasons 1-4, at the time of my discovery) in about 3 weeks. It made me laugh, made me cry, made me stare at the ceiling at 3am and question my sense of self as a whole, question what impact I wanted to leave on the world. In short: it played a large role in who I am today, and it’s very bittersweet to see it in its final season. I also was too shy to go up to say hi to Jonny and also really needed to pee and by the time I got back the movie had already started. Sorry, Jonny.
Essentially, the entire talk was just a weird nostalgia trip for me.
I’m even surprised I’m managing to type this right now because it still doesn’t feel real. But, luckily, I was able to jot down some notes of things discussed and said.
We had the amazing privilege to submit questions that they could directly answer and discuss, and though my questions weren’t asked, I wrote down some of the questions and answers that really resonated with me and provided a lot of guidance. I’m just gonna list these nuggets of wisdom because I think it’s stuff that everyone needs to hear.
Please note a lot of this is paraphrased, seeing as inner seventh grade Cami was just sobbing uncontrollably and couldn’t focus on typing down coherent and cohesive notes. They are also just snippets of their responses and aren’t everything that they said.
What do you think it truly means to matter?
Bo: You might not matter…I got to matter in the spectacular way I wanted to and it wasn’t fulfilling.
Jonny: I think a while ago I tweeted something like “the truth is we all achieve greatness. the only difference is the size of our audiences”
This question got a lot of chuckles, especially after the whole “you might not matter” part and it was strongly reminiscent of that one cheesy scene in The Fault in Our Stars, where Augustus Waters’ greatest fear is not being remembered and then Hazel Grace shits all over that and says that everyone’s going to forget him because in the grand scheme of things he’s nothing and he’s a no one. So it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t matter to everyone because what’s important is that he matters to the people that count. And essentially, that was the Jonny’s conclusion, where at the end of the day all those cliches are, in Bo’s words, “like diamonds — deeply true, true things that have formed from being so true for so long.”
Cliches like “Live, laugh, love!” or “Family first!” that’ve become so trite to us do hold truth. Can we just appreciate how many matters are in this sentence?
Bo: Young people live in a post-narrative dissociative world…by the time you get to your first kiss, you’ve watched so many first kisses in movies that you think “This is that part of the movie” and it didn’t feel like that at all. The movie of my life sucks. And we all just want to be watchable. We’re nostalgic for moments that haven’t even happened yet. You’re not a picture of yourself. Your life is not a movie.
I think this topic was talked about for a while and it was something that hit me really, really hard, because I’ve been living my life for this so long. Even now, getting to college, when we’re sitting at an iHop at 2 in the morning I think to myself, “Wow, this is like in those teen movies when…” and I’m living my life in hopes that it’ll be a movie instead of actually living my life like it’s mine.
Is there any relief from imposter syndrome?/Do you think it’s good to talk about mental illness openly?/How do you personally take care of yourself?/What self-care things do you do to calm your anxiety?
Bo: We grow up believing two things — “Everyone goes through this at some point” and “I’m the only one going through this” so we don’t say anything. But I think there’s also an arrogant part of ourselves that don’t want to talk about what we’re going through ’cause we think to ourselves like ‘I struggle with this ’cause I got a g a l a x y brain and then you just go like ‘Oh, I just needed to drink more water.’
Jonny: Yeah, I think we get into this mindset of ‘I’m suffering so I must be doing something right.
The galaxy brain quote? Guilty. Abso-f*cking-lutely guilty of that shit. I’ve internalized a lot of my struggles because I somehow came to the idea that my struggles were the only parts of my identity that made me unique and special. Hearing this finally said out loud was like a punch to the gut since it’s something I do so much. Even now I tell myself that it’s okay that I suffered so much in high school because it got me to MIT. And it’s okay if I suffer at my time during MIT because it means bigger and better things are coming. And while there’s a slight truth to the idea that with struggle comes success, the story of our lives shouldn’t solely be a story of struggle. We need to treat ourselves, to take care of ourselves, to realize that suffering does not directly equate to progress.
What’s your biggest fear? Mine is bears.
Bo: Probably my dog dying.
Jonny: Probably my fiance dying.
Audience: (MORE INTENSE AWWING)
Bo: He’s got a PhD, he’s got a fiance, and what do I got? A f*cking dog.
There were definitely more quotable moments, but I just didn’t get the chance to catch them. I would really like to thank Jonny and Bo, as well as MHH and MIT Commforum for coming out and putting on the event. Of course, it didn’t just end there, though.
This is, I guess, my sort of reaction to Bo’s Eighth Grade and why this movie will stick with me forever.
The movie somehow accurately portrays what it’s like to grow up as a middle schooler or even high schooler in this weird, weird age of social media — teachers trying to awkwardly #relate with those LITTY teens & dab on em, instastalking your crush of yours and trying so hard to not accidentally like that photo from 5 years ago, snapping for thirty minutes trying to get that perfect filter angle.
But also it was able to capture just how difficult it is to fit in.
I related with Kayla (our main character) so. f*cking. much. I was the girl in middle school that got pity invites to pool parties and just awkwardly stood off to the side praying for human interaction. I was the girl that did an excited little happy dance whenever someone invited me to hang out with them. I was the girl that thought high school would be so drastically different and that I’d finally get the chance to reinvent myself.
It was like an almost out-of-body experience watching the movie because it felt like I was watching myself. And I guess this brings us back to that post-narrative lifestyle that Bo was talking about, but the reverse instead. This movie does not give us a reflection of what our life should be, but instead, what our life actually was and is.
It is not an expectation, but the reality. And it normalizes that reality.
I could go on and on about Eighth Grade forever, but I should probably leave some unsaid so you can form some opinions on your own.
I’ve been having a pretty rough week, having gotten a D on my first ever MIT test, my 18.01A midterm, and it’s kind of been taking a toll on my confidence in being here and belonging here. But this talk managed to turn that all around. It basically came in my time of need and I’m very grateful to have had the opportunity to listen to all the nuggets of wisdom Jonny and Bo offered unto us. It also really inspired me to get more in touch with my creative side, making me not only write this blogpost so I don’t ever forget this night, but just write and read more. In fact, I’m going to buy Jonny’s book right now ;) shameless plug and also probably rewatch what. and make happy and just think about Eighth Grade.
I recommend you do the same.