Teaching Bo Burnham to drive stick shift

I don’t drive automatic cars for the same reason I don’t wear shorts. 

Long pants and manual transmissions are two things all men should commit to—that and a thirst for brown liquor. They just should.

The line, “Same reason I don’t wear shorts,” is in the movie, Sin Bin. Bo Burnham’s character, Tony, says it. When Chris Storer was writing Sin Bin, he texted me: “Why do you drive stick?” I answered him immediately. It was news to me that my answer would wind up in Sin Bin.

Bo’s character drives a stick shift car—a 1974 Jaguar. On Friday afternoon, they shot a scene, in which Bo’s character reverses the Jag. Pretty simple, right? The car’s already started; the director says action; Bo says a couple lines and then drives backwards out of the shot.  All he has to do—I mean beside nail his lines and remember the director’s cues—is get the car moving, smoothly.

Thing is Bo doesn’t know how to drive stick—at least he didn’t know until Friday morning when I taught him.

On Thursday night, Tom Hammock, Sin Bin’s production designer, asked if I’d teach Bo stick. I agreed. If nothing else, I figured it’d make great fodder for this blog.

 Around 9:45 a.m. on Friday, Bo landed on set (that’s what the crew says when an actor arrives, he’s “landed,” even though he arrived in a van). I’d been on-set since 8:45 a.m., guzzling cup after cup of Intelligentsia coffee, a Chicago-based brew that is fueling the cast and crew.

By the time Bo arrived, I was jawing like some kind of maniac, telling strangers about the weird dream I had, in which I stood at a newspaper stand, wearing nothing but torn underpants, trying to conceal my Marquis de Sade by reading The Wall Street Journal.

“Bo! What up?” I said. “How was your night … Awesome … Mine was weird … I had Chinese food last night … Did you catch ‘Survivor’ … OhmyGod, do you believe they voted off Coach … Ready for your lesson … Want some coffee … Have some coffee … It’s great … Did you eat breakfast … Get yourself a banana, or a granola bar—whoa, hold on—did you know there are English muffins up there? Get one of those.”

Bo looked terrified. I was terrified. He declined all my offers; he was ready to learn stick.

I escorted Bo and Tom Hammock to my car, a 2000 Chevy Cavalier with a passenger’s side dent compliments of my wife. Before Bo and I climbed in, Tom said, “In fairness, I should tell you that you’re driving a $100,000 car in the movie.”

That didn’t seem fair to me.

“In all fairness, I’m a $100,001 guy,” Bo replied.


Bo and I climbed inside the car. I fired up the Cavalier’s mighty V2 engine and reversed out of the parking spot. I popped it into first gear and—killed it. Shit.

“Whaaaaaaaat?” Bo said. “You’re my teacher?”

“Hahahahahha. That’s how you kill a car. Don’t do it.”

I arranged the car at one end of the south parking lot at Chicago’s Irish American Heritage Center. On a street nearby, the crew shot a scene with Michael Seater.

Bo and I switched seats. Bo is 6’5”. At 6’, I’m cramped in the Cavalier. Bo looked like a NBA player inside the elevator that takes you to the top of the St. Louis Arch.

I explained why manual transmission cars have three pedals—there’s a gas, brake, and clutch—and then tried to explain what exactly the clutch does. I was at a loss.

“OK, imagine that an engine consists of two circles,” I said, swirling my left and right hands in a wax-on, wax-off manner. “And in order to shift from gear to gear you need the two circles to match up.”

Suddenly I think I’m Mr. Miyagi. Pretty soon I’ll tell him to wax the car, sand my floor, paint my fence and my house. “We make sacred pact. I promise teach stick shift to you, you promise learn. I say, you do, no questions.”

Bo looked confused. I was confused.

“Fuck it,” I said. “Just try getting the thing moving. Here’s what you do: Let your foot off the clutch slowly and when it starts rolling hold your foot there.”

Bo followed the instructions and the car started crawling forward.

“This is called riding the clutch,” I said. “You don’t want to do this, but this car is already pretty fucked, so go ahead and ride it.”

We stopped, and I told him to do the same thing, only this time when the car starts moving give it some gas, and then ease your foot all the way off the clutch. He did it; we were moving; Bo was driving stick. It took him less than 5 minutes to learn. I spent the entire summer of 1996 learning how to drive a stick shift car. During one lesson, I called my mom a “wretched woman.” Bo was considerably nicer to me than I was to my mother.

The initial lesson lasted about 10 minutes, and then a member of the crew knocked on the window and said Bo was needed in hair and makeup.

In the meantime, I shot some video with my Flip Cam.

About 45 minutes later he emerged looking like his character Tony—tight slacks hemmed short, leather dress shoes, and a white shirt. Because they were now shooting a scene in the south parking lot, we continued the lesson in the north lot.

Here’s what happened next.

Yeah, he killed it. Bo’s a good student; he did exactly what I had done.

Thirty minutes later he was driving the Cavalier down the streets of Chicago. A few hours later, he was shooting his scene in the Jag. Here’s a photo of Bo and Michael Seater inside a $100,000 car—so that’s a $100,001 man on the right and a one hundred-thousand and, well, shit, Seater’s Canadian. I don’t know the conversion from dollars to Canadian dollars.

You get the point.



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2 responses to “Teaching Bo Burnham to drive stick shift

  1. Emily

    Hahaa, your blog entries about the production of this film are hilarious! I love hearing behind the scenes tidbits! It’s fascinating! 😀

  2. Paul

    Looks like KT in the blue jacket in the photo. I know she cam drive a stick.

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