“The Quiet Comprehending of the Ending of It All”
On Bo Burnham’s Inside, Internet-Induced Alienation, and Performance
Content Warning: Bo Burnham’s special mentions depression and suicide, which I have also briefly mentioned here. Feel free to skip if you don’t want to read about this at this time!
For the past two weeks, I’ve been gripped by the delirium of Bo Burnham fever. I wasn’t expecting this. Apart from his 2018 film Eighth Grade and his role in last year’s Promising Young Woman, I have spent very little time with Bo. I know this sets me apart from most people my age, zillennials who grew up watching his videos on YouTube in the mid-to-late ‘00s. I remember my high school friends trying to get me to watch his videos when we were in eighth grade ourselves, but I was a pre-teen punk music snob and considered comedy songs tacky and beneath me.
The only reason I watched Inside was that every single friend I have on Letterboxd watched it at the same time. It’s been a while since that happened; the last instance I can remember was six months ago with the aforementioned PYW. A year and change into the pandemic and starved for new content of any kind, I sat down and pressed play. Although Eighth Grade remains one of my favourite theatre-going experiences of all time (I think about how tense the crowd got during the back of the car scene to this day), there was no doubt in my mind that Inside was Burnham’s masterwork, simultaneously hyper-timely and timeless. In other words, an instant classic.
Burnham has never been a traditional stand-up comedian–he has far more in common with Weird Al than he does with Jerry Seinfeld. He got his start in his teen years on YouTube, uploading videos of himself performing comedy songs on a keyboard in his bedroom. Songs like “i’m bo yo” were key in the early years of YouTube, with Burnham becoming one of the nascent platform’s first viral stars. Expanding beyond four-minute videos, in the 2010s he wrote and performed several stand-up specials for both Comedy Central and Netflix. However, in 2016, Burnham quit performing live as a result of having severe panic attacks while on-stage, “which is not a great place to have them,” he says in Inside, his first special in five years.
Inside is a singular work, difficult to describe to those who haven’t seen it. While labeled a comedy special, this description hardly does the hour and a half justice. What is it then? A one-man show, a visual album, a musical, a piece of performance art? Inside starts in the same room where his 2016 special Make Happy finishes: Burnham sits alone in a chair in his signature white t-shirt. This time, however, he looks more disheveled than ever before, resembling Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse rather than the all-American boy with swoopy bangs he’s presented for the last fifteen years. “Sorry that I look like a mess,” he sings to a pulsing ‘80s drum machine beat. “I booked a haircut but it got rescheduled.”
After singing another song, Burnham finally greets the audience with a YouTube “Hi-eeeeee.” “Welcome to, uh, whatever this is,” he says, the camera focused on his reflection in a mirror. He explains that it’s not going to be a normal special, “Because it’s just me and my camera, and you and your screen. The way our Lord intended.” He says that he’s locked himself in this room and is going to work on this special for as long as it takes, “in order to distract me from putting a bullet into my head with a gun,” the first moment in the special that truly shocked me, a haunting sentence in Burnham’s blunt delivery.
While it never references the pandemic directly, Inside is framed as a special that Burnham is working on alone in his house during COVID-19. Some critical coverage of the special has described it as the first true work of quarantine art. While this is true, I also think it’s an understatement of what Burnham’s comedy has been building towards for the last decade and a half. It’s not the first time that he’s brought up his depression in his material. At the end of Make Happy, for instance, Burnham sings a song titled “Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant).” In between singing an auto-tuned sound-off about how he can’t fit his hand inside of a can of Pringles (“Two radiuses of a Pringles can is way too small / If you feel me, put your hands up, come on!”), the lights turn on in the theatre and he addresses the audience directly:
“I can sit here and pretend like my biggest problems are Pringle cans… The truth is, my biggest problem’s you. I want to please you, but I want to stay true to myself. I want to give you the night out that you deserve, but I want to say what I think and not care what you think about it… Look at them, they’re just staring at me, like, “Come and watch the skinny kid with the steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.”
In addition to being viewed as a piece of pandemic art rather than a broader statement about how it feels to live with depression, there has also been a focus on Inside as a commentary on the Internet. It doesn’t help that the two videos from the special available on YouTube–“Welcome to the Internet” and “White Woman’s Instagram”–both speak to this reading. While I do think that Burnham is making a commentary about online performance, I think that these two songs outside of the context of the special reduce it to too-basic of a level. Both “Welcome To The Internet” and “White Woman’s Instagram” feel like songs that could have been written just as easily in 2016 as 2021–I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham had them in his back pocket for the past five years. While they speak to the emotional roller coaster of being online (“Here’s a tip for straining pasta / Here’s a nine-year-old who died,” Burnham sings) and the aspirational visual homogeneity of social media, they don’t speak to the themes of grief and alienation presented in the rest of the special, which I believe to be its true throughline and greatest achievement.
The alienation of the Internet is explored better, in my opinion, in other moments during Inside, the first of which is the moody, Drake-esque number, “FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight).” The framing changes to match the lean, rectangular aspect ratio of a cell phone with Burnham’s face lit up by his own screen. While the song continues in a calm and assured tone, visually Burnham becomes more and more frustrated as his mother covers the camera with her thumb and tells him “all about the season six finale of The Blacklist,” ending in him screaming at her hysterically before mouthing, “Sorry. I’m sorry. I love you. I love you. Bye.” The alienation from those closest to us brought on by supposed technological improvement continues in “Sexting,” another R&B-inspired song about communication breakdown in the digital age and the lack of true vulnerability in men’s intimacy. Burnham sings,
“You send a pic and say it’s now my turn.
Jesus fucking Christ, I guess I never learn.
My phone’s flash is the only lighting.
The flash makes my dick look frightened.
I chicken out and send a picture of my face instead.
Because my dick looks like the baby from Eraserhead.
You say, “I sent my titties, that’s not fair.
So I send it to you
And then my phone dies.”
Entwined with the theme of alienation is that of performance. This is explored through the intimate level of close relationships as described in the two previous songs, but also through what it means to perform on social media for an audience and for money. This idea comes out most strongly in the sketches that use the format of YouTube videos and digital live-streaming to upend audience expectations of those forms. This plays out in Burnham’s reaction video to a song he performs called “Unpaid Intern,” a 30-second jazz-inspired romp about doing coffee runs for free. After the song ends, he does a “reaction” to it, a YouTube sub-genre where vloggers react to listening to certain styles of music for the first time and most meta-ly, other YouTube videos. Only the trick is that once his initial reaction ends, he sees it streamed above him again, and he is forced to react to his own reaction, a social media ouroboros. Likewise, in one of the most chilling moments of the entire special, he faces the camera like a YouTuber at the start of a video, only holding a dagger beside him. “Thank you for watching my content,” he says, smiling creepily.
This moment was haunting for me since Burnham grew up on YouTube and is famous because of it. Still, it’s clear that his feelings towards the platform and his past self are more complicated than he has ever let on before. One of the other themes of the special that struck me in multiple songs was that of shame and guilt for his past actions, particularly the humour from which he profited and started his career. In the second song, “Comedy,” he questions what the value of white dude comedians is in a time when the world is so overwhelmingly fucked up. Likewise, in “Problematic,” Burnham tries to atone for all the “offensive shit” he said as an edgelord teenage boy; “I’ve been totally awful / My closet is chock-full of stuff that is vaguely shitty / All of it was perfectly lawful / Just now very thoughtful / And I’m really fucking sorry,” he sings. What has been the true cost of his chosen profession, what he has spent over half of his life devoted to studying, practicing, creating, performing, sharing, and of course, profiting from?
While it could be interpreted as a superficial display of white male guilt, there is an honesty and uncomfortable edge to Inside that makes Burnham’s confessions and apologies chilling. In a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment between songs, Burnham, age 30, sits in front of a projector playing “My Whole Family Thinks I’m Gay,” a viral video he wrote and uploaded in 2006, at age 16. “My whole family now suspects / That watching Spongebob had side effects / I’m not gay and that’s what I said / If I’m gay, hey God strike me dead,” he sings in the video, a precocious grin on his face. Cut to adult Burnham watching his past actions. The regret and shame he feels is palpable, visceral even through the screen, a grown man deeply ashamed of what he once gave so freely and publicly, without even questioning it.
It’s moments like these that make Inside so divisive. For every person I’ve heard rave about it, I’ve heard another say they turned it off after twenty minutes. Undoubtedly, it’s an extremely uncomfortable watch–I understand if after more than a year of an on-going pandemic that the last thing someone would want to do is visit these kinds of feelings in their spare time. I’ve also heard critique from friends saying that while they enjoy the commentary, they can’t stand to hear it from Burnham, who while honest and sincere, is still, at the end of the day, a white man millionaire just like the ones he’s trying to critique.
There is also the question of the truthfulness of the narrative presented. On first watch, Inside seems like a piece of cinéma vérité, with interstitial shots of all the equipment set up and laid out behind the scenes, as well as many clips of Burnham watching the footage back to himself. Still, my radar went off at the end of the first watch, when the dedication popped up on screen: “For Lor,” the first mention of Burnham’s longtime partner, director and writer Lorraine Scafaria. It’s most likely that Burnham wasn’t alone in the pandemic, in fact, he was probably with Scafaria for most of it. Upon further research, I learned that the special was filmed inside the pair’s guest house. While Burnham presents Inside as his sole quarantine residence, it is much more likely that he simply went to the house to shoot every day, before returning to his partner at night.
When discussing this fact with my own partner (who vehemently disliked the special), this information only made him like it even less, stating that this construction makes the non-comedic elements, which are done with such honesty and earnestness, feel inauthentic and off-putting. Still, I would counter with the argument that all stand-up specials are constructions made to manipulate an audience’s emotions and elicit a certain reaction. After all, whenever a comedian says “So the other day I was talking to a friend,” it was never just the other day. It’s an incident that likely happened months (if not years ago) that the comedian is then mining for jokes, if the incident is even true at all in the first place. Personally, if the entire special is constructed and less authentic than it’s portrayed is, I am actually more in awe of it, not less. If every single bit was predetermined beforehand, it only proves what an incredible actor and writer Burnham is.
At first, my favourite song of the special was the finale number “All Eyes On Me.” However, in the two weeks since I first watched it, it’s changed to its predecessor, “That Funny Feeling.” Burnham sits in front of a projection of trees, guitar in hand. While it initially seems like Burnham is just listing a series of random things (“Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall”), it becomes more and more clear that he is singing an elegy, a campfire song at the end of the world. “Twenty thousand years of this,” he sings. “Seven more to go.” Even if the special is autobiographical fiction, the most resonant thing about it–the sheer, brutal emotion of it–is true. And not only true but resonant and cathartic. Inside is a salute to the honesty of how it feels to be alive during the end of the world, and for that, I say, thanks, Bo.
If you enjoyed the commentary on the comedy in Inside, I’d also recommend watching Hacks, available on Crave in Canada and HBO Max in the United States. It’s not as brutal, although it does have its moments, but it also speaks to how fucked-up stand-up and performing can be as a career. It also does my favourite thing in any narrative, which is featuring two women of different generations talking to each other about craft.
If you want to watch another non-traditional and uncomfortable comedy special, I’d recommend watching a Netflix special that came out late last year by Natalie Palamides called Nate: A One Man Show. It’s SO GOOD and I have seen literally no one else talk about it. If you enjoyed Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, you’ll like it.
And if you turned Inside off after 20 minutes, for the love of God, please give it another chance.
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