In Bo Burnham’s aptly titled comedy special ‘Inside’, its title can mean multiple things. In a literal sense, it is a portrait of an artist being locked inside a room due to the coronavirus pandemic. The special itself was filmed over the course of this incredibly unusual year in a single room by Burnham himself.
Throughout the special, it plays with multiple forms and genres. It is at once a musical extravagance about the process of creating during lockdown; a piece of social commentary about the internet; and also a depiction of an artist breaking down due to the pressure of social isolation. The title ‘Inside’ then takes different meanings: of being stuck inside one’s room, one’s head, and also digital screens and devices.
What grounds Inside in a thematic way is its focus on the extremely online, as it portrays the listless experience of being stuck to a screen consuming and producing content through the digital medium.
Left without a live audience due to social distancing measures, the existence of the special itself feels paradoxical.
Burnham himself asks in the final moments of the special: “does anybody wanna joke when no one’s laughing in the background?”, underscoring the absurdity of being an artist performing for a digital audience.
At the heart of the special is this contradiction of the online condition: that is to be both lonely and overconnected; to be performing for a void and an unseen audience at the same time.
Lockdown has only heightened this strange feeling of disassociation. Most people found themselves glued to a screen as their form of both escapism and confinement, as the pandemic has led people to socially isolate themselves from others and also find respite by being connected to everyone and everything at once digitally.
In the special, Burnham portrays how this mental dissociation is inherently linked with online culture. In one moment, he parodies a popular subgenre of “reaction videos” on Youtube as he includes a bit in which he reacts to a song of his, although in a twisted version, the reaction video keeps looping and he finds himself in an endless cycle of self-criticism.
It shows how the internet has led to extreme self-awareness and leads its users to become conscious of their own perception and image online. In another bit, he portrays a gaming streamer who is controlling an avatar version of himself who can only do actions such as: crying, playing the piano, and sitting. It captures the way in which the internet has led us to become spectators of our own lives, controlling and maneuvering our own actions through a third person perspective.
This distorted reality forms an important part of the special, as Burnham subverts moments of authenticity and artifice. The theme of self awareness itself is represented by the main narrative arc of the special, that is of the making of the special itself. This format is known as a poiumenon, which refers to a genre of metafiction in which the story is about the process of creation.
The special is split into two halves – divided by one brief intermission – and delves into the turmoil of the creative process. Burnham shows multiple interstitials throughout the special of clips of him setting up the lighting and shots, carefully showing the artifice behind all the spectacle.
At one point he breaks down in sobs and knocks over his own equipment out of frustration since it’s been taking him over a year to make the special. Yet, it is left ambiguous as to whether those moments of authenticity are purely authentic, or just as fabricated and staged as his produced songs.
The lines between performance and honesty become blurred, especially since the Burnham we see on screen is a carefully constructed one by Burnham himself. The special also contains scenes of Burnham watching back a video he just made, or staring at a clip of a younger version of himself in one of the special’s most haunting moments.
Although what we find is that the internet and social media has led to a constant performance of our selfhood. The theme of performance is a recurring one in Burnham’s work. In an interview for his film Eighth Grade, he describes the dissociative and performative feeling of being on social media.
“It’s the feeling of being a viewer of your own life, living an experience and at the same time hovering behind yourself and watching yourself live that experience,” he argues.
“It’s a life lived on multiple time scales, where kids are planning their future to look back at it.” We are constantly performing for ourselves and for others, we are the main performer and also our own audience members.
In one of the most defining moments of the special, Burnham uses the persona of a villainous carnival baker in his song ‘Welcome to the Internet.’ “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?” he asks. “Apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” It speaks to the current experience of information overload, which has led one to feel everything all at once, or even worse, numbed to feeling nothing at all.
If ‘Welcome to the Internet’ is from the perspective of the internet itself, then the song ‘That Funny Feeling’ articulates the experience of its users. The lyrics of the song lists various events which might not seem interconnected to people who didn’t grow up with the internet, but makes perfect sense for those who do.
“Carpool karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul,” he sings. “A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall.” The song captures the effect of overstimulation on the mind, and the paralyzing numbness caused by it. “The unapparent summer air in early fall, the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all,” he croons, encapsulating the paradoxical beauty and tragedy of our current moment, and the sense of apathy it produces.
Yet what Burnham keeps returning to is the nature of performance, and the relationship between performer and audience. Near the end of the special he finally finds his way out of the room only to find himself feeling uncomfortable being outside. The way the scene is shot also makes it seem that he is standing on a stage, as the sound of ominous laughter is heard as Burnham grows increasingly frustrated by being locked outside.
Although the twist of the final scene is that it ends on a shot of Burnham watching the previous scene, along with a brief hint of an ambiguous smile. In his older special ‘Make Happy’, he ended his stand up set by stating “if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”
Now without the presence of a live audience, the only person watching him is himself. Perhaps he is finally freed from the pressure of performing in front of a live audience – or instead like social media users – confined to becoming a spectator and audience member of his own life.