Performance anxiety and real-world rage of Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’

Images courtesy Netflix.

Perusing year-end Netflix originals, I get a nagging, grim itch to revisit “Inside,” the comedy special that released to rapturous praise last May. I’d started some fights about it around the time of its release because I found it to be lazy and insincere, and months later, I got worried that I was being unfair. Despite appearances, I do actually second-guess myself sometimes, and getting it right is important to me. Maybe, on a more committed viewing, this will have gotten better.

It hasn’t gotten better. It’s gotten much, much worse.

“Inside”

Bo Burnham is a multimedia performer born in 1990 whose work combines music, comedy and  cinematography. This combination usually defaults to observational comedy routines set to music, but he’s done some good work in the format. After getting his start on Youtube in the late ‘00s, he’s become a Hollywood success, with multiple albums, comedy specials and films to his credit.

“Inside” is his most recent comedy special, a Netflix original that released May 30, 2021. In it, Burnham performs a series of isolated sketches and songs about the limitations of digital interaction and his anxieties about the quality of his work, capitalism and social unrest, often appearing half naked or watching and critiquing earlier moments of the special. It is set during Burnham’s COVID-19 isolation, and he remarks at several points during the show about the passage of time and indicates he is working on the special to keep himself busy in isolation, but this is part of the conceit. 

Released about 15 months after most office workers were sent home and three months after vaccines were made widely available in the U.S., “Inside” received adulation from critics and audiences as something that captured many of the universal experiences of isolation. On June 8, Republic Records released an album of songs from the special that charted in 14 countries, reaching no. 1 on the U.S. Comedy Albums Billboard and no. 7 on the overall Billboard.

“Inside” is, well, it’s very bad. It is agonizingly slow, often pausing on a disaffected Burnham for more than a minute at a time in moments meant to reflect the seeming eternity of isolation. There is some technical competence on display in his cinematography, particularly the lighting and set design and the general difficulty of being both in front of and behind the camera, but a lot of the merit of cinematography lies in what he chooses to show, and he runs out of ideas pretty quickly.

Any technical credit for his visuals is wiped out by the songs, which, despite making up the vast majority of the special and seemingly representing his core ideas for it, are bare-bones simple both musically and lyrically, deeply lacking as either musical works or observational comedy sketches. Most of them drag on for about twice as long as they should, often defaulting to the pop-music cliché of repeating a chorus, or in most cases just single sentences, over and over.

The main visuals for “Sexting” put “Inside’s” creative power on display, laying the messenger screen over Burnham’s half-naked body, literally covering his sexuality.

Burnham, either through song or monologue, has very little to say, and what he does say is disturbingly surface-level. Most of his lyrics and dialogue is spent describing subject matter, usually universal online experiences like Twitter overload, glitchy Facetime calls or perusing Instagram, simply and poorly, descriptions that make them seem like things he’s heard about second-hand or seen from a distance but hasn’t participated in and doesn’t really understand.

There are several different types of ignorance that could help produce these songs and sketches, but the key impression I keep coming back to is that he doesn’t seem to understand why the technology he’s singing about developed in the first place. I want to zoom in on “Sexting” at the 31:20 mark, because it’s a standout example of how he touches on so many aspects of the subject matter while at the same time seeming to not really be aware of them.

Sexting, the use of mobile devices and other forms of instant messaging to send love letters or sexually explicit images to a partner in real time, has evolved rapidly in step with cell phone technology over the past decades – the erstwhile 21st century answer to Rachel’s mom asking, “What’s new in sex?” Sexting allows partners to connect over any distance and with no risk of pregnancy or disease transmission, which makes it particularly important during the COVID-19 crisis, and reduced opportunity for physical violence from a partner you may not be sure about.

A majority of human sexuality is communication, and instead of looking down on the semi-hieroglyphical language of text messages, participants eagerly embrace them as new tools to connect to a partner. What was first dismissed as something for losers who can’t get laid for real has instead become a new and surprisingly dominant variety of sexual encounter for digital natives that is safer, more convenient and broadens the pool of potential partners from your neighborhood to the entire globe. It is a new variety of human communication that is deeply revealing about the interactions between sexuality, digital technology, alienation and the reduced importance of local communities, global connection and the evolution of language.

In Bo Burnham’s “Inside,” it’s “Another night with one hand on my dick and one hand on my phone.” In the song, he describes a single sexting encounter in detail with commentary to illustrate how silly he finds it, with the only thought about why his character is doing what he’s doing compacted into a quick “I’m horny” before it starts.

The song does arrive at its point – phone sex is definitely not physical sex, and it definitely does seem weird if you think about it too much or look at it too directly – but that is more or less the complete extent of the observation. Almost every lyric bumps into questions about how modern cell phones change the way we communicate, the intersections between the drive to have sex and the drive to connect on a human level and the various weirdnesses of in-person sex, leaving them ignored. He seems to be blindly rushing toward his reductive conclusion unable to see all the ways in which he undermines himself, focusing on the dehumanizing elements of sexting while at the same time blowing past all the human impulses that contribute to it. 

The general thrust of the song falls not only into line with the narrative that sexting is another stupid thing those damn millennials came up with, but also the longstanting media idea that casual sex is somehow blasé. It echoes older images of sneaking away from an encounter you immediately regret or imagining tonight’s lover is the one you’re really pining for installed into our collective consciousness by generations that had much more sex than we are having.

Burnham’s extremely surface-level assessments of his subjects enters thorny territory with songs like “White Woman’s Instagram” or “Problematic,” subject matter where you can quickly fall into sexism like a sinkhole if you don’t know where you’re stepping. “White Woman’s Instagram” feels particularly mean-spirited.

Bo Burnham is not your friend, and the guy from ‘Inside’ is not Bo Burnham

Bo Burnham is a lower-middle Hollywood celebrity with an estimated net worth of $4 million, though estimates of a private individual’s net worth should always be taken with a heavy grain of salt. According to leaked Netflix documents, the streaming service paid Burnham $3.9 million for “Inside.” The house where it was shot was revealed to be the guest house in back of 1428 Genesee Ave., a Hollywood landmark just off Sunset Boulevard where the exteriors of 1984 classic A Nightmare on Elm Street were shot. Burnham’s girlfriend, filmmaker Lorene Scafaria, has owned the property since 2013, and its use in the special became public knowledge in October when she listed it for $3.25 million, and it has since been closed at just under $3 million.

“Inside” visually queues viewers into this artifice with mise-en-scene, what Burnham chooses to fill the set with. Burnham isn’t really living on the set of “Inside,” and if his character does, he appears to live in a kind of stasis. There is no dedicated entertainment center, no bathroom, no kitchen or dining room or indication of any kind that this character needs to eat. There is no accumulation of dust, no food trash or bottles – a chest of drawers is one of his only pieces of furniture and he mentions once that his laundry isn’t done, but we never see any discarded clothing. Instead, camera equipment is strewn carefully across the set to create a sort of uncanny valley simulation of clutter, which is made more uncanny by how meticulously clean the room stays in weird contrast to how much crap is apparently in it. Most shots are toward the entrance, the door Burnham’s character can’t go through haunting him in the background, but the occasional reverse shot betrays a more expansive interior that he seems to be ignoring.

The fictionalized version of Burnham doesn’t seem to actually be quarantining in this space because Burnham was not quarantining in this space. He was using his long-term girlfriend’s guest house in the backyard of her 6,752 square-foot property which she just sold for more money than the average American worker will ever see in their lifetime as a set. The space lacks the byproducts of human life because no one lives there.

None of this is strictly wrong – well, owning a guest house during a pandemic in a city with more than 60,000 unhoused people isn’t a great look and really flies in the face of Burnham’s character’s insecurity about his privilege – but Burnham is a performer, and it’s OK for him to perform a fictionalized version of himself. “Inside” is far from the first media to speak untruths about its own creation within the runtime.

I’m burning with curiosity as to whether Burnham has asserted his character’s situation is a realistic reflection of his quarantine, but he and Scafaria are both reclusive by celebrity standards, and he doesn’t appear to have given any interviews since “Inside” released. Most of the general understanding of his performance as a reflection of his reality seems to be because media around the time of the special’s release took his character completely at face value, and I’m not sure why. I don’t think Burnham meant for his character to be taken this literally, but the question doesn’t seem to have been asked.

Burnham’s main perspective while making “Inside” was probably to use COVID isolation as a metaphor for artistic anxiety and the strange sensation of seeing your personality detach the way it does when you send art or social media posts out into the world. Even from that perspective, he accomplishes what he sets out to do, but the halfhearted observational work becomes essentially a distraction, and deliberately using isolation as a metaphor for something else only makes the sting of seeing this sharper.

It is usually not popular to depict large-scale traumas like the COVID-19 crisis directly in mass media until several years afterward, with immediately traumatized viewers instead preferring to approach it through layers of metaphor. The senselessness of the 9/11 attacks becomes philosophically suspect comic book villains, the government’s refusal to prepare for the Vietnam War becomes a private company’s refusal to prepare for a colony of dangerous alien life forms, the fragility of life on Earth revealed by World War II becomes the caustic gallows humor of film noir anti-heroes, the broken and unrecognizeable European countryside in the aftermath of World War I becomes the shadowy, twisted sets of German Expressionism.

Artistic response to COVID-19 isolation has been similarly escapist. Filmmakers making movies without breaking quarantine often tell as fantastic a story as they can, using everything available to show off what they can do in such a limited setting and to break out of confinement through their stories. These effects, which have encompassed entire film festivals, are best observable in the international anthology film The Year of the Everlasting Storm. Feature-length productions that started after lockdown, best exemplified at this point by In the Earth, which engages directly with the fragility of human life and the psyche through the metaphor of psychadelia inside a haunted forest, have also followed this historic trend. Productions that were split in half by the COVID-19 crisis like Nightmare Alley and The Matrix Resurrections went on more or less as planned, though each movie’s production pause profoundly affected the final product.

“Inside” is one of the only media directly addressing COVID-19 isolation because most artists don’t want to directly address it. The reception for “Inside,” particularly the apparent mass assumption that the fictionalized Burnham’s account of its production was completely honest, seems to reveal a desire for media that incorporates these hallmarks of suffering, a desire that, from a historical perspective, is very strange.

I imagine that it comes from the cascading failures of world governments and news media to communicate with, or even address, the working class. A country in which 10% of the population owns 89% of all stocks has spent years watching presidents grade themselves by a market we’re too poor to break into while journalists who are supposed to hold them accountable instead nod along with that assumption. The question “what are you going to do to help the little guy?” has become, “do you even remember we exist?” So when Burnham, who was paid more money than I will probably ever see for this specific special but is still remembered as a Youtuber from suburban Massachusetts, puts out a resounding “yes!” on such a massive platform, there’s a genuine and powerful catharsis.

The fakeness

Seeing “Inside’s” frequent praise as an icon of pandemic-era creativity is jarring when set against the typical work being done at the same time not just because it is a fundamentally uncurious work regardless of the context but because it doesn’t engage with its context in the way most creative people have chosen to. Where other creatives generally look for the borders of their capabilities within lockdown to engage with their experiences through the most fantastic metaphor they can think of, Burnham is doing the exact opposite. He’s performing a more restrictive version of the lockdown he’s subject to, putting himself in a smaller space and cutting out the people he’s with, bringing the borders of his lockdown closer so he can engage as literally as possible with an experience he doesn’t seem to have really had.

An experience that I did have.

This is the 366 square-foot studio apartment where I spent the first four and a half months of lockdown. This shot was taken with my back right against the door, there’s no reverse shot that appears to double the space. Without a girlfriend of several years in a main house to go back to every day, my only escapes were skittering lunchbreak trips to the Murder Kroger, hoping it wouldn’t be too crowded. These were soon blended with longer apartment-hunting trips because I’d notified my apartment complex I’d be leaving Denton well before the pandemic began, a highly emotional decision that required me to confront quickly weakening ties to a changing community in order to allow logistical realities to take priority over my own emotions, only to execute this move in a world where those logistics no longer matter. These considerations included a four-figure debt I’d worked up to the North Texas Tollway Authority after less than a year of commuting from Denton to Frisco, a commute that pushed me onto the rich side of DFW’s two-tiered highway system birthed by Texas’ longstanding refusal to pay for its roads – because roads, you see, are communism.

From my new 602 square-foot one-bedroom in Dallas from which I may never commute to the job I moved for, I’ve watched the first attempted coup by a fascist movement that is only getting stronger, survived a week-long power outage due to a winter storm that killed hundreds of Texans but was not a problem for any other state, tracked alarming steps in the decades-long fight to enforce pregnancy as a pillory around women’s necks and marked the new federal and state governments’ strange disinterest in doing anything about any of it.

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is a holistic catastrophe that represents monumental failures at every level of society resulting from a general lack of preparation for a pandemic, decades-stagnant wages, a rose petal-delicate supply line built around exploiting labor laws instead of efficiency, crumbling infrastructure, a health care system designed to deny as much care as possible, skyrocketing housing costs that remain completely independent from the actual market, homelessness, the student loan crisis and the broader failures of the education system and mass media which have left the population susceptible to mass delusion, deeply tribalistic and unwilling to mobilize against any threat, from COVID itself to homegrown fascism to the impending ecological collapse.

Seeing the surface-level aesthetics of this disaster incorporated by someone who is clearly not experiencing them to the same degree into a comedy special that is mostly about unrelated, pre-existing complaints about the internet is, I guess the closest word would be “humiliating,” but that doesn’t capture it. I feel used watching this, as if I’ve been disassembled for parts of a costume that he only uses in one sketch that got cut for time. Instead of feeling seen, I feel looked through, and only because I happened to be in the way. 

When it first came out, I called the special “fake,” which is a lazy and dismissive criticism that stems from the fact that I don’t usually look at comedy specials and I wasn’t really processing how angry, how personally mocked and exploited “Inside” made me feel, so now that we’re all the way down here, let me expand on that.

The reason it’s so easy for me to clock “Inside” as not based in genuine emotion is it doesn’t flow in the direction genuine emotions usually travel. Art that is based in personal emotion is just that – personal and emotional. It is steeped in the artist’s conscious and unconscious preoccupations, technical capabilities and degree of fascination with the medium, lived experience, personal symbols, inside jokes, the list goes on. It is an externalization of all that is, ahem, inside.

Bo Burnham’s “Inside” is the opposite. It is Burnham internalizing a reality, my reality, that he isn’t actually experiencing, which is why the final product doesn’t speak to so many details. He is recreating things that he has seen and projecting himself into them, a process that has more in common with a sitcom chasing headlines than genuine self-expression. Again, there’s nothing strictly wrong with this – “Inside” isn’t bad because it’s cynical, it’s bad because it’s intellectually bankrupt, the music is lame and the visuals would make a nude sculpture cringe – but that’s why seeing it was so enraging and why it stood out as so hollow. 

I- OK, come on, man.

I went into sort of a dark place that I hadn’t been in a while at the end of last year, and wrote this out just to exorcize it and try and get out of that funk, but looking back on it two months later, it’s one of the best things I’ve ever written, and I needed to publish. This was well before Vladimir Putin decided to get a head start on picking up COVID’s slack for meaningless mass death, so the anxiety is a little out of date. I need to focus harder on staying in a routine and getting things across the finish line moving forward. 

Blockbusters are back now, real ones, so hopefully this means big things at the movies for 2022, depending on how long we all survive into 2022.

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