Bo Burnham Released Inside and I Haven’t Stopped Screaming Since
CW: Mentions of suicide. Spoilers for Inside if that’s a thing that’s really possible.
Comedian Bo Burnham released Inside on Netflix on May 30th, 2021. Inside is a musical comedy special that was written and performed entirely by Burnham over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic and the varying states of lockdown that ensued as a result. And oh boy does it slap.
I first watched Inside while in my childhood bedroom, in my parents’ house, in the suburbs. “Well, well, look who’s inside again,” Burnham sings, and I can’t help but feel that he’s speaking directly to me. Throughout the special, the comedic tone gives way to a dark, realistic picture of the ways the isolation of the pandemic induces feelings of stress, frustration, and languor. It’s these moments that give the show its character more than the campy musical numbers. So, when a short ballad near the end of the first act has our hero imploring us to “look who’s inside again,” it feels less like a playful jab and more like a direct invitation to reflect on this point in human history, on how things have changed so sharply.
If you’ve heard clips of songs like “Welcome to the Internet” and “White Woman’s Instagram” online lately, you’re probably already familiar with the tone of much of the show. At many points in Inside, Burnham explores the ways we use technology and social media, especially how they’ve shaped the ways we think about and interact with each other. “Welcome to the Internet” has been one of the more popular pieces to come out of the special, with its eye-catching spiral lighting and bouncy, upbeat music. Interestingly, this makes it a good microcosm of the kind of internet content sharing that the song itself wants to explore, a cutthroat battlefield where you’ll survive longer the more attention you can grab. In this song, Burnham’s catchy lyrics walk the line of fun and creepy, as his persona speaks of the “Internet” as if it’s a product he’s trying to sell to you. It’s obvious that in this song, the Internet is really more of a synecdoche for social media, and the dichotomy he presents is the line between social media being a fun way to interact with friends and an addictive waste of our precious time.
Other songs such as “White Woman’s Instagram” and “Facetime with My Mom (Tonight)” take a similarly neutral stance on how technology—and social media specifically—affect our lives. Both portray the interactions that are facilitated by these means as being shallow, and in some way leaving out aspects of interpersonal interaction that make them feel authentic. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic is an overarching theme of the media, it’s possible that Burnham felt that the awkward aspects of online interaction were only exacerbated when they became our primary, if not only, way of socializing with those closest to us. Social media is a painfully curated version of a person’s life that leaves out the awkward, candid moments that we typically love to indulge in together. Phone calls and video chat can feel forced and impersonal.
The lack of authenticity that stems from the culture on social media is further explored in other songs in the special, notably in “Problematic.” This song serves two purposes: first it is Burnham legitimately apologizing for the insensitive themes of his early work, and second it satirizes the rise of influencer apology videos. If you’re unfamiliar with the latter, picture teary-eyed apologies for past problematic behaviour from people with massive online followings, most of whom will make no real effort to educate themselves, make amends, or otherwise do non-performative work to reduce the harm they cause in the future. People are generally very jaded about the whole culture surrounding these videos, and they’re typically not received well anymore. Burnham riffs off this with heavy religious imagery, implying that influencers who make such apologies are effectively “crucifying” themselves, begging for forgiveness from their audience. The unspoken reality behind this, however, is that these apologies serve to appease the viewer just enough that they’ll continue to provide ad revenue and purchase merchandise.
The last lens through which Burnham analyses technology culture is through an economic one. Amazon’s near monopoly on online shopping has been gaining attention for years, but the lockdowns resulting from the pandemic have caused Amazon’s market share to sharply increase yet again. With nonessential retail completely shuttered, and even essential retail leaving people feeling vulnerable to COVID-19, the idea of purchasing whatever you need and having it shipped to your home within days of placing the order seems increasingly appealing. A win for Jeff Bezos, a huge loss for Amazon employees forced to work even harder than usual with no increased pay raises, penalized for transgressions as minor as taking bathroom breaks that are slightly too long. Brampton, a city that saw one of the worst outbreaks in Ontario, is conveniently also home to a large Amazon fulfilment centre. In two filler songs fittingly titled “Bezos I” and “Bezos II” Burnham jokingly congratulates and praises Jeff Bezos. For what, exactly? Profiting of a pandemic that left many sick, dead, or struggling to pay rent, apparently.
The second theme of Inside becomes more apparent towards the end of the show, but Burnham shows shades of it from the very beginning, when he tells the audience that he created the special to distract himself from wanting to kill himself. Burnham also reveals, not in a catchy song but simply by telling us, that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, he had been hoping to return to stand up comedy following a five year hiatus that he took due to his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. Spending five years of your life building up to something only to have it summarily cancelled by something as unexpected and insurmountable as a global pandemic can seem like a massive “screw you in particular” moment. The universality of the experience doesn’t register, and you’re left with only the incredibly personal pain of watching your plans fall through.
In “Look Who’s Inside Again,” a personal favourite of mine and an emotional centrepiece for the work, Burnham describes his experiences being “a kid who was stuck in his room” and having to return to a reclusive lifestyle after working for years to build a life for himself that didn’t revolve around isolation. It’s possible that Burnham is also hinting here at anxiety that he experiences being on stage, or even just in public at all, being perceived by hundreds of people at once with no means to control what they think of you. This ends up being something of a double-edged sword, however, since being in public can induce anxiety, but being alone can be depressing.
Not just Burnham, but a lot of us have spent more time alone. I don’t mean alone-in-public kind of alone, I mean really, totally alone with your thoughts with nothing happening around you that can distract you from your own stream of consciousness. Sure, you can turn on a movie or cook a meal, but these are all things that you need to consciously do. There’s really nothing around you that just happens the way it would be if you were around other people; there’s no flow you can go with. It’s all just you. Being forced to sit with your own thoughts has a way of making you listen to them. Immediately after your plans for the next year of your life have been taken from you, you need some way of figuring out what you’re going to do instead, and this time there’s no cookie-cutter answer. You can’t find archived posts on Reddit from seven years ago telling you exactly what works. All you have is yourself, that stream of consciousness, and some poorly defined goal of making it to the other side of this thing with minimal damage to your psyche.
Burnham continues to explore his own anxiety in “That Funny Feeling,” a song near the very end. Lyrically a simple piece, Burnham lists things that give him a “funny feeling.” He never defines it, but it’s clear from the lyrics that he’s referring to the mix of fear, jadedness, and a kind of existential ennui that so many of us feel when we see disingenuous vulnerability used to sell goods and services, downplaying of climate change by big media corporations, and feeling unable to create a better world in spite of it all. Following this song, Burnham moves into a song titled “All Eyes on Me,” where he returns to his stage persona, contradicting his previous fear of being on stage, imploring viewers to “look in my eyes” and brushing off his apprehension about the future, with “they say the ocean’s rising, like I give a shit.” As COVID-related lockdowns end and we’re all surrounded by more people, we’ll all have to follow suit, presenting our carefully curated, Instagram-ready personas to the world, and pretending everything was okay all along. But for an hour, it was nice to let Bo Burnham be vulnerable, and allow us to be vulnerable with him.
When you watch Inside, the content itself is obviously dark and speaks to the part of yourself that spent nights alone wondering how your life would be different if the pandemic had never started. The show begins on a lighter tone and only gets heavier from there, much like how a year of intermittent lockdowns felt. But Inside is also a beautiful, relatable piece of art. Burnham may not have gotten his big moment of returning to stand up comedy after five years, but he became one of the most talked about artists on social media. Months later, pieces of his songs continue to be used on TikTok, and people continue to post about his work using words like “hilarious” and “relatable,” words that many comedians strive to see in reviews. Every part of our lives have been forced to adapt to this pandemic. Things that we find joy in have become different, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Maybe Burnham isn’t asking us to “look who’s inside again” with a negative connotation at all. Maybe it’s an invitation to share a brief moment of vulnerability, a laugh, a cry, and a reminder that we’re able to continue to create beauty, no matter the circumstances.