It has been a few months since Bo Burnham's new Netflix special, Inside was released to the masses, and a lot has happened since then. The Pacific Northwest has experienced not one, but two heatwaves (as have millions of other Americans throughout the country), the IPCC released their latest climate report (dire forecasts, as expected), the Taliban swiftly overpowered the Afghan government after 20 years of Western invasion, a cat 4 hurricane knocked out power for millions In Louisiana and killed dozens in the Northeast, and Texas effectively outlawed abortion. That's how the world works. Anyway, this is going to be a review, but also heavy on the analysis, so please, go watch the special if you haven't yet. I'll wait.
Did you watch it? Do you need a hug now? A drink? Go grab youself some water and a comfy blanket (or a fan, depending on climate). What'd you think? Not sure what you just watched? Me neither, and I watched it many times. The man disappears from live performance for five years to work on his mental health, is ready to get back out there, and then the world had other plans.
Inside is the singlemost relatable piece of media for millenials. It is both one man's mental breakdown and that of an entire generation. The cinematography is exquisit; I would use it as a teaching tool. Burnham uses his trademark self-awareness to once again lampoon all aspects of society, and he's at the top of his game in this one. The opening shot actually calls back to the end of his last special, Make Happy, where we see him going outside to figure out what makes him happy. Burnham does stand 6'5, but the framing gives an eerie feeling of not knowing if he's giant or the room is small. So begins our descent into his distorted mind.
Now, I'd love to talk about every song, but we'd be here all day if I did that, so I'll try to control myself. In "Comedy", he's calling himself out for having a white savior complex, and i suggest pausing it to read everything written on the whiteboard in various shots; comedy=9/11+money, according to the transitive property. The lighting here, used to cast large shadows, gets at the central question of the song being something that everyone should be asking themselves: is this appropriate to joke about? This does well to set the stage for the rest of the special, as it redefines just what comedy can be.
Drawing Visual Connections
This special is fundamentally about one of the weirdest times in history: the Covid-19 lockdown. The songs "FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight)" and "Sexting", perfectly capture the awkwardness of maintaining human connection and one's own humanity when you can only connect digitally with others. I love how he changed the aspect ratio of the camera to match that you'd see during a FaceTime call.
That brings me into discussion of one of the standouts from the special, "White Woman's Instagram". Filmed in the format of Instagram's posts, this is an answer, of sorts, to "Straight White Man" from Make Happy. It expertly lampoons the fact that the idea of perfection has been curated by society and self-reinforced by its alcolytes. If you've never been on Instagram, just go search for posts about pumpkin spice lattes, and tell me they're not all the same picture and overwhelmingly white women. This image is a veneer of course, for it's a cardinal sin to present your authentic self on social media. There is a moment in the song where the real world creeps into the edges, visually represented by the camera returning to full frame for a brief moment, before quickly realising the veneer is slipping and pulling it back up. When you become the product, you can no longer be "yourself" online, but rather, and inveted version of yourself you've created for consumption.
"How the World Works"
Yes, this song deserves its own demarcated heading, in part because I actually skipped over it in my excitement of making the visual connections between the previously mentioned performances. It would be a cardinal sin to leave out this performance, as it's the most important from a sociopolitical context. Filmed in the style of educational television, a la Sesame Street, the bright orange background matches Burnham's initial sunny disposition. He presents a simplified, harmonious view of everything in nature working in perfect tandem, all very lovely. And then we meet the show-stopper, Socko.
Socko doesn't hold back. He tears off the blinders that are, by and large, the US education system (shoutout to my senior year history teacher, Mr. Carden, for at least using excerpts from "The Peoples History of the United States" and therefor giving me the most honest view of US history I've gotten in a formal setting). Socko just comes along singing about straight-up communism, still in an upbeat, borderline manic way. Casually throws out the line about how the FBI killed Martin Luther King, a conspiracy that is actually quite easy to believe. I find it deeply ironic that he mentions the "pedophilic corporate elite", because this is absolutely a thing, but not at all in the way right-wing Qanon believers think it is (convenient how they ignored Trump being friends with Jeffrey Epstein, and just look at the current investigation about Matt Gaetz).
Burnham is playing the superficially well-meaning white liberal in this song, cheerfully asking Socko how he can help. This is what so many white people were asking during the protests that swept the country (and wider world, to some extent). The answer is primarily to listen to BIPOC voices (that's "Black, Indigenous, people of color", for those of you not chronically online) and educate yourself through media consumption. I can tell you I have a lot of books on my Amazon wishlist for myself. This is also where Socko utters my favorite line, "Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lense of your own self-actualization?" Just, absolute chef's kiss to that line, because it's so spot on.
White people have the tendancy to center their feelings when talking about race, even the well meaning ones. Many, like Burnham's character in the song, become defensive when they don't get the response they want. These situations play out with any interaction between members of privileged and oppressed groups; tone policing is an obvious example. Tone policing occurs when the privileged person thinks the oppressed person is attacking them, when usually it's just factual statements or frustration because it's the 100th time the oppressed person has had this conversation. In the end, as we see with Socko' fate, those with privilege still retain their power and control over those without.
The Ironic Self-Awareness
Bo Burnham is painfully self-aware to the point of being in a state of perpetual anxiety. Althought the song "Unpaid Intern" is but a brief interlude, he provides layers of commentary upon his own performance. He knows he's grown up in the public eye and could be "cancelled" at any moment, so he makes an attempt to criticise himself before anyone else can. This fear of criticism is actually a reason he stopped having live shows in the first place--hecklers were causig panic attacks. He's not attacking himself for "woke points", he's doing it because he's terrified.
Which brings us to another standout performance (aren't they all, really?), "Problematic". Burnham has never been an intentionally edgy comedian, but he is a white man, so this song is he attempt to acknowledge all the vaguely shitty things he's done in his past. The Aladin costume reminds me of the time I dressed as Cleopatra in 6th grade, i think it was. I didn't darken my skin, and while Cleopatra is historically Macedonian (surprised? I only learned that recently), I thought she was either Black or Arab at the time. Just something that feels vaguely weird in retrospect, but I'm from mostly white suburban New Jersey, as an explanation, though by no means an excuse.
The visual of literally laying himself against the wall in a beam of light, like Jesus on the cross, is brilliant. He's not just doing a self-callout, but also calling on all the celebrities who go out of their way to prostrate themselves and beg for forgiveness for what are often minor transgressions. These over-the-top apologies are a performance piece for the celebrity, not intended as an actual apology to the community that has been harmed. All one needs to do is acknowledge the harm and stop repeating it, and maybe contribute monetarialy, if appropriate.
"30", AKA Millenials are Getting Old and We Don't Like It
It's now time to talk about the most relatable performance of the special. That's right, "30". Stripped down to his underwear, phone as a handheld spotlight, Burnham says what anyone who has ever turned 30 or is approaching 30 feels. The relative minimalism of this song lends to the unique weirdness of a milestone birthday during a global pandemic. No one to celebrate with, no restaurants to eat at, no movies to go see. I'm reminded that my husband's 30th was the day he started feeling sick. We went to urgent care the next day, and well, the flu test was negative. It was March 2020, covid testing was still limited to those with known exposure and recent travelers. Turning 30, indeed.
Western culture created 30 as the magical age where you're supposed to have your shit together. A career, not a job; a house, not an apartment; a spouse, not an unmarried partner; children, not pets. For Millenials, the oldest of whom are actually 40 this year, these goals have largely escaped us. The economy has gone through several boom and bust cycles in our lifetimes. The housing market is absurd. College is unaffordable and simply doesn't pay if you're not going on to graduate or professional school.
He alludes to the fact that Millenials are the new "in-between" generation. This is a spot formally held by Gen X, but congrats, y'all start turning 56 this year--you're officially old, according to study parameters used by the WHO! Many of us are now responsible for children and aging parents, while trying to work full-time jobs (if you can get one), eat healthy, get enough sleep, and keep up with the latest trends. We're realizing we aren't kids or even young adults anymore, and pop culture is moving on without us, much to our chagrin. We're also realising this kind of life is not possible under late-stage capitalism, hence the generational shift in positive attitudes towards socialism.
He calls out his own mental health struggles as a warning to the younger generation. I love the matter-of-fact statement that he'll kill himself in another 10 years--it's not done for shock value, but the sober assessment of a man who, with the facts laid bare, has contemplated suicide. The follow-up disclaimer segment where he says being dead for a year or so is something he would absolutely do, I feel that so hard. The world is just so much to deal with these days and you want to shut it all out for a while, but the problem with death is that it's not reversible.
Intermission! How are you doing? Are you okay? Do you understand why it has taken me all summer and then some to write this piece?
Mental Health is a Fuck
Let's take a minute and acknowledge that there are actually non-musical segments of the special that I enjoyed. The faux Twitch streaming segment, where Burnham is playing a video game version of himself, is meta done right. It's commentary on how life during quarantine became so centered around digital interaction that we became removed from the actual experience of life itself. It's a snapshot of the struggle it was to make the special in the first place.
And...minute is over! "Shit" is an excellent example of the incongruity-resolution theory (why yes, of course there are theories of comedy, I totally didn't just google "comedy of juxtaposition" to see if I was making up bullshit or not). An upbeat pop song with bright, colorful visuals doesn't normally pair with lyrics about not showering for nine days, which is what makes the song so fun. It's very much got the absurdist nihilism vibes you can see in Gen Z memes. Incidentally, my husband also made it their ringtone.
Another brief interlude where Burnham describes (through song) having daily panic attacks before we get the ADHD/neurodivergent anthem that is "Welcome to the Internet". The song is up-tempo and steadily increases in speed while the camera slowly, and then quickly, zooms inward, and the cuts increase. This all elevates the mania of the lyrics, which cover the absurdity of the internet. You can find useful information, porn you didn't want to see, and an endless supply of cat videos. You can learn how to crochet, educate yourself on racism, or invest in crypto currency. You can enter an echochamber and become so radicalised you carry out a mass shooting and publish your manifesto online before your spree. It's the internet, where everything is possible, anything can be monetised! The camera then zooms back out for the full effect of the starscape-esque visual for the chorus, to drive home the point that the internet is the world and the world is the internet.
The music and visual effects abruptly stop, and Burnham addresses the hypothetical viewer, who is a member of Gen Z. The first generation to always have the internet and to have grown up with smartphones, their experience has always been hypercorpratised and target marketed. The line about a two-year-old using an iPad reminds me of the last time I saw some of my cousins, must've been at least 10 years ago at this point. They had two little kids, i think one still used a booster seat, but I remember their mom bringing out the iPad to keep them occupied. This was wild to me then, I mean, all I got a restaurants were some waxy crayons and a placemat with a maze, tic-tac-toe, and something to color.
Anyway, the camera is zoomed in for this segment of the song to make the viewer feel like it's a personal conversation, and to turn the viewer into the subject themselves, as the internet has matured into its current iteration specifically for its young users. It has become a symbiotic relationship, with users turning themselves into the content that can then be sold back to other users. The tempo slowly picks back up, the chorus kicks in, the camera zooms back out, and all the visual effects occur at once: the internet will give you anything and everything all at once, and you'll be happy about it!
"That Funny Feeling"
What exactly is the feeling alluded to here? It's continuing to go to work during a global pandemic. It's finding out the coastal northeast (Delaware through Maine) has already hit 2 degrees Celsius of warming in the past 100 years, due to increased warmth of the Atlantic Ocean. It's mass shootings being so commonplace that most don't garner more than a note in the "breaking news" crawl on CNN. It's the media losing its shit over one missing white woman, while thousands of Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered in the past 20 years (and really, since white people arrived on the continent) without fanfare. Let's address the actual lyrics, though, shall we?
The tension of this song relies on the inherent contradictions of society. A "stunning 8K resolution mediation app" for an activity that's supposed to be performed with your eyes closed with the intent of focusing on your inner existence. "In honor of the revolution, it's half-off at the Gap": in the wake of the uprisings over George Floyd's murder, being "woke" became profitable, and brands tripped over themselves to capitalise on the moment. "Deadpool's self awareness" is a reference to an interview Burnham did in 2018, where he discusses his dislike for the character. For those of you who don't follow the MCU, Deadpool is a character who breaks the 4th wall in his movies. Burnham doesn't like this fake relatability of a character from a multibillion dollar company. "The backlash to the backlash to the thing that's just begun" is such an excellent line, saying so much so succinctly. It's a reference to cancel culture, to the hyperspeed infotainment media landscape, where everyone has to immediately have an opinion on the news of the moment, just to find someone with the opposite opinion to have a a manufactured fight over it.
Yep, that was just verse one...anyway! Robert Iger is the current CEO of Disney, and if thinking of their hold on popular culture doesn't give you a funny feeling, can I please join you under that rock? This verse focuses a lot on corporations as sources of hypocrisy and distraction. "Discount Etsy agitprop" is hilarious, as Etsy is a multibillion dollar public company where individuals can sell their own creations. "Bugle's take on race" is in reference to corporations making statements about racial equality while not actually making any systemic changes. "The whole world world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door" begins getting at the anxiety that underpins the whole song: the world is ending due to human induced climate change and there's very little we, as individuals, can do about it. "Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go" similarly refers to the arrival of humans in the Americas, and possibly the climate clock, the time we have to still have a positive impact on the global temperature. "Carpool karaoke, Steve Aoiki, Logan Paul"; nonsensical celebrity content that passes as entertainment and does its real job of keeping the masses distracted.
You're still here? Verse three brings more absurdism into the mix! Pornhub's terms of service seem to be violated by most of the content on the site, and late last year they removed 80% of their content, after an expose from the New York Times. "Obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto V" is a favorite line of mine; for those unaware (first of all, how?) GTA is a game where the goal involves a lot of breaking laws. We get another glimpse into his mental state here, with mentions of agoraphobia, dissociation, and derealisation. Burnham, like many of us, especially during lockdowns has become afraid of leaving the house and is becoming disconnected from himself and reality.
"That unapparent summer air in early fall/ the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all". In case you forgot about the extreme wildfire season we had, or that time the subways flooded in NYC and Joe Biden ended up visiting the town where I used to go to the movies after it was decimated by flooding from Hurricane Ida. Here's a TikTok I ended up playing on repeat a good 10 times when my husband sent it to me. "We were overdue" is a phrase you often here in regards to society-ending cataclysm. The west coast is overdue for a major earthquake, the Yellowstone caldera is overdue to erupt again, we were overdue for a global pandemic (hey, at least we can check that off, right? Right?!). Essentially, he's saying we had a pretty good run of things as a species, but that's over now.
Hey look, we've made it, just two songs left! The short monologue preceding "All Eyes on Me" is one of the most honest moments of the film, while still being aware it's a performance. I love how he positioned himself to the side of the frame and made the camera, which is facing the audience, the focal point. You can see the red light is on, indicating the camera is recording, as it slowly zooms in before cutting to the song. This again gives the effect of the viewer being the subject of the film, an active participant in it, another part of the content. The song itself centers around Burnham's anxiety. The questions he's asking are for himself, wondering if live comedy is even enjoyable to perform anymore. The canned laughter and applause from the non-existent audience adds to the earie feeling of the song. He can't even comprehend actually worrying about climate change because his personal anxiety is more immediate, which I find deeply relatable; climate change always gets pushed to the back of my mind, because what the fuck am I gonna do about? The title of the song itself is also what I assume is Burnham's biggest fear.
Finally, "Goodbye". The lines, "Do I really have to finish?/ do returns always diminish?" is another favorite of mine, for personal reasons. When you spend many months, a year, or a decade working on something, actually being done with it can be incredibly difficult, especially for those of us who struggle with perfectionism. For example, I started writing a dystopian novel in February of 2012. It has never been more than a few chapters, I've completely changed the plot several times, and I began it again, in earnest, in 2020. then the world became far to absurdly dystopian that trying to top reality was impossible, so back on the mental shelf it went. That novel which will never be written has kinda become part of my personality, I don't what I'd do if it was ever actually written.
"Am I going crazy?/ Would I even know?/ Am I right back where I started 14 years ago?" again references his anxiety, and his entire career. He began, 16 years old, uploading funny songs to the internet. Here he is, a whole-ass adult, still uploading funny songs to the internet. He then calls back to previous songs, but with a twist: he is now the audience and we're the ones who must tell the jokes. It's a callout to those who hang out in YouTube comment sections, daring them to do it themselves if it's so easy. Enter the disembodied voice that calls him out for finding another reason to hide from the world. The song ends in darkness, spotlight on Burnham, stark naked. He has laid bare his psyche and is now daring the rest of us to do the same.
In the final scene, we see him waking up, and the door is ajar. He steps over the threshold and shuts the door. The sunlight shines on his face, only, something is wrong. Sunlight doesn't shine that evenly. Burnham is on a soundstage and now he's trapped with the disembodied applause of the audience. The camera quality changes to that of a projector and zooms out, slowly. We see him watching the playback with a scowl as the laughter continues, and then he smiles with a manical look in his eyes. We are left feeling deeply unsettled. The end.
Shoutout to Genius Lyrics for the information for "That Funny Feeling", y'all the real MVP! Header image created using Snapseed.