Release Date: May 20th, 2021
Director: Bo Burnham | Rating: TV-MA | LeavittLens Rating: 7.5/10
About ten minutes into Bo Burnham’s latest satire-comedy tour de force, Inside, there is a literal and metaphorical “peek behind the curtain,” a revelatory moment that seems to sum up the significance of this nearly 90 minute work. Following an opening of songs in keeping with Bo’s sarcastic, self-aware comedic instincts (Content and Comedy can quickly be added to a Burnham “greatest hits” album), he turns the camera towards a mirror, revealing his unkempt appearance amidst a messy home studio. Bo moves promptly into an explanation, regarding not only this comedy special and how it will proceed but also his own mind, which he readily admits is tortured. Breaking the fourth-wall like this is hardly novel, particularly in an internet culture that is increasingly self-aware, but there is something about this specific mirror selfie that embodies the consequence of Bo’s work in particular. In the midst of seeing his physical reflection we are reminded that, whatever this special contains, it will be a reflection to us of our internet and performance culture, for better and for worse (I happen to think it is both). Given his role as the giant of a particular brand of internet-focused video comedy, this look “inside” Bo is really a look inside all of us.
To call this work “timely” would be to understate its felicitousness. While the word “pandemic” is never explicitly stated, it is clear in both production and content that this special is a product of the COVID era. Bo expertly captures the feeling of isolation throughout; he is the only one who appears in the special, which takes place exclusively in (or adjacent to) one room. Given his penchant for capturing and embodying the mental health challenges of millennials or Gen Z’ers who have been raised with the internet streaming through their veins, Bo wastes no time in expressing the common postmodern malaise that sits softly and comfortably within the hearts and minds of many today. Indeed, his cynicism seems at once reflective and indicative of the apathy that fuels much of internet culture and leaks into our world at large. This postmodern instinct was borne largely as a healthy reaction to the melioristic optimism that tended to characterize post-Enlightenment thinking (a la Jean-Jacques Rousseau). For centuries the modernistic assumption was that humans could solve all of the problems of the world, but with the 20th century came World Wars and dictators and corruptions of authority; this proved to many that the human project was doomed to fail, and that our destiny was not a Utopian expression of human ingenuity, but rather a bitter and murky end. Postmodernism thusly arrived, with an “incredulity towards metanarratives” (a phrase coined by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his seminal work, The Postmodern Condition) that sees the world moving less towards a coherent end. As a result, the best possible action for humans to take is to free themselves from shared moral structures, for they are doomed to fail, and instead allow their own desires, choices, and autonomy to control their identity.
Such a lack of coherent future vision permeates Burnham’s work: he scathingly critiques the brokenness of the world in songs like Comedy and How The World Works without providing any way forward in the midst of them, his cynicism producing a sort of emotional paralysis that seems indicative of our internet culture in general. Yet this can hardly be given as a critique: these postmodern instincts that Bo brings to life seem not only empirically accurate to the last year, but to the century in particular. Furthermore, it seems to be the only logical conclusion for a comedian who has made his career off these sorts of mediums and critiques. This tendency is unequivocally Bo.
This sort of inherent ‘signature’ radiates from every word and shot, and indicates the deeply personal nature of his work. None of the individual pieces are purely philosophical examinations of the world; instead, they are directly connected to Bo’s own personal experience, indicated by scenes of seemingly genuine crying or frustration. This allows him to capture a sort of authenticity, laced with that trademark self-aware pessimism: he knows that whatever he produces, no matter how vulnerable or candid, will be catered in some way. The tension is hammered home even by the credits, where we learn that the entire special is singularly his, serving as simply another simultaneous compliment and critique of our modern culture, where we are at once more exposed than we’ve ever been and more edited than we’ve ever been. We live in a world of authentic inauthenticity, substituting interpersonal human community for a public stage upon which we can display the catered version of our real selves, free to project our own definitions of “selfhood” independent of the critiques or challenges of others.
In this sense, Inside serves as an insightful and troubled voice for millions living amidst our internet culture. Bo’s work is unabashedly personal (physically and emotionally) while still being meticulously edited; his understanding of filmmaking jumps off the screen, with varying aspect ratios, expert usages of lighting, and clever editing throughout. It is thematically rich and yet feels overlong, indicative of the endless space we have for image creation in our world today.
The result is a special that is a product of all the good and all of the bad of our present culture, a manifestation of “everything all of the time,” a prophetic line uttered by Bo himself in Welcome To The Internet. It provides us the vulnerability that we all, particularly in a COVID world, long for, while also reminding us that the sort of vulnerability we create when we are in front of or behind a screen is ultimately vacuous, an increasingly empty replacement for a humanity which needs each other. While the cynical postmodern notion of freedom from any shared structures of identity or morality appears to be, on the surface, a liberating philosophy, we find that when applied it often leaves us purely at the mercy of our own understandings of ourselves, which can produce a crippling isolationism. This doesn’t, however, preclude the deep and profound truth that lies underneath the special: that humans are fallible and messed up, and that an awareness, a look “inside,” and the ability to laugh at and critique that profound ineptitude when we see it, is the first step towards some healthy response.