We are mostly constrained to a single room. Indeed, Inside—Bo Burnham’s almost universally acclaimed 90-minute Netflix special—wants us to feel stuck inside: to feel the claustrophobic effects of sleeping, eating, Zooming, exercising, and, in Burnham’s case, filming between the same four walls for the first year or so of the pandemic. And lonely walls they are: Burnham “celebrates” turning 30 alone, he sings alone, he cries alone. In reality, though, Burnham filmed Inside in his guest house, 20 feet away from the Los Angeles home where he lives with his longtime girlfriend, director Lorene Scafaria, and their dog. A dedication after the end credits thanks Scafaria: “For lor, for everything.” And I can’t help but wonder if “everything” includes her erasure: the way that Inside deletes Scafaria from the picture, the way it remains silent about the many forms of care and companionship that surely sustained Burnham while he made his film.
To borrow the title of one of Burnham’s songs, then, this is how the world works: the male genius who sings in his underwear and the absent woman who makes it possible. In Burnham’s dedication, I see the cinematic version of #ThanksForTyping—the tradition of male authors thanking their wives, who played a critical role in shaping their work, with a nameless line of gratitude in their books’ acknowledgments.1 Imagine, for a moment, how different Inside would be if in the final shot, Burnham left his guest house and walked into his home, into Scafaria’s arms. Perhaps he’d stop to pick up an Amazon package delivered to his doorstep. Would viewers still praise Burnham’s courage and candor? Would they relate to his display of isolation and suffering? Or would that reveal Inside to have been too much of a performance? Perhaps such a truthful ending would reveal that, all along, staying inside has been a privilege. And as for Bo Burnham? Well, he never really let us in.
The zeitgeist reached me over text message in the first week of June. Four friends, all of them white men, sent exuberant lines: Had I seen the Bo Burnham thing? I had to see the Bo Burnham thing! Oh man, Bo Burnham really captured how badly I felt during the past year! The Bo Burnham thing is GENIUS! In all honesty, I hadn’t even heard of Bo Burnham. But with the stream of praise for his new special turned to full blast, I pressed play and prepared to be dazzled.
Put simply, Inside is the story, told through song and clever visuals, of a comic trying to make a funny show during the pandemic and slowly slipping into disassociation and depression. Burnham came to fame as a teenager through musical performances that he posted to YouTube. But he quit live comedy several years ago, due to panic attacks. He was ready to return to the stage in January 2020, when, as he puts it ironically, “the funniest thing happened.” At the moment when—he says—he planned to venture out, he was forced back inside. This explains the special’s name, which alludes to the claustrophobia of quarantine and to the film’s main subject, the inner workings of Burnham’s mind.
At a keyboard or standing against the white wall of a room cluttered with camera gear and musical equipment, Burnham sings sharp, silly satirical songs about FaceTiming with his mother, awkward sexting, and unpaid internships. He puts a sock on his hand for a duet about the problems of neoliberalism: while Burnham sings an upbeat song about “How the World Works,” the puppet interjects with verses about historical genocide and the exploitation of workers. The mood shifts after about 35 minutes of what Jason Zinoman has described as “candy-colored, slickly designed sketch comedy.”
The remaining hour addresses Burnham’s boredom and isolation, the challenge of “trying to be funny and stuck in a room,” as well as various forms of metacommentary on the process of filming himself.2 We get a light dusting of remorse about offensive jokes made earlier in his career (“Bitch I’m trying to listen/Shit I’ve been complicit”), a short riff on suicide that vacillates unsettlingly between irony and empathy, and commentary about his panic attacks.
There is plenty to admire about Inside, not least of all the ingenuity and sheer amount of labor required to create something that is visually compelling, although it focuses on just one man in one room. Rachel Syme in The New Yorker praised the “virtuosic one-man musical extravaganza,” and The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon called Inside “spectacular, must-see pandemic content.”3 The Guardian lauded the special in not one but two reviews. Adrian Horton wrote that Burnham has “set the bar for quarantine art,” while Brian Logan had to reach for German to find sufficient praise, describing Inside as “a comedy Gesamtkunstwerk, a journey to the nerve-centre of the quarantined entertainer’s mind, a son et lumière Robinson Crusoe musical for the age of not just social but digital isolation.”4
In addition to six Emmy nominations, it seems Inside might win an award for most hyperbolic critical response.
The voluble praise of Inside’s relatability hinges on the elision of Burnham’s privilege, even as the comedian himself tries to acknowledge it.
Burnham does move fluidly between music genres: “Problematic” is a sweat- and synth-drenched ’80s exercise jam, “Welcome to the Internet” a kind of creepy cabaret. “That Funny Feeling” is an acoustic indie ballad, but its politically minded listicle lyrics (“Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul/A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall”) make it a “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for the 21st century. “All Eyes on Me,” the show’s next-to-last song, is a club anthem in which Burnham exhorts his absent audience to “Get your fuckin’ hands up/Get on out of your seats.”
This song intentionally begs many questions about the possibility of virtual connection. As we watch Burnham cast in a tight, blue-lit close-up, we’re meant to wonder what kind of club or concert experience we are having as the singer’s face streams onto our screens. What good does it do to get out of your seat if that seat is the same one you’ve been sitting on for your Zoom workday, your Zoom therapy session, and your Zoom watch party? Is a watch party really a party, anyway?
Lyrically and visually, Inside takes the forms and feelings of online existence as its central topic. With nowhere to go and no one to talk to IRL, Burnham dives headlong into the mediated world of memes, emoji, and reaction videos. He gulps from the firehose of the internet, as so many of us did, in an attempt to pass pandemic time and seek connection. In this sense, Inside is about the internet. It’s about the way the internet promises “everything all of the time,” but often leaves us feeling enervated, isolated, and inferior. Sung even before their subject shot himself to space in a phallus, Burnham’s songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II” do a nice job mocking the Amazon CEO who, lest you need reminding, has made at least $86 billion since January 2020.5 The internet, Burnham suggests, is an addictive drug that when used in the vacuum of COVID makes us sicker. Certainly, the internet leaves Burnham feeling terrible: an imposter sickened by the corporate takeover of all things, from the psyche to social justice movements to the internet itself.
Feeling terrible: Inside is very much about Burnham’s mental health struggles, his deteriorating sense of self. His increasingly shaggy hair and beard mark the passing of time; his body, which he offers frequently to the viewer clad in only his underwear, marks something else: his whiteness, his youth, his willingness to be—I guess—“stripped down” and exposed for the viewer’s benefit.
The response to this (performance of) vulnerability has comprised a symphony of acclaim, with deep notes of self-recognition. Tom Power writes that Inside “[is] the comedian at his most vulnerable,” and in addition to being “an introspective examination on Burnham’s part, it’s also highly relatable.”6 Of course the natural rejoinder is: Relatable to whom?7 I, for one, couldn’t relate; I’m not sure that parents who worked from home while serving as their children’s teachers can; nor can I imagine the nurses intubating patients day after day or the Instacart employees delivering groceries to people like Bo Burnham would (where does he get that bowl of cereal he eats late in the special?).
The voluble praise about Inside’s relatability hinges on the elision of Burnham’s privilege, even as the comedian himself tries to acknowledge it. Or perhaps it hinges on the elision of the privilege of the viewer doing the relating. Richard Brody gets at this when he writes that “Staying inside has been a largely class-based privilege; it has also been a basic mode of civic responsibility […] and the Venn diagram that connects the privileged and the socially responsible is the demographic that’s targeted in Inside.”8
Targeted is an interesting word, and nowhere is it more apt than in one of Burnham’s songs that’s become something of a breakaway hit and meme online. “White Woman’s Instagram” lambasts the cringe-inducing aesthetics of Karens on social media: “An open window/A novel/A couple holding hands/An avocado/A poem written in the sand/Fresh fallen snow on the ground/A golden retriever in a flower crown/Is this Heaven?/Or is it just a/White woman/A white woman’s Instagram?” As a white woman who dislikes Instagram precisely because of the trend (among many others) that Burnham diagnoses, I nonetheless recoil at the song. Self-fashioning as a woman—and trying to thread the needle of “acceptable” femininity, online and IRL—is an impossible task. Just think how Burnham’s own pantyfied one-man show would be received were it a one-woman affair instead.
I think it matters that most people waxing lyrical about Burnham’s rawness and supposed self-exposure are white men. A friend of mine said that Burnham’s art seems so radical because it licenses cishet white men to talk about their emotions. It may or may not be true that Burnham is being received as a feelings translator for men who aren’t able or willing to express their struggles. But what’s surprising is that so many viewers take these feelings as real. Adrian Horton’s review summarizes this response: “[Inside is] an anguished, ambivalent journey whose intense self-focus gives viewers license to trace their own emotional splinters from a year inside, and to see more clearly its toll.”9 Even if the special has this effect, Burnham’s explicit, relentless emphasis on Inside as a highly crafted performance seems at odds with the emphasis on his perceived honesty.
My aim is not to suggest that Bo Burnham was not feeling anguish, that he was faking feelings. But to praise the special’s emotional candor is to sidestep the great lengths Burnham goes to show us that Inside is a construction, a performance, a pastiche. Kathryn VanArendonk puts it this way: “It’s all endless loops of performance and consumption, worrying about performativity and authenticity and productivity, staring at himself in the mirror.”10 Hailed for capturing COVID-era universal realities, Burnham may in fact show us something that is neither universal nor real, his screen mostly mirror, his candor full of smoke.
We know, of course, that art doesn’t need to be “true” to be “good.” Truth told slant, or even fully pulverized in a postmodern blender, has long moved and taught us. Kevin Fallon considers this in his review: “What is performance and what is voyeuristic when the pain we’re watching is almost uncomfortably real? Maybe not being able to tell is the point.”11
“Almost uncomfortably real”: what a tortured phrase to sum up Inside. If the special is genius, then perhaps here is where its brilliance is located: Burnham performs the very affective blurring that he sees as a hallmark of not only the pandemic but also our digital lives. But even this blurring is hailed as an “authentic” representation of a fraying mind; regardless of the film’s insistent performativity, it has been received and even fetishized as a document of genuine feeling. Burnham, I think, wants to have it both ways, earnest and ironic. Why should we draw the line between sympathy and sendup, the chameleon performer seems to ask? Even if the self is curated, doesn’t that self still suffer? Isn’t it possible to indict our complicity and have compassion for ourselves in the same moment?
I hope so, but it strikes me that Burnham’s insistence on playing both sides of the fence is an evasive maneuver. By revealing the deep truths of his inner psyche and revealing that every presentation of truth is highly constructed, Burnham gives viewers the illusion of being let inside while reminding us with a wink that we are always outside.
I think it matters that most people waxing lyrical about Burnham’s rawness and self-exposure are white men.
It strikes me that this doubleness, this refusal to take a stand fully on the side of sentience or of satire, is a generational position, and one that appeals particularly to Burnham’s millennial cohort. Though generational identity is a dubious construct, its taxonomies are by now familiar enough to influence how a special like Inside is produced, marketed, and received.
Born in 1990, Burnham has some serious Big Millennial Energy. This explains why he appeals to a certain demographic, and also why his content might seem especially vexing to some viewers. Burnham’s emotional and political lability is symptomatic of millennials’ perpetual in-betweenness. If Gen X saw the dismal conditions of the world and reacted with a cynical slacker mentality (“we can’t fix this”) and Gen Z responds to the conditions of the world with activity energy (“let’s fix this!”), millennials react to the conditions of the world with … discourse (“we can’t fix this, but let’s talk about fixing this”). This is why, I think, so much of Inside amounts to metareflection, to discourse on discourse. In lieu of real political action or even real political claims, Burnham is left only with hashtags and comment sections. Burnham’s BME amounts to lamenting this state exuberantly, faking the illness of digital anomie that he diagnoses as the consequence of too much fakery.
This particular relationship to the internet is also revealing of Burnham’s millennial status. Even as he remembers a time before memes and mentions, he swims nimbly in the digital seas of our current moment. He therefore speaks as a sickened internet denizen to fellow online dwellers. The fact the internet has turned everyone from a potential consumer into a potential creator is by now a truism. Songs like “Welcome to the Internet” trace this development, lamenting the progression of the internet from a strange digital playground into an oppressive hall of mirrors and maddening echo chamber. While boomers wax nostalgic about “the days before the internet,” millennials can mourn the halcyon days before social media, when there wasn’t so much pressure to produce content that sells.
Though it is likely the case that every generation can lay claim to having lived in The Real more than the next, Big Millennial Energy means acknowledging how painful it is to “live online” while continuing to do so. By highlighting the construction of his film, Burnham dramatizes an addiction to the curation and distortion of life into a digital husk. He may hate that the internet turns people into objects that produce and receive likes, clicks, and views. But he still wants “All Eyes on Me.”
For bookish people, Inside obviously resonates with autofiction. Such writing fictionalizes (often lightly) versions of the author to blur the boundaries between what is real and what is imagined, offering the patina of truth and the play of postmodernism. Autofiction satisfies the market need for relatable protagonists while appearing to offer a stylish new mode through which to deliver content. These texts, like Burnham’s special, float in murky waters; they are artifacts meant to be sold and artworks that critique capitalism and transcend commodification.
It is possible to draw a line from David Foster Wallace to Ben Lerner to Bo Burnham: white men who explore the fraying and fragmenting effects of late capitalism and its online infrastructures. As Marjorie Worthington notes in her book The Story of “Me”, “by far most American autofiction is written by white men.”12
As we grapple with the question of how much space to give the voices of white men in a society where other voices have been silenced for so long, their autofiction can feel indulgent. Novels like Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School and films like Bo Burnham’s explicitly contemplate whether irony, self-deprecation, and vulnerability can indemnify—or at least render sympathetic—white male artists from the criticism that they already take up too much space.
In offering to the reader or viewer what appears to be a raw, unedited, vulnerable self, autofictional narratives present the author-narrator as a fellow sufferer in a sick society. The assumption is that because they suffer, these author-narrators cannot be part of sick society’s cause, only ever a symptom. But if Inside is autofiction, the dramatic fictionalization of the special’s real conditions of production poses a serious problem.
The claim that Burnham’s suffering is universal—that he represents everyone who took to sweatpants and depression during the pandemic—is one that fans of Inside may make more than Burnham himself. But if the narrative of isolation is what resonates with so many viewers, we’d do well to remember that it’s truly a narrative, a useful fiction. On Bo Burnham’s Instagram page, several photos show a tiny, wizened dog named Bruce staring at the camera. Apparently Bruce didn’t fit the “content” that Burnham wanted to share with the outside world, his furry face too compelling a reason that sometimes, indeed, “it’s a beautiful day/to stay inside.”
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- See NPR’s story for a summary of the #ThanksForTyping trend on Twitter. See also Juliana Dresvina, ed., Thanks for Typing: Remembering Forgotten Women in History (Bloomsbury, 2021). ↩
- Jason Zinoman, “Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’: A Comedy Special and an Inspired Experiment,” New York Times, June 1, 2021. ↩
- Rachel Syme, “‘Inside,’ Reviewed: Bo Burnham’s Virtuosic Portrait of a Mediated Mind,” The New Yorker, June 7, 2021. Kevin Fallon, “Bo Burnham: ‘Inside’ Is Spectacular, Must-See Pandemic Content. And Hopefully the Last,” The Daily Beast, June 4, 2021. ↩
- Adrian Horton, “How Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside set the bar for quarantine art,” The Guardian, June 15, 2021. Brian Logan, “Bo Burnham: Inside review—this is a claustrophobic masterpiece,” The Guardian, May 31, 2021. ↩
- Chase Peterson-Withorn, “How Much Money America’s Billionaires Have Made During The Covid-19 Pandemic,” Forbes, April 30, 2021. ↩
- Tom Power, “Bo Burnham: Inside is a Netflix comedy special that will linger in your mind for days,” TechRadar, June 2, 2021. ↩
- Brian Glavey has written brilliantly about the perils and pleasures of “relatability,” which he explores as a popular and maligned aesthetic category. See “Having a Coke with You Is Even More Fun Than Ideology Critique,” PMLA, vol. 134, issue 5 (2019). ↩
- Richard Brody, “Bo Burnham and the Possibilities of the Cinematic Selfie,” The New Yorker, June 9, 2021. ↩
- Horton, “How Bo Burnham’s Netflix special Inside set the bar for quarantine art.” ↩
- Kathryn VanArendonk, “Bo Burnham’s Anguished, Electric Solo Voyage,” Vulture, May 30, 2021. ↩
- Fallon, “Bo Burnham: ‘Inside’ Is Spectacular, Must-See Pandemic Content.” ↩
- Marjorie Worthington, The Story of “Me”: Contemporary American Autofiction (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), p. 19. ↩