Bo Burnham's Inside: Epochal Art
“I was a kid who was stuck in his room
There isn't much more to say about it
When you're a kid and you're stuck in your room
You'll do any old shit to get out of it
Try making faces
Try telling jokes, making little sounds”
Bo Burnham’s Inside is an inspired, insightful, and insanely poetic special he wrote, directed, shot, and edited throughout quarantine. Bo Burnham is easily one of the great cultural analysts of our time. This special was moving, melancholic, very funny, & extremely vulnerable with super insightful critiques on internet culture from someone who actually grew up in it. This was easily the most accurate depiction of what this pandemic, & my lifetime, has felt like.
Bo, like all of us, was a kid who was stuck in his room, making things, in order to find ways to get out of his room. Performing things in his bedroom led him to great wealth & fame, that same performing gave him an anxiety disorder, he decided to step away from stand up & the performing that led him to success, he got happy, decided to go back to performing, then the pandemic hit & 2020 happened, & this film was the documentation of his entire year locked indoors while trying to make a comedy special. The special became alive, it became Bo’s life. Bo was reacting to himself reacting to the apocalypse.
This film was somewhat of a continuation of a meta-narrative Bo has been telling his entire career, but more specifically since his last comedy special ‘Make Happy.’
Bo discusses the anxiety-inducing nature of performing to an audience that has been democratized & become widespread to our generation through the internet, the constant stream of information & the concept of documenting a generation that is constantly documenting themselves, as well as the concept of recuperation & the cultural lack of sincerity due to the commercialization & recuperation of irony in art by the thing it was created to fight against, with billion dollar brands like Deadpool, Trump & Geico satirizing themselves while doing the thing they’re satirizing. Bo spoke about the constant cognitive dissonance that we currently live with due to the various effects of late-stage capitalism.
Bo continues the narrative in his A24 directorial debut film Eighth Grade that I’ve discussed in the past. The movie is about an eighth grade girl who vlogs & her relationship with her phone & social media. The movie explored the effects of performing for social media & the dissociative nature of viewing ourselves outside of ourselves that its caused & the various effects the overconsumption of information has on the human condition, through the experience of a 13 year old girl.
Inside continues the narrative but the focus is now on Bo, the performer.
I watched Inside as an artist who spent this entire quarantine in the exact same way as Bo, constantly going through the internet consuming content & information, making music & writing for the internet, while locked inside for days on end, with an unsurprisingly similar mental health trajectory. As a person who currently looks like the Black mixture of Bo by the end of the special & Rick Rubin, this entire special felt like looking into the most uncomfortable mirror.
Art always has an artist, the artist's historical context is important to the product because the ideas you come up with are completely determined by the circumstances surrounding it. This special was about a man losing his mind for a year. Bo documented himself reacting to documenting himself, documenting & reacting to his time & the culture in 2020, It’s extremely & uncomfortably self aware, meta & dissociative, just like the current internet reaction culture that we live in, that Bo was reacting to & commenting on, that I’m reacting to & commenting on, that you are reacting to & maybe commenting on. Weird & dissociative.
This special really felt like looking at my website for the past year, condensed into a film, all the way down to the pseudo-Marxist views & the darker tone the longer we’ve been trapped inside. This feels like our epochal special to precisely describe how this moment in time feels. Calling it a special would be putting it down, this wasn’t just a comedy special, it wasn’t just a film, it wasn’t just a musical or a stage play, it was a transcendent, existential piece of art & an innovation on the form of documentation itself, this explored the performers relationship with the medium.
Bo lost his mind, his material became continually darker, he transmuted his anxieties, fears & insecurities into his art, it was beautiful & profound. He showed the various implications this pandemic & the constant stream of information & performance all had on his mental health like increasing his anxiety & agoraphobia. Bo has always attempted to find a way to merge Theatre, Comedy, & Music & I think this was his magnum opus
Bo has become a much better musician, like legitimately incredible. The music in this special was more soulful with Bo trying softer folk tones around the end with genuinely moving & melancholic songs like ’That Funny Feeling.’ This special felt generational. The music, especially in the beginning, was bleak while still having the classic Bo Burnham funny parody feel, but Bo’s signature is tugging on heart strings & this special did that in a much more sincere way than we’re used to from him. Bo always had an ironic detachment in all of his other specials, this one was vulnerable & honest in ways the others couldn’t hope to be because this was just Bo locked in his room in front of a camera for over a year.
The special had a 4 act narrative structure but it can be broken down into two acts separated by intermission & Bo’s 30th birthday. Bo broke down multiple times throughout the filming of this special, if those panic attacks weren’t real, Bo is the greatest actor alive. This was one of the most honest and sincere pieces of media I have ever seen, in an almost unsettling way.
Bo stepped his game up as a director, a cinematographer, a writer, performer & musician, the lighting & composition were incredible, the editing was great, even the aspect ratio was a method of communication to represent the devices we watch things on, this special was beautiful on so many levels. It tried to articulate what it feels like being alone in a room, performing to the void in front of a black lens, knowing that it’s going to be seen by tons & tons of strangers till the end of time.
Bo Burnham is growing up on the internet, personified. He’s the most high octane example of the rest of us, with the highest skill level, highest level of visibility & highest levels of success. Bo created stuff for YouTube as a teenager & now he’s a rich & famous 30 year old man, we are now starting to see that on a wider scale with various other aging internet content creators like FouseyTube discussing the toll internet notoriety at an early age & growing up in the public eye had on them & their mental health. This special was Bo looking at himself, from being that kid locked in that room, recording music in front of his camera, to being this adult back hiding in his room in front of a camera, making stuff again.
That’s all of us right now, everyone making stuff, & watching stuff, all the time for this hivemind. This special is about all of it. The culture of reacting to reactions with fake reality shows with real life consequences & meta-meta cognition. All of it. The iPhone, consumerism, irony, Trump, the internet. The whole thing. Mass shootings, mass graves, mass bullshit. Hauntology. The apocalypse. All of it. I’m not even smart enough to articulate all of the concepts Bo touched on, I haven’t watched it enough times, & I doubt I ever will. My favourite line perfectly depicts the points being made " a Gift Shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall" Bo was reacting to the cognitive dissonance caused by late stage capitalism that led to everything he was criticizing & living through like climate change, lack of gun control, this pandemic, fame, derealization, & disassociation.
By the second act, after he turned 30, Bo was looking for a reason to live through his art when he was not allowed to go anywhere, & is constantly consuming negative information & has to create, does that sound familiar?
In March of 2020, at the beginning of this pandemic, I wrote my most popular essay to date titled ‘Why the Covid-19 Pandemic will bring the New Renaissance.’ I had just turned 21, I was a full time writer, I was extremely optimistic & idealistic, & I was right. There has been a creative boom, everyone is upping their game, we have been experiencing some of the greatest art ever made. I referenced the European Renaissance in the 1600’s as starting because of a global pandemic, & I referenced Shakespeare. The thing with great art that comes from great disasters is, it also comes from great pain. Bo’s performance is a cry for help, the same as Shakespeare’s To Be or Not To Be monologue from Hamlet. Shakespeare, the writer, was trying to find a reason to live in Hamlet, through all of the suffering of society, like plagues, war & oppression.
I’m not that same kid from the beginning of the pandemic, just like Bo I’ve seen a lot, we’ve been through a lot, we've thought about a lot more things, so much more has happened. This special found Bo reacting to culture, then reacting to his own thoughts, anxiety, insecurity & all of 2020. I can’t begin to articulate the feelings this special made me feel, but it accurately depicted what I feel like as a person who performs for the internet, has been doing so since he was a kid in his room & has lived through the last few years.
It depicted this constant search for sincerity in a culture that’s ironic by default. It talked about how tech giants are manipulating our neural chemistry, the 2020 George Floyd riots, how the FBI killed MLK, all the way down to how White Women's Instagram's look. Bo was trying to be as truthful as possible. It was the mixture of hilarious, honest & profound that Bo has been attempting to strike since he started with songs like 'Art is Dead' If I had to explain to an alien what my lifetime has felt like for my generation, I would just hand them this special.
This special was made by someone who actually grew up on the internet, Bo is a member of the first generation of people to grow up on the internet & he has encapsulated & distilled what that entails into 1 hour & 27 minutes. This is a premise I’ve discussed before. Our generation didn’t have a framework for what the internet was or could be, we just grew up in it & understood it almost intuitively, but we didn’t know the effects it would have on us, this film could not have been made in any other era by anyone older.
I love this special. I have already seen it 5 times since it came out, I keep listening to the songs, it has touched me deeply & impacted me profoundly. The amount of work Bo put into the crafting of this special is apparent, it was groundbreaking to say the least & inspires me about the prospect of art itself & the different ways we can bend genres & mediums to craft something innovative. It articulated concepts that I have been experiencing & thinking about, especially this last year, & it did so in a beautiful, sincere, hilarious & moving way. George Carlin would be proud.
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