Bo Burnham — Inside
Five years after he quit performing stand-up comedy, Bo Burnham is back with a new special, Inside, written, directed, filmed, edited by, and starring Burnham himself. We find him where we last saw him at the end of his 2016 special Make Happy, in his backyard coach house. Only this time he is locked inside.
Inside follows Burnham through sketches and musical numbers about his day-to-day life stuck indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Burnham, who rose to fame by posting videos during the early days of YouTube, finds himself back where he started, producing content alone without a crew or live audience. Unable to leave his room, Burnham films periodic updates throughout the year as his hair and beard grow longer.
He begins with “Comedy,” a song in which Burnham explores the idea of leaving retirement to help heal the world with comedy. In the pre-chorus, Burnham doubts his ability to shape the world with his comedic abilities:
“I wanna help to leave this world better than I found it / And I fear that comedy won’t help / And the fear is not unfounded.”
He further explores his perceived lack of comedy’s real-world altruistic power during the bridge with lyrics like “If you see white men dressed in white cloaks / Don’t panic, call me and I’ll tell you a joke” as he turns an abstract idea like comedy fighting racism into a literal situation to see if his efforts hold up.
Burnham’s existentialism is not new anxiety. Ever since the dawn of his career, he has been identifying the selfish commercialization inherent to his profession. In his song “Art is Dead” from his 2010 special Words, Words, Words, he laments about how profit-driven entertainment has hijacked creative expression and how the vice of attention addiction is encouraged through the industry. He is not wrong about this cynical outlook on performance art. No one would argue that comedy is a more noble career than one directly improving quality of life. However, Burnham can heal the world with comedy: no, not in a way that will solve every viewer’s ills, help end world hunger, or stop wars. Even though he acknowledges
“The more I look, the more I see nothing to joke about / Is comedy over? / Should I leave you alone? / ‘Cause, really, who’s gonna go for joking at a time like this? / Should I be joking at a time like this?”
but if we cannot laugh at ourselves in our darkest and most depraved moments, then we have nothing. What is art, especially comedy, if not one of the most important facets of spiritual well-being? Yes, life is unfair and cruel, but at least Burnham can help us through it by championing that absurdity with a wry, humorous stance and let our amused fascination light up the dark.
Burnham begins to dance with contemporary political ideas in his fourth track “How the World Works.” Here he introduces a sock puppet, Sockko, criticizing the crimes against humanity that occur in pursuit of capital and power. Socko regurgitates popular internet leftist talking points around race and power, asking Burnham
“Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization? This isn’t about you! So either get with it or get out of the fucking way!”
before Burnham snuffs Socko. The clip of this sophomoric metaphor of the relationship between the ruling and working classes circulated on Twitter and caught criticism for its glib, self-flagellating presentation, yet, glibness and truth are not mutually exclusive.
But between heavier tracks about current political topics are some light-hearted tracks poking fun at other common cultural habits. Tracks like “FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight),” “Sexting,” and “White Woman’s Instagram” tease the bleakness and banality behind contemporary digital routines that have engulfed our lives. “White Woman’s Instagram” in particular critiques the way society relates to Instagram aesthetic cliches. After multiple verses seemingly condemning white women as willfully ignorant or dismissive of social issues in favor of an idyllic fabricated visual reality, Burnham pulls a classic misdirection in the bridge when he starts to describe
“Her favorite photo of her mom / The caption says: / ‘I can’t believe it / It’s been a decade since you’ve been gone / Momma, I miss you / I miss sitting with you in the front yard / Still figuring out how to keep living without you / It’s got a little better, but it’s still hard / Momma, I got a job I love and my own apartment / Momma, I got a boyfriend, and I’m crazy about him / Your little girl didn’t do too bad / Momma, I love you, give a hug and kiss to Dad’”
before plunging back further into descriptions of the array of white woman Instagram cliches.
This misdirection is reminiscent of “Repeat Stuff” from his 2013 special what, a song in which Burnham laments the emptiness of modern pop music and teenage girl’s obsession with the shallow stars. However, the point of the song is not to fault young girls for falling prey to these vague songs and stars, but rather criticizing the industry for manufacturing desire around teen idols.
Similarly in “White Woman’s Instagram,” the critique is not about the shallowness of the basic white women aesthetic on Instagram but rather the shallowness of the audience’s perception of the basic white women in question. It would be easy to interpret this song as a cultural criticism of white women or as an advertisement in favor of identity politics, but in actuality, it is a criticism against identity politics by spotlighting the innate capacity for humanity behind every person — every single human knows pain and grief and suffering, even if that person is a basic white woman posting “incredibly derivative political street art” or “some random quote from Lord of the Rings incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King.”
The quick and catchy “Unpaid Intern” serves as an intro to a larger bit where Burnham parodies the popular reaction style youtube clip. During this bit, Burnham enters a meta chamber of hyper self-awareness as he begins reacting to a multiplying loop of himself recording the reaction video, each time admitting more self-awareness and self-deprecation before looping once more and calling the whole thing off. This bit encapsulates the internet’s obsession with ironic detached self-awareness that only ever comes across as insincere and apathetic. By continuing to sheepishly admit his layers of personality facades, Burnham demonstrates our current antisocial preoccupation with acting in anticipation of the way we will perceive ourselves, which is frankly, for lack of a better term, quasi-autistic.
It isn’t until Act 2 when Burnham makes his woke criticism plainer. The tenth Disco Dance Fitness music-style track “Problematic” starts as a seemingly sincere address in the context of a pre-emptive cancelation confession, expressing regretful self-awareness for his privileged childhood and edgy early comedy style, before admitting his crime in the chorus, poking fun at the ridiculous outrage from woke internet mobs:
“I’m Problematic / When I was seventeen, on Halloween / I dressed up as Aladdin / I did not darken my skin, but still, it feels weird in hindsight.”
This line teases the innocuous nature of many incidents that fuel internet cancelations. No sane person would take offense at a teenage Burnham wearing a Halloween costume of an iconic Disney character — especially with the lack-of brown face a la Canadian douche numero uno, Justin Tredeau — yet week after week, Twitter is plagued with new cancellations over similarly benign mistakes unearthed from celebrities’ pasts.
After his initial confession, Burnham goes on to sing
“I want to show you how I’m growing as a person, but first / I feel I must address the lyrics from the previous verse / I tried to hide behind my childhood, and that’s not okay / My actions are my own, I won’t explain them away / I’ve done a lot of self-reflecting since I started singing this song / I was totally wrong when I said it / Father, please forgive me, for I did not realize what I did / Or that I’d live to regret it”
In this second verse, Burnham is mocking celebrities who, after getting called out for something “problematic,” immediately bend their knee and apologize for their supposed wrong-doings to simply appease the internet mob. During the outro, Burnham splays himself on a cross projected on the wall, once again exposing parallels between the cult of the online woke and extreme religiosity.
The special’s climax is a slightly chaotic, uptempo tune called “Welcome to the Internet” which repackages the tragedy and absurdity of the internet-poisoned generation into a musical narrative. Its villainous vaudevillian tone sonically captures the deeply insidious nature of our unlimited and immediate access to “everything all of the time.” Burnham illustrates the dichotomy of ideologies mindlessly spewed on the internet as he sings
“Welcome to thе internet! What would you prefеr? / Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur? / Be happy! Be horny! Be bursting with rage! / We’ve got a million different ways to engage.”
Burnham continues, making the audience dizzy by recounting many ensnaring possibilities laid forth by the internet. This theme of overstimulation from accessibility is common in Burnham’s work. At the end of his 2016 special Make Happy, he speaks to the harmful impacts of chronic social performance:
“Social media… it’s just the market’s answer to a generation that demanded to perform, so the market said, ‘Here, perform. Perform everything to each other, all the time, for no reason.’ It’s prison. It’s horrific. Its performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member?”
He is right to highlight the ways in which internet transactions trigger the worst impulses in humanity. As we attempt to compensate for a lack of love and belonging, Silicon Valley has carefully lured many of us into a trap of the pursuit of everything we want but nothing that we need.
At the end of the bridge in “Welcome to the Internet,” Burnham ominously sings “It was always the plan to put the world in your hand” before descending into maniacal laughter, evoking a sense of existential dread, as if you were desperately trying to dodge a deal with the devil but realizing it was too late, you have already signed your name on the bottom line. The snake-oil salesman won and it is turning us all mad. We have lost the Faustian bargain, the internet has our souls forever.
The special takes a tonal shift from comedic to sentimental in the seventeenth track, “That Funny Feeling,” as he abandons his signature keyboard for an acoustic guitar. With a forest scape projected on the wall behind him, Burnham elicits an intimate mood, as if the audience were huddled around a campfire listening to him listing off humorously tragic cultural phenomenons of ironic contradictions. His acute depiction of modernity’s bleak atmosphere yields a subtle yet deep sense of grief surrounding the chaos of the internet that we have so willingly accepted. Here, we’re all equal as we mourn the loss of both our individual and collective sanity. The “woke,” the “anti-woke,” and everyone in between can empathize about how the pandemic, neoliberalism, climate change, and modern media consumption have corrupted our lives and turned us against each other.
Before closing the special, Burnham takes a moment to address the viewer directly in the eighteenth track, “All Eyes On Me.” He simulates a live performance with pre-recorded audio of a crowd cheering as he wrestles with the ideas of returning to comedy, performance ego, and the trap of his fans’ attention.
In the finale, “Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant),” of his 2016 special Make Happy, Burnham confesses his unhealthy dynamic with his audience as he sings
“Come and watch the skinny kid with a / Steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts / To give you what he cannot give himself.”
These liyrics from Make Happy’s “Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant)“ and Inside’s “All Eyes On Me” epitomize Burnham’s complete oeuvre: it is about his audience, the gaze of whom he equally longs for and loathes.
Although five years have passed since he performed that song, his confessions throughout Inside reveal he is still struggling with this relational dynamic. Ultimately, his attempts to win his audience will prove to be futile, for this cycle will continue to prosper as long as he is beholden to their gaze.
Inside ends as the door finally unlocks and lets Burnham outside. Immediately upon exiting, he is caught in the spotlight as the sound of the pre-recorded crowd booms with applause. After he takes a modest bow he attempts to go back inside but finds himself locked out, on display, once again trapped by the searing attention of his audience. He is just as unsafe outside doing what he loves for an audience as he is trapped inside in complete isolation.
Critics of Burnham are quick to point out the scenes of his emotional outbursts included throughout the regression of his special. Whether scripted or candid, footage of a 30-year-old comedian breaking down in screams and cries is the embodiment of the tired self-indulgent wallowing so common with the terminally online intelligentsia. If taken at face value it comes across as navel-gazing — it is hard to feel sympathy for a commercially successful entertainer struggling to finish his Netflix special during a pandemic when there have been hundreds of thousands of lives lost during the last year.
We must remember that Burnham’s stage persona is just that: a persona. His facetious nature is to be taken at face-value just as each of our social media profile’s should be taken at face-value for the complex human we are beneath the facade.
I suppose this criticism simply reinforces this special’s ability to epitomize the pandemic experience: The pandemic WAS overly emotionally indulgent for many of us. We wallowed in unnecessary self-pity while remaining safe inside our homes perpetually doomscrolling on our phones, and to portray otherwise would be disingenuous.
Initially, I was off-put and disappointed with the surface of pandering identity politics in this special. Historically Burnham has shown introspective critical thinking about the ills of the cultural firmament and the entertainment industry in particular. Considering that he had already pandered directly to the idpol crowd in his 2016 special Make Happy with “Straight White Male” I would hope that an older, more mature Burnham had the wherewithal to abandon the tired self-flagellating woke straight white male act. But when further examined, if anything, this special is a direct criticism of how the online strain of hyper wokeness and performance politics contributes to worsening mental health, as exhibited in his deteriorating displays throughout the special.
This is the only pandemic art we need. Everything before or after this is irrelevant, I simply DO NOT WANT IT. If humanity is still kicking it in 50 years, we will watch Inside to remember how the COVID-19 Pandemic felt for the internet-poisoned millennials and gen-z among us. Burnham’s prolific expression zeroes in on the essence of these **unprecedented** times full of isolation, existential dread, personal inadequacies and artifices, and the deteriorating mind of the increasingly-irrational extremely online.
Inside cannot exactly be considered a comedy. There are not many punchlines at which to laugh. It won’t leave you feeling better about your insignificant place in our bleak world. As I sit with a sense of disquietude left from finishing Inside, I flirt with a thought from Kathy Bates’s portrayal of Gertrude Stein in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “The artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence.” Should Burnham be offering the antidote to pandemic despair? Or is his art more accurate for succumbing to it?
I think back to the ending of his last special, Make Happy. The conclusion is one of hope: Burnham combats his anxiety by leaving, at the time serving antitode, a reminder that we too can log off, clear our heads, rise above the angst of modernity. Only this time Burnham is back in the spotlight, quite literally, and we are left feeling the void of that angst alongside Burnham himself. To expect him to offer an antidote to the dread of a post-lockdown world is foolish, yet the shared catharsis over our shared grief is the closest thing we could get to an antidote in these troubled times.
score - 9/10
favorite tracks: welcome to the internet, funny feeling, eyes on me
The Smile — Glastonbury 2021 Live at Worthy Farm
genre — alternative rock, post-punk
for fans of — radiohead, thom yorke, atoms for peace
On the morning of Saturday the 22nd of May, the internet woke to glorious news: a new band featuring Radiohead frontmen Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood, Sons of Kemet drummer Tom Skinner, and Radiohead’s producer Nigel Godrich was billed to be the surprise headliner at the Glastonbury 2021 Livestream.
The Smile got its name from a Ted Hughes poem that Yorke had posted on his social media profiles days before the band’s “Live at Worthy Farm” announcement. Midway through their set, Yorke introduced the band with the most Yorkian intro I have ever heard: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are called ‘The Smile.’ Not 'The Smile' as in ‘haha!’, more ‘The Smile’ as in, the guy who lies to you every day….”
Unsurprisingly — considering two of the three members are in Radiohead — The Smile’s set was quite Radiohead-lite. The inherent nature of a trio lends itself to a stripped-back sound, yet this does not limit the musicians as they exhibited a wide breadth of songs. While they lack a single, uniting thematic thread as a whole, they are enjoyable nonetheless.
The Smile began their set with a rework of a former Radiohead d-side and current youtube bootleg, “Skating on a Surface.” For this revamped version, the trio abandoned the original 4/4 time signature in favor of a more complex 11/8 time signature. Initially, my ears refused to accept this change but it is growing on me now.
We get a glimpse of punk Yorke in track three, “You Will Never Work in Television Again." With Yorke's muffled voice, Greenwood’s accelerating guitar, and Skinner’s crashing drums, this song appears to take inspiration from fellow British post-punk acts like IDLES and Fontaines DC.
Another standout is track six, “Just Eyes and Mouth,” which features a catchy guitar melody from Jonny dearest, and is followed by my absolute favorite track of the bunch, “We Don’t Know What Tomorrow Brings.” Greenwood’s brilliant guitar work paired with sprawling liminal synths and Yorke’s frantic lyrics reminding us to not take the present for granted evokes a euphoric rush similar to that of my favorite Radiohead In Rainbows classics like “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.” Greenwood once again demonstrates how he is one of the most talented guitar players on earth as he shreds away with Yorke’s erratic babbling in the last 30 seconds of the song. The boys close with “Thin Thing” which is, to put it quite simply, another banger.
I was pleased to have my itch for new Radiohead material slightly scratched with this surprise set from The Smile. Though adopting an evolved style and outlook, their sound is reminiscent of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief and In Rainbows and Yorke’s solo projects, namely Anima.
While there have not been any further announcements on a potential album apart from their 30-minute set, the Smile have created social media profiles. Additionally, the Radiohead subreddit published that Yorke and Greenwood have already filed an LLC for a touring company.
score — 9/10
favorite tracks — you will never work in television again, we don’t know what tomorrow brings, thin thing