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'Your Time Is Now, Your Inside's Out': Performance and The Internet in Bo Burnham's Inside

This post is going to spoil the above comedy special. If you wanted to watch it and feel like this would ruin the experience for you, then here is your warning to stop reading and go and watch it. 


One of the first thoughts I had after watching Bo Burnham's Inside was 'despite having virtually no internet presence, this man makes comedy like someone who is perpetually online'. Without a doubt, Burnham's comedy special (if we are to call it that) is ostensibly about the internet, how it functions in our lives and what affect it has had on us during the period of isolation that was the pandemic. The reason I question the title of 'comedy special' is because, whilst there were moments of levity, it felt like the darkest piece of work he has produced so far, not really achieving many laughs from me, but definitely touching me deeply. I haven't been able to watch it back really, even when writing this up, because I don't really enjoy having the past year relayed back to me in all its horrible glory. 

A further reason, and the one Burnham addresses in his special, that it may be difficult to even define this as stand-up comedy is the absence of the stage and the audience. Like much of his work, Burnham constantly asks us to think about the form and what needs to be done to create laughter from the people sat at home. It's ironically fated that Burnham should have to move away from the stage as his work in Inside is able to focus on what the function of the audience is in this setting and whether comedy even has a point if there is no one there to laugh.

As a performer, Burnham has always had an adept understanding of his audience and often attempts to reflect back to them their own points of view. His other specials have had an intense awareness of how they will be viewed. Whilst this hasn't disappeared, it has transformed. With the stage removed, Burnham uses a single room to convey the loneliness, anxiety, horniness and perpetual self-reflection we all had to go through whilst stuck in our homes. 

A still from Inside. Bo Burnham sits in darkness with a spotlight on him. He is wearing sunglasses and playing a keyboard.

Referencing technology in a way he has never done before, like in the songs 'FaceTime with My Mom (Tonight)' and 'White Woman's Instagram', this special seems like his most topical. Inside became a reflection of the pandemic, how instead of having friends to confide in, we were forced to perform our identities in a more focused and chaotic way to the internet in order to obtain the same kind emotional validation we may have gotten from real life connection. He also theorises in the song 'Welcome to the Internet' that this was a culmination of late stage capitalism and the monopoly the internet has had over our lives in the past decade, and that the pandemic just magnified this.

His ending songs in what. and Make Happy both solidified what Burnham's thesis is regarding comedy, performing and his start as a internet viral hit. 'We Think We Know You' from what. uses the microcosm of three individuals believing that they have a personal connection with him after hearing about his work to talk about his relationship with his audience. Once the phrase 'we think we know you' is repeated over and over, he turns to the audience, conveying that they may believe they know him as well, even when he has made it explicit through his stand-up that every part of his show is carefully constructed. As he says earlier in what., 'art is lie, nothing is real'. 

This is furthered in Make Happy when he performs 'Can't Handle This', where he talks about how parasocial relationships are mutually destructive, choosing to focus on the effect it has had on him this time. He often warns throughout his specials what kind of relationship the audience should have to entertainers, but in this case, he confesses how much he also needs his audience and how this need scares him. What's interesting is the discussion of how those with the power in a relationship are affected by wielding that power.

A still from Inside. Bo Burnham is locked out of his room and is struggling with the handle. There is a spotlight on him as he does this.

In Inside, this comes to a head, with Burnham being forced back into his home, and without the stage as barrier for artificiality, he is forced to mimic that of a YouTube vlogger and work from inside his room, a private space that we haven't seen much of before this. For me, this special seemed to convey the abject horror of trying to keep a healthy distance from your audience whilst also allowing them inside your personal space for the sake of a good performance. The ending shot of the special is haunting and seems to convey a twofold meaning. By attempting to go back into his room, he is attempting to escape the vulnerability of exposing his pain through art. But moreover, by exposing this, even when he has constantly stated that he is performing at all times and that what he is making is a construction, he has unintentionally cultivated a worse parasocial relationship; without the shield of the stage, authenticity is assumed, even if that's not what is actually happening in the special. Like he states, 'your inside's out', referring to how you're encouraged to act in the most vulnerable way online for the sake of engagement. Where there is a stage, the artifice can be maintained, but his room is intimate and even if he is still performing, you may believe he is confessing to you, and the horror comes with this choice between emotional truth and vulnerabilty, and upholding that strict barrier between performer and audience.

In my opinion, Bo Burnham could confess his deepest, darkest secrets, and this would still be a performance. The act of allowing a camera into your personal space does not mean that what is being shown to you is true. What is so thoroughly depressing to me about this special is not the vulnerability the comedian is displaying, but rather how much Burnham understands about the mindset of his audience and what they would want to watch. How we have made it so easy for him to construct an image of us, sitting there, watching, mimicking back our moods perfectly. How our insides were so readily available for him to make comedy about and he didn't even have to look very hard for them. Because on the internet, we were giving them away so willingly.


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