I just watched Bo Burnham’s new special on Netflix called “Inside” and thought, true to what Bo says in the special, I ought to add my two cents.
I haven’t really followed Bo Burnham’s career. I’ve seen bits and pieces of his comedy and always thought they were funny, but I can’t say I’ve seen any of his whole shows until this one. I knew he did songs quite often. But, my reason for saying this up front is just to say that I didn’t really have any sort of expectations going in. I wasn’t even aware of the format of this newest special.
The format, for those who may not know, is more like a vlog / one-man-show with songs and then snippets of commentary. I’ll say upfront that I didn’t have any moments of laughing out loud while watching “Inside.” However, I think it’s clear that it wasn’t supposed to be that kind of comedy special. It was more in the vein of being self-aware, introspective, while at the same time being blunt in a way that makes talking about darker subjects (i.e. mental health and the state of the world during the pandemic) more…lighter? I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it. The comedy aspect of “Inside” has to do with the tone, much of it being done using poppy music and ironic self-awareness.
One of the big highlights of “Inside” has to do with the way it was shot. Bo Burnham did all the writing, camera work, lighting, performing, and editing, and it was all exquisitely done. He set out to make it in the tone of a man condemned to solitude, slowly going mad with existential angst and sociopolitical nihilism. This wonderfully caught the mood of the times, not just during the pandemic (which it does), but also the current state of western culture – people as brands, addicted to content, and manipulated by digital hegemony. One can get this just from the form of the show without knowing anything about the content.
Content-wise, I’ve seen some others criticize “Inside” for being surface level with its cultural and sociopolitical analyses. I think those criticisms are off the mark. This wasn’t an treatise on the harms of neoliberalism or an exegesis on the state of mental health. It was, as I said, more of a vlog or one-man-show. The name of the show, “Inside,” could be seen as more than just being that Bo Burnham (and everyone else) were stuck inside, but also as indicating the point of view: “thoughts on things from Inside the mind of Bo Burnham in the year 2020.” And even if the cultural commentators who found it to be surface level weren’t impressed, it could at least act as a jumping off point for people who haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about the topics covered in the show to begin looking into it.
I think if there was one point from “Inside” that nudged my own thinking the most, it was when Bo Burnham mentioned how people who are more well off use their interest in certain causes as a means to self-actualization. It reminded me of the quote by Jean-Paul Sartre: “the poor don’t know that their function in life is to exercise our generosity.” I think the way it was stated by Bo Burnham, however, did a good job of focusing this on the motivation of individuals to use their ‘generosity’ as a means to self-actualization, rather than viewing it in the more abstract way that Sartre’s quote does.
One part that I took some issue with, particularly after seeing it praised in another review I read for the show, was when Bo Burnham talked about using his youth as a cover for some of the “problematic” things he said in the past. I do think it is important to own up to what we’ve said and done in our past – I have spoken in other posts on this blog about how much of a dick I (and, to be fair, everyone else in my cohort) was as a teenager in the later nineties and early aughts, when using gay slurs was common – but I think it’s also the case that young people (teenagers in particular) doing and saying really stupid things is practically a part of their nature. A teenager’s brain is literally still underdeveloped. It would be foolish to think that a sixteen-year-old should be held to the same standards of self-reflection and wisdom as a thirty-year-old. Doing stupid things while young and then regretting it when older is the very definition of wisdom.
Anyway, I just thought I would go ahead and serve my digital feudal lords and chime in with another hot-take on something currently in the cultural zeitgeist (it is, still, isn’t it? Am I too late?)