Little more than a month after its release, Bo Burnham’s Inside is already being heralded as the first great piece of art to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic. Its premise is fairly straightforward: Burnham, trapped inside due to the pandemic, endeavours to write, perform, shoot, and edit a full-length comedy special, all within the confines of one room. The end result is not only a successful comedy special, full of Burnham’s typically sharp social commentary, but a depiction of his steady mental decline due to self-isolation. Burnham has often drawn from his own struggles with mental illness in his comedy, neatly summarising his own appeal in the final song of his special Make Happy as coming to watch “the skinny kid with the steadily declining mental health / and laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself.” However, while Burnham draws on his mental illness for material with introspection and humour, it is outshone in Inside by his commentary on the mediating role digital technology increasingly plays in our lives.
More than any of his previous specials, Inside sees Burnham reflect on how the internet has changed our lives. The unravelling mental health that Burnham lays bare is not simply a result of being trapped inside; it emerges from the realisation that, pandemic or not, much of our engagement with the world is contingent on the digital sphere. Rather than an individualistic account of one man’s struggles with mental illness during lockdown, Inside is better understood as a horrifying look at a world moving far too fast. Burnham’s most direct engagement with this theme comes in the song ‘Welcome to the Internet.’ Burnham, taking on the character of a huckster or carnival barker, tries to sell the audience on “everything, all of the time.” The song becomes a maddening whirl that captures the sense of bombardment from every angle that being overly online can create. Taken on its own, ‘Welcome to the Internet’ is a piquant take on digital life, with a vaguely sinister tone. Taken in context, however, after an hour’s depiction of Burnham’s steady mental decline, the confident, villainous tone of the song takes a different form. Burnham’s character becomes a villain who has won; an emissary of the internet who knows that he has a captive audience. Trapped by physical isolation, in order to interact with the world we have no choice but to open ourselves to everything, all of the time. The coronavirus pandemic, and the social isolation it imposed, caused a further retreat into the digital world. Inside charts the transition of society’s centre from that of the real, physical world to that of the digital, with the real world sidelined as nothing more than a source of prospective content.
Burnham best captures this in his acoustic track ‘That Funny Feeling.’ Equipped with an acoustic guitar, Burnham abandons the lavish production of the other songs in the special, instead creating what feels like a gentle reprieve. The lyrics, however, bring the audience back to the malaise Burnham has diagnosed, consisting of a laundry list of references to the maddening world of online culture: “Carpool Karaoke / Steve Aoki, Logan Paul.” To the well-adjusted viewer, the song is nonsense; to the overly online viewer, however, ‘That Funny Feeling’ is a stream of references and callbacks to obscure events and cultural markers – legible, and disorienting. Burnham captures the sense of being overwhelmed which the internet can create – the feeling that we aren’t meant to know who half these people are, let alone their thoughts on whatever culture war is consuming the zeitgeist – even as the digital world steadily supplants the real world as the centre of our culture.
This critical approach to the digital world is coupled with relentless introspection. Burnham himself rose to prominence as one of the first viral YouTube stars, aged sixteen. Throughout the special, Burnham reflects on the role that the internet played, offering him a creative outlet, and an escape from loneliness. This affection for a different kind of internet to the hollowed-out, ultra-corporate one we now have shines throughout Inside. Rather than a scoffing dismissal of the digital age, Inside celebrates the genuine warmth of human connection that the internet can offer, while ruthlessly dissecting the profiteering that drives many digital platforms. In Inside, Bo Burnham manages to hold a degree of respect for the positive role the internet has and still can play, while making an urgent case to take the digital world away from the centre of our communal life.