Wide Angle

The Problem With Bo Burnham’s Inside

Confessional meta-comedy doesn’t have rules about the obligation to truth. Yet.

Bo Burnham with overgrown hair and a beard.
Bo Burnham’s Inside. Netflix

I am keenly aware as I write this that I do not want to hurt Bo Burnham’s feelings. That’s one of many triumphs of his latest special, Inside, a work I’ve seen almost universally not just praised but loved. Even I, a person outside Inside—the special mostly fell flat for me—was moved to sympathy by the desperately self-conscious agony of its protagonist.

In trying to better understand the zeitgeisty nerve it hit—combing fan forums, eavesdropping on loving discussions of it online—I’ve been struck by the number of viewers for whom the special captured some essential aspect of their experience of this past year, with a specificity and precision that made them feel seen, recognized, understood. “I wept openly during the latter half of that song. I didn’t know I was still experiencing such immense grief but there it was. Thanks for helping me process my shit, Bo,” one person wrote in a television forum on Reddit. “Watching this entire thing has made me question how severe my depression is. I’ve always thought that I ‘just feel sad’ and am just in the same boat as everyone else struggling through the last 18 months. But a lot of this resonated with me so much,” wrote another. A third: “It left me feeling immensely vulnerable and depressed. I had to pause a few times before I could go on cause I had a hard time watching someone who clearly looked like he was in pain and just not okay. Saying he had gotten panic attacks on stage and then ending it with him on a ‘stage’ panicking to get back inside. Fuck.”

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I’m quoting internet commenters at some length here because Burnham’s special is of and about the internet. I think Burnham would agree that the online reaction to Inside is part of its story and these raw, admiring confessions suggest it smashed through the alienation the special describes. Inside is so meta that one sketch has Burnham commenting on himself commenting on himself commenting on himself. People liked that, just as they liked his stunt as gamer and avatar, and his song about “That Funny Feeling” on the peristaltic context collapse of the internet, including the exhausting “backlash to the backlash to the backlash” cycle of which I dread this piece may form a part. “It literally brought me to the edge of tears,” one viewer wrote of “That Funny Feeling.” “It shook me. Bo was never ‘just a comic’ and ‘art is dead’ showed me that, but this song was the point he transcended his medium as a comedy special and just straight up made poignant, evocative art.”

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In those forums I saw something else too: Many, many people expressed deep concern for Burnham. A lot of viewers responded to the ultra-relatable misery of that figure trapped in that tiny studio, sleeping in a messy bed, living on cereal, desperately tormented and desperately alone. Was he OK? And so a funny pattern developed in which some fans began to reassure others that this was not Burnham’s actual life. He’s a wealthy celebrity! He lives in a nice house with his partner, who’s a successful director, and two dogs! This room isn’t where he lives. Quite the opposite: It’s extra space he has to play with. It’s his guesthouse. Or his attic. Or his studio, people wrote. This was a character he created, a thing he was trying. Don’t worry. As one commenter put it: “Art is a lie. The film is presented like a captain’s log of a man living entirely in a single room by himself for a year. It’s a fantastic framing device. Burnham might actually be depressed, and we know he has mental health issues (5 years of crippling anxiety), but he also has millions of dollars, a partner he has been with for years (which it seems his character in this film does not have), a family and friends, a magnificent career. It’s obviously artifice but that doesn’t take away from any of it because there’s still a parallel sincerity in the art and a self awareness.”

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I disagree. Given the confused concern so many fans expressed, the artifice—specifically, the mismatch between Burnham’s circumstances and his protagonist’s—isn’t obvious. And it does take away from it. Confessional meta-comedy of this type, being relatively new, hasn’t yet developed rules about the obligation to truth. Burnham’s special thrives in that ambiguity. Framed by a claustrophobically dominant metaphor, Inside is about feeling as if you were trapped “inside,” where “inside” means existence on and with the faux-connectivity of the internet and the hell of your own brain and the confining square footage of a plain studio apartment during the pandemic. I take no issue with the first two; it’s the last bit that rankles. Opinions will differ on this: Does it matter that Burnham was not actually trapped in cramped, depressing, uncomfortable spaces that a lot of people actually and nonmetaphorically occupied? Or that he’s conflating immensely interesting artistic and existential questions with mundane but urgent material ones? I realize this sounds like a “privilege” argument and in a certain sense it is: I do question the choice to situate the story of your misery (and I believe Burnham’s pain to be extremely real!) in squalid conditions not your own to make your suffering seem greater. I’ll go further: As a piece of social commentary, I find the framing device clunky. Say, to take only a slightly more extreme case, that you see the modern condition as one of detachment, rootlessness, and precarity. Should you, a wealthy but tortured creator, channel this into art by presenting yourself as literally homeless and then encourage confusion between the character you’re playing and yourself?

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None of this is to say wealthy creators should refrain from tackling universal issues. And my main frustration with this special has less to do with any of that than with genre—specifically, the tiresome perils of nonfiction (to which Inside makes at least a partial claim). People have argued over whether works like David Sedaris’ should be called nonfiction given their relaxed approach to the truth, but most agree that you can exaggerate upward to make a story funnier. But can you exaggerate the other way? Can you make your story even more of a bummer? Does it matter—not even ethically, I mean, but just in terms of juicy narrative payoff—if the spine of your story isn’t true?

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We all know comedians punch up jokes or make stuff up completely: the thing that happened as they were walking down the street “last week” or at the airport or waiting in line usually didn’t and no one cares. James Acaster—the British comic whose remarkable 2019 show Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 feels like a useful point of comparison for Inside—was not in fact going into the Witness Protection Program as he repeatedly insisted in his older 2016 show Reset. Neither did he use one industrious bee to make five jars of honey.

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But different genres have different demands, and Acaster’s Cold Lasagne Hate Myself 1999 differs from his previous work because it jumps from comedy to confession. It’s based on his actual struggles and his actual life. Acaster adjusts accordingly and so do we; we may be watching the same exact performer and laugh at his jokes, but we understand that this particular show has higher stakes and weirder and arguably deeper payoffs. It’s that old “based on a true story” bonus: Most jokes are funny regardless of whether they happened, but Cold Lasagne shares a genre with specials like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette and Mike Birbiglia’s The New One that only works if the central claim is true. These are meta-shows that borrow a comedian’s stage and stagecraft and identity to smuggle in talk about real and more complicated things. Would Nanette land the same way if Gadsby—while truly struggling with mental health—didn’t actually get assaulted in the devastating encounter that special starts off joking about? What if Birbiglia didn’t have a kid or a sleep disorder but felt those conditions best captured his inner state? Would Cold Lasagne hit differently if—though tormented by anxiety—Acaster never actually had a girlfriend who left him for Mr. Bean? If the aggrieved fan reactions to John Mulaney divorcing his wife demonstrate anything, it’s that people cling to apparently autobiographical aspects of comedy specials they thought were true—like Mulaney adoring his spouse—even when the shows aren’t remotely serious or especially confessional. What happens when the whole show is about pain?

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I know my answer: If the inciting incident or “plot” is merely metaphorical, then a confessional special’s impact declines, no matter how eloquent its portrayal of anxiety or dread or self-loathing. So much of its effect depends on the claim—not true anywhere else in comedy!—that the stakes are real.

Burnham’s special deserves much of the praise it’s gotten. Inside is a major technical achievement, and it took immense talent in a dozen different fields to put it together. The best parts of the special flesh out his peculiar and fascinating position as a talented creator with a creator’s unattractive but very real need for validation. For example, when he starts screaming at the audience he hopes is watching but suspects of being on their phones, in a twist I find genuinely and intentionally hilarious given the artifice of the whole construct, he demands sincerity: He wants them to actually lift their hands up. When it strayed from this to broader themes, it struck me as a little generic. “White Woman’s Instagram,” to choose one very popular bit, was a slickly produced if somewhat hackneyed sendup of influencer performativity whose twist was the reveal (emphasized by the camera pulling out of that trademark aesthetic square) that silly Instagrammers are real individuals with private struggles. This is true of course but doesn’t feel in retrospect like a searing insight. And while Burnham beautifully articulates the hells of internet disconnection and overstimulation—”Welcome to the Internet” will stick with me—those themes are sufficiently resonant (or generic) that the Marines are using identical arguments in their recruitment ads.

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I don’t doubt that Burnham feels much or most or even all the angst Inside depicts. Perhaps he is a young creator who feels old, a rich person who feels poor, a man with more than usual freedom who feels trapped in a tiny space. These interesting and extremely human but abstract dissatisfactions suffer by dint of the forced comparison to crappy conditions real people really lived with during the pandemic. If Instagram women use filters and staging to make their lives seem better—and accidentally make them seem frivolous or insubstantial—Inside is no less artificial when it uses not just cameras but setting to make Burnham’s life seem worse.

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Or maybe he is just playing a character, an everyman eating cereal and feeling like a “saggy massive bag of shit” (who also happens to be a performer very like Burnham). To me, fudging that difference made it harder to care. But those discrepancies didn’t appear to matter to the people who loved it, and that it didn’t matter to them … matters to me. Maybe what Burnham had to say about guilt and isolation and boredom and vanity and hopelessness and anxiety was profound enough to annihilate any irksome mismatches between the irony and the truth. Maybe the spiritual malaise he captured mattered more than the metaphor it came in. Maybe that’s a measure of something Burnham understands about truth on the internet that I still don’t.

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