Feeling Bo Burnham's comedy (and thinking about it, too).
Cliché alert: is there such a thing as being too talented for your own good? Personally, this question went through my head as I was watching Inside, Bo Burnham’s latest Netflix comedy special. Apart from confirming its author’s unquestionable skills and expressing his own trouble with anxiety, this hybrid comedy musical/lockdown vlog is an urgent reminder of the mental strain we all endured through this pandemic. A strain, to be sure, that was both relieved and complicated by the hyper-mediated performance of our lives through social media. This week I discuss how Burnham’s comedy has been articulating this ambiguity since the beginning.
We are talking about being physically constrained and over-stimulated, so here’s a quick treat to remind you we can be productive AND sane at the same time.
“There’s only one thing I can do… while still being paid and the center of attention.”
I have referenced Horace Walpole’s famous dichotomy on this newsletter before — “the world is a comedy for those who think, a tragedy for those who feel”. Let’s be honest: it’s not true. We all think and feel, and comedy (like art in general) is a thing that helps us modulate the two, turning sadness into laughter and vice versa. Bo Burnham’s latest special, Inside, is a textbook example of that.
Shot in the comedian’s own LA home during lockdown, this one-hour hybrid (part sketch, part diary, part visual art) alternates tight satirical bits and looser footage, assembled together in a somewhat documentary fashion. The musical bits (Burnham’s signature format) focus on themes like social media vacuity, white privilege and performative woke-ism; the rest depicts a familiar, captivity-induced mood deflation — something we viewers are likely to have experienced as well, except we probably did not have a Netflix special to deliver on top of that.
Inside is exceptional for its sheer directorial gusto (Burnham’s crafty use of lighting turns the one room into a mesmerizing kaleidoscope, adding an avant-garde allure that is very rare in comedy), but more importantly it addresses issues of mental health that have become more urgent than ever. To be fair this is not the first home-bound, mental health-themed comedy special I’ve seen (Maria Bamford’s Special Special Special was pioneering in that sense), but Inside definitely stands out for its timeliness. It is also a testament to Burnham’s ongoing preoccupation with the empathic nature of art and the ambiguous relationship between a creator and their audience.
“Brace yourself, America: you are watching exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of a pre-celebrity.”
These words come from the first scene of Zach Stone is Gonna Be Famous, a show Burnham co-created for MTV. Presented as a mockumentary, the program follows Bo as a less talented, more David Brent-esque version of himself, as he tries to become famous and embarrasses everyone in the process. Hustling to become famous and the painfully self-conscious process of achieving that are at the core of Burnham’s poetics, but perhaps the TV format wasn’t cut for him. Zach Stone didn’t go very well: it aired in 2013 and lasted only one season. My guess is this: it’s the individualized resourcefulness of the Internet that makes Bo really thrive.
Before becoming the youngest comedian to ever land an album with Comedy Central, in fact, Burnham started on YouTube, making songs in a room that doesn’t seem too different from the one we see in Inside. As a child of social media his comedy is fast-paced and media-savvy, often drawing attention to his own eagerness towards fame, as well as the inauthenticity of the formats he mockingly adopts. In this sense, Burnham’s comedic DNA is heavily indebted to the masters of the meta- and the absurd (not only Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin, but also more obscure figures like the Dutch Hans Teeuwen). What separates him from his artistic influences, however, is his art is decidedly projected towards the accelerated and amplified dimension of the Internet. The default tongue-in-cheekness of this natively digital environment results on one hand in occasionally gratuitous edginess (some of which can be annoying), on the other in a genuine, compulsive self-awareness that Burnham expresses across his work.
“I am an artist, please don’t respect me.”
The song above, from the special Words Words Words, is quite explicit. In it, Burnham denounces the counter-productive “making” of the self-involved artist, encouraged by success into a cycle of immaturity and narcissism. He delivers the bit with an intensity that ventures beyond comedy, embodying the tortured artist and simultaneously refusing this persona. By anticipating potential criticism or judgement and incorporating it into his art, Burnham reminds me of the character described by David Foster Wallace in a famous short story titled “The Depressed Person”. DFW’s story is good because it puts you inside the person’s mind, endlessly bouncing between a compulsive need to share and articulate their pain and a deep self-loathing for this narcissistic impulse, and the impact it has on other people’s time and energy.
This conflictual relationship seems to animate Burnham’s enactment of the artist-audience dialectic, and it also illuminates it within comedy at large. There is something generous in putting yourself and your life in comedy, sharing things that may be tragic and making them funny for a viewing public (think Richard Pryor discussing his heart attack VS George Carlin’s brainy wordplay); there is also, however, an exclusionary element in making something that can be universal specifically about you. Burnham himself expresses this very clearly in a podcast interview, after describing how a few years ago he started having panic attacks during shows. While audiences didn’t notice (he managed to never lose a beat on stage) and deep down he admittedly wished the experience was his own only, he later realized how important talking about his anxiety really was: “The thing I was most terrified of and the thing that actually saved me: I am not unique and I am not alone.”
For someone who is desperate to let you know he gets it, whether he is being funny or not, Burnham’s emphasis goes beyond his own status of artist/creator. In fact, I propose his work is really about the whole emotional knot that ties the performance of everyday life and the empathic nature of art in one nervous ball. Perhaps he demonstrates this most effectively in Eight Grade, a movie about a 13-year old girl named Kayla who faces everyday social anxiety as she transitions from middle school to high school. The movie could just as well be about Burnham’s own stage fright, but the point is today the stages are everywhere, from parties to phones to the intimacy of our own rooms. Kayla is shy and lonely, but she is hard-pressed to be cool, sexual, ready in the event of a school shooting — she has every reason to be anxious, yet she desperately wants to participate, and she soldiers on. She shows up at birthday party where she is not really wanted, sings karaoke, bluffs about having nudes in her phone to impress a crush. She monitors Instagram all the time and asks the most intimate questions to Google, but while her relationship with technology is depicted as problematic it is not devoid of agency. Like Burnham himself, Kayla makes YouTube videos to teach people how to be confident — she only has a handful of views, but it’s very clear the advice is meant for her own benefit, and in fact she even sends video notes to her future self. Her voice and tone are hopeful, but she knows she might need some reassuring. Unlike more patronising takes on the social media generation made by older comedians (e.g. David Cross’ Hits), Burnham’s movie is a sometimes brutal, sometimes funny reminder that “stage fright” is not an exclusive burden of the tortured genius, but a common condition that unites people of all genders and ages.
Going back to Inside: the special is precious because it taps into a wider feeling, a sadness that needs exorcizing, but Burnham’s message is not just the expression of pandemic reclusion. The isolation and narcissism are not exclustive to social media, either. Looking at the Netflix hour next to Kayla’s tale, perhaps we can catch a more hopeful message: it’s OK to feel disconnected, but it’s also OK to be connected differently, at your own pace. Embedded as it is in the heightened sensibility of the Internet (unlike David Foster Wallace’s short story), Burnham’s comedy demonstrates we can take affect seriously even when it comes in mediated form. In reference to the dichotomy mentioned in the opening: we don’t have to be either feeling our human disconnection as a tragedy or cynically dismiss our stereotypical narcissism by laughing at it. We can embrace the awkward by making it a collective experience.