Bo Burnham Turns Your Insides Out

It’s unnerving how well Bo Burnham can find a nerve. I remember loving Eighth Grade but I can really only remember one scene specifically, and by “remember” I mean “I can still feel the scene in my body when I think of it.” The one where Kayla finds herself in the backseat of a parked car with a boy at night. Was he slightly older than her? Did he instruct her to get in the back or was she already there? I can’t remember. But I remember feeling a chest twinge as my heartrate picked up. The feeling is like fear but a little more threatening, like intimidation mixed with confusion. You feel sort of stupid and you don’t know why.

I remember feeling surprised that a man was able to so deftly bring a moment like that to life. And then feeling disappointment in my identifying with that moment, realizing the apparent universality of that moment for girls coming of age. You were one girl before that moment and a different one after.

Bo Burnham – I think I’m going to two-name him because it just makes sense – found that physical memory, found that nerve, and ever so lightly placed a single finger on it. The movie was about a thirteen-year-old, after all. There is no such care with Inside. This “comedy” “special” goes right ahead and rips off your skin and exposes your whole goddamn nervous system.

I have too many things to say about Inside to fit them into one review. It’s so good it’s shocking. It’s not shocking that it’s good. It’s so good that the sheer volume of things to say about it is shocking. I have nowhere to begin and nowhere to end with discussing how good it is. It’s probably even a disservice to put words to the experience of watching it that I shouldn’t even try but my therapist wants me to start journaling nightly, so… here we go.

Inside starts off how you might imagine a comedy special created after the last 15 months would: asking why a white guy like him should taking up space (pronouncing the “h” in “white” to achieve maximum cheeky flagellation), referencing the social unrest of last summer and most of the factors leading up to it while using a sock puppet (which is just a sock because pandemic). (Surely my own experience, but it was a tad sexually confusing for me? Bo Burnham, with his shaggy blonde hair and beard, was out here looking a little like a high school crush I had, definitely like the anglicized Jesus Christ, and – somehow particularly in “Unpaid Intern” – very much like Taylor Hanson, with whom I had an unceremonious break-up last year. It took me a while to settle in to his look.)

But Inside is not just any musical parody that sneaks in a morality lesson between bits of observational humor. It’s not just a comedian’s self-deprecating self-portrait that reveals the extent of their tormented artistry. It was bound to be clever. It was bound to be enlightening. But the degree of devastation that Inside imposes on you isn’t like anything you’d expect or could prepare for.

Because who is prepared to do this work yet? Through 2020 I often thought about how we as a species were going to handle the collective trauma, even as an upsetting amount of people minimalized its impact. As though the overturning of routine and order – not to mention confronting rampant death – on the greatest scale imaginable wouldn’t leave a mark. I wondered how I might contextualize my own bizarre experience within an increasingly fragile psyche. I was fully aware, present in the moment, when my mind and body were employing trauma responses. My usually great memory was shot. I’d often lose the thread of thoughts even as the words were coming out of my mouth. Not like I forgot what I was going to say, like before. Before. But like the words disappeared as they went from brain to my tongue. Whole patches of my brain felt like they were going dark, a product of my brain acknowledging the threat and powering me down to conserve.

And yet I couldn’t sleep. I was never the best sleeper but for the first time in my life I experienced insomnia. Sometimes induced by severe anxiety, sometimes hypochondria, sometimes because my brain wouldn’t stop churning, sometimes because there was nothing but buzzing TV static.

For the first time I had panic attacks. For the first time my skin felt like aggression manifested into a physical shape and was simmering under my skin. My appetite revolted and I still haven’t been able to eat meat without being a little grossed out. I began listening only to ASMR and spa music. Nearly all entertainment became palliative care because I could not handle being challenged psychologically.

And here comes Bo Burnham with Inside. Two months to the day after I was fully inoculated with the Pfizer vaccine. A little while after I abandoned wearing masks in public. After I did all the little simple things I used to do, like eating in a diner and going to the movies. I listened to new music again. Dare I say this vaccine made me a little cocky.

The concept of “triggering” has become something of a joke in itself, but how else to describe what Inside did to me while watching it? I watched it and it felt dangerous.

Even the structure is a microcosm of the pandemic experience. (At least for the privileged whites among us with deteriorating mental health, like those in my household. Hi, honey!) The first act of Inside is distraction, escapism, poking fun at white women’s Instagram preciousness. It’s baking sourdough, working on puzzles, making that foaming coffee. It’s acknowledging white privilege and problematicism in the kind of lighthearted way that might even convince the skeptics. The second act is something entirely different. It’s the utter collapse of a psyche.

There are scenes that spoke more to my experience than I was prepared for, like the mock video game or “All Time Low” or “All Eyes on Me.” They felt the most dangerous, the closest to a truth that showed me I am in no position to confront, but the scene that’s burrowed its way furthest into my brain is “Welcome to the Internet.”

It’s ostensibly one of the commentary numbers, less biographical and possibly intended as a respite from act two’s mounting despair. But it felt the most like 2020, as much as any whole calendar year can carry a feeling. When outside was a threat and inside felt like Socko’s liminal space, the internet was our collective portal.

What would we have done without it in the year spent indoors? This immaterial space of our own creation that transports us without us having to move, that sucked us in to such a degree that 2020 became the year that blurred the once absolute distinction between a physical self and an online self. If you don’t acknowledge the mass social change and post pictures of your kid’s birthday party, it feels like you’re actively ignoring a desperate plea from a room full of people. Like hundreds of people are standing in front of you, screaming for help, and you wordlessly whip your wrist around to reveal your phone’s camera roll. If you don’t change your profile picture to a black box you’re implicitly against the mass social change. If you changed your profile picture to a black box you’re being performative. If you remove the black box from your profile picture because you’re afraid of coming off as performative then you’re really performative. “The backlash to the backlash to the thing that’s just begun.” Somehow all are true and not at once. It’s not real, but it is. The muddiness will probably only get muddier from here.

“Welcome to the Internet” enjoys the time-honored weaponization of the carnival. It’s like when you see Pippin put on by your high school drama club, and after a jaunting but meandering two and a half hours you think you’ve just seen a below average musical when in the last moments you realize the Leading Player is actually a manifestation of Pippin’s intrusive thoughts and they just convinced him to literally kill himself. It’s like enjoying the sweet innocence of Dumbo and then “Pink Elephants on Parade” happens to you, with all the dissonance of an out of tune piano in a fever dream. (WHO LET THE ANIMATORS DROP ACID ON THE CLOCK.)

“Welcome to the Internet” introduces a ringleader, a Leading Player, a keeper of the internet with stock in its perpetuation. He describes to you what the internet is, rattling off a disorienting list of paradoxes and contradictions, a virtual playground where you’re always moments away from being a victim but also always a participant. It’s funny in a scary way, uncanny and off-putting though not quite hostile, but then he hits you with the line: “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?”

I think my jaw literally dropped.

He continues, “A little bit of everything all of the time. Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime. A little bit of everything all of the time.”

The darkness, the slow spinning of the green pinpricks of light, the sinister hint to a jovial tune, the extreme angles and quick cuts between an overwhelming litany of thiiiingssss. It looked and sounded the way I felt last year. My entire pandemic experience manifested.

He repeats the last verse before changing the lighting, and then the tone shifts drastically. The character changes. “You know, it wasn’t always like this,” he says softly.

He begins a ballad, a brief history of the pre-9/11, Y2K era internet that was at least kind of pleasant. He’s singing to the Zoomers, the generation coming of age inside, the first ones who will never know life without the internet. The interlude is hopeful, mildly apologetic, a display of best intentions on behalf of the older generations leaving this legacy and all that comes in its wake. “It did all the things we designed it to do.” He doesn’t have to say, “For better or worse.”

Because the ringleader comes back. Roars back, with a perfect, evil cackle that makes my skin crawl. Our intent is irrelevant. He repeats, slower, “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?” and my chest tightens. Then he plays the refrain twice as fast over disembodied background voices. And then the song abruptly stops and my head is still spinning.

“Welcome to the Internet” is a chilling benchmark of where we are culturally, the internet as the monolith that dictates our emotions, thoughts, and actions. We have enough distance from the beginning to still see it in our rear view, able to remember fondly what it used to be, but lack any control over what it’s becoming and where it’s going. The feeling is like fear but a little more threatening, it’s intimidating and confusing. You feel sort of stupid but you can’t stop yourself.

Inside lures you in with a major chord and plucky lyrics, then opens the floor beneath you. Bo Burnham isn’t doing it to you, though, he’s doing it with you. There hasn’t been a more unifying experience than what we’ve all just been through, though the internet would disagree. Bo Burnham finds universality in his personal experience and lets you in. All I wanted in 2020 was to be able to filter all of everything that was my experience into creative expression, but my brain in survival mode shuts down. Watching Inside brought it all back, but this is where the work begins. It’s not comedy and it’s not commentary. It’s a live wire.

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