Bo Burnham’s “comedy special” Inside is a fascinating and masterful production, not merely for its film technique and music, but for its insight into the psyche of its creator and the generation he represents.
I feel justified in saying this not merely because he and I have birthdays about three months apart, but because Inside has clearly struck a nerve among Millennials — a nerve that others have been toying with like a sore tooth for the better part of a decade now.
The premise of the documentary is simply Bo being trapped inside during the pandemic, and trying to retain his identity as a comedian… but without an audience. But there might not be a single feature of this film that isn’t a double-entendre or layered in its meaning, and the title is no exception. What it demonstrates is the way in which being trapped inside a building traps the producer inside his own head, and the catastrophic effect this has on his health and well-being over time.
There’s a line from one of the songs — “30” — where a condescending Burnham tells the upcoming Zoomer generation:
…I’m out of touch? Yeah, well your fucking phones are poisoning your minds, okay? so when you develop a disassociative mental disorder in your late twenties, don’t come crawling back…
I was exploring the connection between internet usage and depersonalization/derealization syndrome back in 2019, and it’s a serious point — one which existed prior to the pandemic (which is to say, prior to the lockdowns). Locking everyone inside exacerbated an existing trend, which was also summarized by Burnham in perhaps the most memorably creepy song from the whole show, called “Welcome to the Internet“:
Can I interest you in everything all of the time?
A little bit of everything all of the time?
Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime
Anything and everything all of the time
In his strangely Gregorian song “All Eyes on Me,” Burnham describes his struggle with these pressures over the previous five years. He had just reached a point of strength sufficient to begin performing again, in January of 2020, “and then, the funniest thing happened…”
The lockdowns then were not so much the source of the problems described, but revealed and highlighted the already existing dangers of the confusing, inhuman digital space we are living in. Perhaps the tragedy for Burnham, having worked so hard to claw his way out of that pit, only to be thrown like Sisyphus back down again, makes it extra painful.
But as a viewer, I sometimes had a difficult time empathizing with Bo’s pain. This is where I think this review might deviate from others — such as those of Slate, Vanity Fair, and Arts Fuse — which seem compelled to criticize Inside, mostly by accusing it of (of all things) inauthenticity. Because Burnham is rich and famous, it’s impossible that he could really be feeling the kind of suffering he portrayed.
Just like Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.
I think there is a political instinct behind this compulsion to criticize Burnham, because the film vividly and explicitly associates a political worldview with the deteriorating mental health and well-being of Bo Burnham. The advocates of this political worldview would be correct to feel uncomfortable watching this association unfold.
Burnham brings up the relevance of race several times, always within a left-wing frame. Some of this is subtle (“White Woman’s Instagram“), and some of it is overt (“Comedy,” “How the World Works“). There is already a deep sense of self-consciousness and guilt baked into these ideologies, at least if you are a white male who accepts them. That self-consciousness and guilt is what is depicted so vividly with the slow-zooms and stark use of color in Burnham’s film-work.
The guilt and self-consciousness are portrayed as byproducts of realizing the harm of internet usage while at the same time making millions as an online content-creator. But the logic of objective morality (specifically redistributive justice) that draws people to liberal conceptions of justice is the same logic that draws people to prefer the cleaner, more reliable, more predictable digital world over the messy, less reliable, less predictable world of organic life.
This link is actually depicted lyrically in “Problematic,” where Burnham’s guilt and self-consciousness becomes explicitly political as he masochistically asks “isn’t anybody gonna hold me accountable?” The objective morality created by Christianity, Enlightenment Transcendentalists, and Science all look down on humans as untrustworthy, hurtful, stupid, and disgusting. This disgust becomes self-disgust among the self-aware holders of these ideologies, who feel themselves to be unworthy of their own digital creations. In his book Why We Drive, Matthew Crawford referred to this feeling as “Promethean shame” — the feeling of being beneath one’s own constructs.
One can’t help but notice the psychology of disgust at work in the COVID lockdowns, wherein other people are viewed primarily as disease-vectors… a view that is persistently reinforced by the visual reminder of medical masks and the incessant propaganda of virtually every media platform. This psychology is so powerful and entrenches itself so deeply that many people will be unable to fully emerge from this mindset, even two or three years after all of the lockdowns have ceased.
But that very psychology has been at work in the minds of Millennials for decades now, taught to view robots as essentially superior to humans in all regards. In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle describes a growing preference for robotic and digital interactions over “IRL” (in real life) ones.
It’s easy to see how someone who has accepted this ideological framework and recites its talking points — someone like Bo Burnham — would wallow in feelings of self-disgust… self-disgust on top of the depression, loneliness, and derealization experiences brought about by the “superior” machines we hoped would improve our world. Or at least leave it better than what the imperfect, dirty humans had done with it so far.
As a fellow 30-year-old, I confess to have had no experiences of depression, suicidal ideation, or even loneliness throughout the entire pandemic. Negative feelings were reserved primarily for the bureaucrats who thoughtlessly enforced deeply un-American rules in the name of “health” while destroying the well-being of untold thousands of isolated individuals… like Bo Burnham.
But I wasn’t among those whose well-being was destroyed.
When the gyms shut down, I lifted rocks and built myself a pull-up bar.
When the bars shut down, I brewed my own mead, and had friends over (without masks!).
While everyone retreated to social media, I dug deeper into books — particularly Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.
But perhaps most importantly, I didn’t believe the prevailing narrative. We know the official COVID death-count has been exaggerated because of the set-up: (1) hospitals were incentivized to lie about cause of death, (2) there would be little to no consequences for lying, and (3) a lot of people were involved.
Under that set up — when it pays to lie, when there’s little consequences for lying, and a lot of people are involved — the official numbers will be wrong 100% of the time.
Not 90% of the time. Not 99% of the time.
100% of the time.
This appears to have been the set-up for virtually all aspects of the COVID narrative since December of 2019 — with the notable addition that China provided consequences for telling the truth.
This is also the set-up for the official narratives about most things, including politicalized histories and moral ideologies that might lead one to write a song like “How the World Works.”
In the end, Bo Burnham’s Inside doesn’t just depict the declining health and well-being of a 30-year-old who’s been trapped in his own head, thanks to the internet and COVID lockdowns. It depicts the declining health and well-being of everyone who gets ensnared by the guilt-inducing ideologies of the prevailing liberal culture. Feminism, body-positivity, Black Lives Matter, communism/anarcho-syndicalism, anti-racism and anti-colonialism, what we might call “ecological saviorism,” LGBTQ activism, transhumanism, and — prominently in this film — digital futurism, are all iterations of a deeper anti-human philosophy. This philosophy destroys our identity by attacking the value of complex biological entities (like ourselves) as inferior to cleaner and more predictable building blocks — apps, algorithms, and academic aristocracies. It distrusts the ability of the organic to fend for itself. Humans must be protected from our environment, from each other, and from ourselves. Eventually, it would be better if we were just replaced.
And maybe — for our own health and well-being — that’s a bad call:
I don’t know about you guys, but, um, you know, I’ve been thinking recently that… that you know, maybe, um, allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit… You know, maybe that was, uh… a bad call by us.
Maybe… maybe the… the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a… lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody, except for, um, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley… Maybe that as a… as a way of life forever… maybe that’s, um, not good.
This Post Has 4 Comments
My New Handle12 Jul 2021
I’m increasingly of the opinion that we should take the idea of the internet being the ‘world wide web’ literally. It spins a web that catches and devours its ‘users’ much like a spider. Honestly I’m strongly considering just going for a year without the internet just to see what happens.
C.B. Robertson12 Jul 2021
It’s a fitting image.
I’m hopeful that usage of the internet can be distinguished into kinds. People on Toyota forums (built on crude html) talking about transmission swaps are not using the internet in the same way as people who permit their usage to be mediated for them through creepily puerile “apps” and algorithms. I don’t have the right language to make that distinction yet, but Matthew Crawford offers a pretty good starting place with technology more generally.
Vince McNichol20 Jul 2021
I find that your underlying assumption about Bo’s political views hampers this review a bit, though I still found this to be one of the better reviews I have read. Very well written. I do think he is showing what adopting certain political views does to the mind, particularly in a lockdown scenario, but I don’t believe he has adopted them himself. He has always been at a (relatively) safe distance from politics in public interviews. In other words, I don’t believe Inside is a confession, but rather an exploration of his thoughts and ideas about popular culture.
C.B. Robertson20 Jul 2021
I’m glad you enjoyed the review.
I can’t say I agree with your assessment of “Inside” as mere social commentary. In “All Eyes on Me,” when he describes departing the stage for five years to deal with mental health issues, he really did vanish for five years. At minimum, that part was more confession than mere commentary. It’s still performative, and he’s expanding his presentation to bring in common experiences among others to make it more relevant, but that doesn’t mean
Just the nature of his comedy — not to mention the medium in which it has mostly found success — implies a familiarity with the internet that takes time, and when he talks about digital existence poisoning minds, it sort of logically follows that it’s coming from personal experience. It fits with his anxiety issues, and is captured so well by the filming technique that it’s hard to believe it isn’t personal. He also alludes to similar themes and feelings in (what I believe was) his last live performance, which was the “Can’t Handle This” Kanye Rant bit.
That said, I think you’re right on the political stuff. I wasn’t trying to accuse Bo of MAKING a political statement, only that if one has accepted certain political beliefs, it sort of naturally comes out in how one approaches certain topics. Bo’s politics are incidental and peripheral, but nevertheless visible; to me, it looks as if he did adopt progressive politics, even if he’s politely reticent to proselytize them to the world. And the spiritual symptoms of progressive oikophobia (fear or hatred of the familiar) are similar to the spiritual symptoms of transhumanist/digital futurist ideologies: namely, self-hatred.
The inclination to the one might relate to a susceptibility to the other, insofar as they both share this feeling of self-disgust, which — tragically — can lead into self-reinforcing ideologies just as much as the ideology can result in the feeling. And the derealization/depersonalization that seems associated with prolonged “alternative living” in the digital world seems able to create this experience all on its own.