Entering Bo Burnham’s Inside: Reframing Internet Conventions
In Inside performer Bo Burnham attempts to come to terms with performing for an audience, via the internet, alone. He intermingles multiple conventions in a singular performance that speaks volumes about our contemporary digital age. Have a look Inside: “Come on in the water is fine.”
Inside (2021), is Bo Burnham’s fifth comedy special. Unlike in his previous four live specials, Burnham is now beset by a new challenge. It is the same challenge we all had to face this past year. Because of social distancing we were obliged to broadcast ourselves from our homes via the internet. Therefore, Inside is not set on stage in front of a crowd, as most comedy specials are, it instead takes place inside Burnham’s home. More specifically, a single room serves as the special’s full set. The performer explains “It’s just me and my camera, and you and your screen. The way that our Lord intended. And the whole special will be filmed in this room.”
Burnham recorded his first YouTube video alone in his childhood bedroom when he was sixteen. He is no stranger to broadcasting himself on the internet. Because of the restrictions imposed by social distancing he returns to form. Writing, shooting, editing and directing the special grants Burnham full authorial control over the piece; a struggle that he does not shy away from exposing, leaving in considerable outtakes of himself setting up cameras, trying lights, recording and reexamining songs, and even breaking down into tears. We are let inside Burnham’s process and mindset as he wrestles with constructing the special by himself. The fruit of his labor is a comedy special that explores the paradoxical affordances of the internet as a means of communication; a means that both unites us more than ever before, but also segregates us into screens.
In practice, Burnham illustrates the language of the screen on the internet visually. The multiplicity of communicative functionalities afforded by the internet have provoked the establishment of different aspect ratio conventions. The special operates with a 16:9 aspect ratio, but for the song “FaceTime with my Mom (Tonight)” Burnham transitions into a 9:16 to evoke the visual language of a video call conducted vertically on a smartphone. For the performance of “White Woman’s Instagram” he transitions into a 1:1 aspect ratio to evoke an Instagram feed.
Heavily influenced by Dutch absurdist Hans Teeuwen, Burnham subverts expectations for comedic effect—A clear echo of Teeuwen’s work (Live in London, 2008) in Inside is the dialogue between comedian and sock puppet in the song “That is How the World Works”. Only, Burnham’s subversion is specifically directed at internet conventions. Through both skits and songs, he ridicules internet tropes. Reaction videos, overly “woke” marketing campaigns, our reliance on Amazon, the loneliness of sexting, solitary Youtubers thanking invisible audiences, secluded streamers speaking to seemingly no one.
It becomes clear that Burnham’s biggest grievance with the oxymoronic nature of the internet, is that it enables you to speak to everyone but talk to no one. Burnham has experienced this firsthand, because he began so young on the internet he recognizes the internet as his community. Sophie Quirk spoke about alternative comedy in a virtual research event held by the University of Kent's Performance & Theatre Research Group, Alternative Comedy: Now & Then (2020):
“…things should have an authentic kind of connection to what you as an artist feel needs to be done and needs to be said, that things should be imbedded in a real sense of community and [that] the best things are things that you hand make yourself…”
Burnham sidesteps traditional stand-up conventions in favor of internet conventions to speak directly to his community and handcraft a special that communicates volumes on the theme of loneliness. Inside speaks on this subject matter because Burnham understands the solitude of growing up on the internet, caused by the need to broadcast yourself at your very best. He stated in the podcast, “You Made It Weird”: “I think the generation that labeled the ME generation does not understand what the impulse is. The impulse is running from oblivion, running from invisibility, running from death.” (2016) The impulse, as he phrases it, to post on the internet, does not come from the need to be looked at, but rather recognized. The so called “ME” generation is asking to be remembered, recognized and validated. An internet post relies on others for adherence. It relies on the likes, shares and follows of others to stave off loneliness. In the end an internet post is not an invitation to be looked at, but rather an attempt at relevance and validation in a chaotic and indifferent universe. Burnham elaborates on the inspiration for his award-winning film Eighth Grade (2018). “That girl isn’t saying look at me, that girl was going like, how can I fit in this world?” The internet exacerbates loneliness, and the confinement of social distancing aggravated an already underlying social dilemma. Something that Burnham struggled with when performing without a physical audience.
Towards the end of the special Burnham attempts to become the crowd that he so longs to perform for. For the song “All Eyes on Me” he elegantly fades in and out of shots with a transparency effect added in post. He submerges the audience in a chaotic, overlaying of multiple shots of himself; and in doing so invites the audience to participate in the act of "disassociation” that only being a member of a large audience affords.
At large gatherings we lose ourselves. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 The Great Gatsby, character Daisy Barker remarks "I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy." The finale of Inside reminds us of the importance of the communal experience that is congregating with a multitude of strangers. Burnham walks the line between being intimate with the audience, directly addressing the camera and even picking it up in the climax of the song, and letting the spectator be just another drop in an ocean of people, an anonymous part of something much larger than themselves.
Inside makes us laugh but also self-reflect on our relationship with the opaque nature of the screen that is the internet. So if you are at home, watch Inside with someone you love.