On loop: Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’

By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The American comedian’s vulnerable and nuanced look at constant perception in the digital age

Bo Burnham in Inside. Image © Netflix

Watching Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special during Melbourne’s fourth lockdown is an eerie experience. The comedian wrote, filmed, edited and produced the show over a pandemic year, and for just under an hour and a half, he unravels in real time for an invisible audience, mostly in one room of his house. The madness is plain to see as his appearance becomes rougher and his eyes more manic; a week into being locked into my own home once again, I feel the walls close in, just a little. 

Combining skits, music, satire and monologue, Inside captures the chaos of a busy and anxious millennial mind. It’s about the experience of isolation and mental illness brought on by COVID-19, but it is equally about the experience of isolation and mental illness in an increasingly online world, where there is an expectation to be perennially present. 

Burnham is self-aware, sometimes painfully so. In the first song he wonders about the point of comedy at all when bigger things are happening, and in “Problematic”, he nods to his own privilege. At times, the latter feels discomfiting – am I meant to give this white guy props for acknowledging that he is, in fact, a white guy? – but when it works, it works well. “How the World Works” is a highlight, beginning as a Play School-esque song to teach children about nature before a sock puppet turns it into a rallying cry against worker exploitation, cleverly turning the gaze back onto Burnham (“Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualisation?”)

The special brings to mind Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel, No One is Talking About This, which illuminates the experience of constant perception in the digital age. In Lockwood’s novel, the unnamed protagonist is pathologically online, seeing the world through an endless scroll; when real-life tragedy strikes, she’s able to parse it only through its relationship to memes and online culture, as a coping mechanism or as pure escape. In a recent New Yorker article, another millennial writer, Jia Tolentino, described being “so obsessed with perception that I’d stop actually perceiving”.

This idea of perception as inescapable is, I think, at the heart of Inside. Burnham can’t stop perceiving himself: he makes a reaction video to a reaction video to a reaction video, and streams his video game sessions on Twitch, but the computer screen shows Burnham sitting in the very same room. We watch as Burnham the Twitch streamer controls Burnham the shut-in: cry, stand up, cry, sleep, cry, play music, repeat. Echoing the Radiohead song “Idioteque”, in “Welcome to the Internet” he sings, “could I interest you in everything all of the time?” The relentless demand and presence of the internet creates a loop of exhaustion that is unable to be broken, and we see the ways in which this wears down the individual. Burnham seems to be saying that we constantly perceive, but often cannot make sense of what it is that we are seeing.

While this may sound anti-internet, I think what both Burnham and Lockwood are getting at is the way in which technology has changed how we view the world and ourselves, and the feeling of overwhelm that can often come with being constantly “on”. Whether it’s a good or bad thing feels almost irrelevant; it just is.

Within this framework, Burnham cleverly creates a distorted hall of mirrors, seeing new versions of himself at every moment. He is frighteningly candid about his deteriorating mental state, identifying feelings of suicidal ideation, depersonalisation and dissociation. Turning 30 in lockdown, he ponders that at 40, he’ll kill himself – then redacts the thought, imploring viewers not to contemplate suicide. Then he corrects himself again: “but if I could kill myself for a year, I’d do it today.” 

Such an admission is as disturbing as it is oddly comforting to a viewer like me, who’s had similar thoughts but never been able to voice them. Burnham’s constant self-correction and interruption feels wild and discombobulating, made all the more so when intercut with footage from both past and present, showing the changing face of one person. It’s self-indulgent and solipsistic, but also strangely generous and comforting.

At its most unhinged, Inside feels like a psychotic break. There’s a moment where Burnham holds a knife and grins maniacally while staring straight into the camera lens, and I desperately wanted to look away, but could not. Moments like this feel so deeply personal in the glimpse they give of the comedian’s harrowing mental state that it feels almost wrong to witness them.

It all ties up in the special’s final moments, when Burnham emerges into the light to warm applause, only to desperately try to go back inside when the applause turns to laughter. He becomes anguished to discover that the door is locked – and then this moment turns into a film, watched again by Burnham himself. Zoom out, fade. The loop continues.

All of this sounds bleak, and it is, but Inside is also very funny. Burnham excels in balancing light and dark, presenting a vulnerable and nuanced look at what it feels like to exist at this moment. It’s a strangely beautiful, cinematic work of the zeitgeist, illustrating the perpetuity of perception in the age of constant presence – no beginning or end, so many questions with no satisfying answers. Everything and nothing all of the time.

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen is a Vietnamese-Australian writer and critic based in Melbourne. 

Bo Burnham in Inside. Image © Netflix

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