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Still from Bo Burnham's 'Inside' (2021).

Trying To Get Inside Bo’s Head After Watching Bo Burnham’s Inside

Written by
Lucas Schaefer
and
and
June 17, 2021
Trying To Get Inside Bo’s Head After Watching Bo Burnham’s Inside
Still from Bo Burnham's 'Inside' (2021).

Who would’ve guessed that we needed another Netflix comedy special from a white male comedian to help us reflect on this past year? Not me! And turns out, it’s pretty damn good. 

Robert (Bo) Burnham, a comedian singer/songwriter who began his career on Youtube during its infancy, created an entire comedy special in his living room aptly named Inside. The word “unprecedented” has been thrust into all of our vocabularies since 2020 and continues to be applicable in describing this strange and witty special filled to the brim with catchy songs you’ll be surprised to find yourself singing along to. Let's talk about three of the major themes featured throughout the film!

Bo watching his own first screening of the special.

1. Performance anxiety, and the double-edged sword of audience feedback

After its announcement on April 28th, Inside took a lot of Bo Burnham fans off guard (myself included) since he had previously stated that he would no longer be performing live stand up, and even mentions this during the special:

“Five years ago, I quit performing live comedy because I was beginning to have, uh, severe panic attacks while on stage, which is not a great place to have them.”

This marks a staple theme of the special, with Bo’s anxiety surrounding live performance being heavily touched upon throughout. Various lyrics and scenes hint at how performing these songs without an audience is safe, providing a large amount of creative control, and at the same time mind-numbingly isolating and provoking a tad too much introspection. Comedy is (normally) an art that relies heavily on audience participation and feedback. Without the audience’s laughter to keep you in check, it’s difficult to know what jokes landed and which flopped. Bo plainly shares this difficulty in the song “Don’t want to know” after the intermission:

“How are you feeling? Do you like the show? Are you tired of it?

Never mind, I don’t want to know

Are you finding it boring? Too fast, too slow?

I’m asking but don’t answer ‘Cause I don’t wanna know

Is there anyone out there? Or am I all alone?

It wouldn’t make a difference

Still I don’t want to know”

Literally checking in with his viewers, in full knowledge there won’t be a reply, Bo demonstrates this tension between needing audience feedback and fearing their judgement of your work. It simultaneously shares his preference as well; it’s difficult to be any more transparent than saying “I would rather not know what you think about this.”

In lieu of audience feedback, Bo takes on the role of determining what’s funny, worth keeping, and what needs revision. In a sense Bo is making this special with nobody’s input but his own, resulting in a tremendous amount of pressure and time spent critiquing himself without an outside perspective. To give us a glimpse into what this was like for him, we have the scene where Bo falls into an “infinite reaction regress” to the song “Unpaid Intern”, where after a short  clip of the song Bo begins to explain and critique the song just shown on screen. However, the clip continues with the initial reaction video that he had just made, eventually becoming a chain of 5 reactions to reactions before abruptly ending. Before the scene changes, Bo says, “I don’t like looking at myself like this, and I want… I want this to stop.”

Bo’s reaction regress to his song Unpaid Intern.


This scene showcases the unexpected downside of directing, writing, filming, editing, and starring in your own special. Bo had to watch hours upon hours of his own performance, noticing every minute detail and mistake, with the time and ability to redo a scene at whim. Transitions between scenes further emphasize this, often showing Bo listening to the previous song on his laptop, or even restarting songs after a seemingly small error. This can be seen after the songs “White Woman’s Instagram” and “Look Who’s Inside Again” respectively.

Another particularly striking example worth mentioning would be the scene between “Bezos II” and “Funny Feeling”, where Bo cynically states:

“Y’know I’ve learned something over this last year, which is pretty funny. Um, I've learned that real-world human-to-human tactile contact will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space. That the outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space. One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with a coal mine. Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.”

This scene struck me as too earnest to instantly write off as just a facetious or sarcastic bit. It’s delivery communicated a genuine, and perhaps guilt-ridden admission from Bo. Realizing he’s able to avoid the agony of performance anxiety, judgement, and real-life parasocial interactions with his fanbase, Bo communicates his acceptance of the resulting logic produced by this anxiety; that this is the preferable “much more safe...real...and vital space” to perform his comedy. The isolation and constant self-criticism is worth it, especially if you use that self-criticism as your material!


2.) The role of comedians in issues that, well, aren’t funny

Bo stays true to form with his brand of comedy and flaunts his self-awareness towards his own career, and the careers of white cis-het male comics as a whole, with the first track of the special: “Healing the World With Comedy”. This song, dripping with satire, brings attention to the fact that he’s trying to make a Netflix comedy special during an international pandemic, alongside other concurrent global tragedies that he probably shouldn’t be trying to compete with for the public’s attention. Instead of heeding his own criticism he (fortunately!) used it as a jumping off point for the special, featuring these biting lyrics: 

“I want to help to leave this world better than I found it, and I fear that comedy won’t help and the fear is not unfounded. Should I stop trying to be funny? Should I give away my money? No! I know what I gotta do. Healing the world with comedy, making a literal difference metaphorically. I swear I’d never be back and now I’m back on my feet, healing the world with comedy.”

Bo finding his niche... lol


The lyrics within the song, accompanying some visuals like the one above, also provide his viewers with the direction of where he’s “punching”; while he has your attention he’s at least going to get you to laugh at the right people, even if it’s himself. What viewers might not expect is that he may encourage you to laugh at yourself along with him. It seems natural that when we listen to self-criticism, we’re inclined to apply that same criticism to ourselves to see if it fits. I had a moment where one of Bo’s criticisms hit home during the song “How the World Works” after Socko replies to Bo’s character with a surprisingly complete analysis of global socio-politics that I won’t spoil for you here:

Bo: That’s pretty intense.

Socko: No shit.

Bo: What can I do to help?

Socko: Go read a book or something, I don’t know. Just don’t burden me with the responsibility of educating you. It’s incredibly exhausting.

Bo: I’m sorry, Socko. I was just trying to become a better person.

Socko: Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-policital conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization? This isn’t about you. So either get with it or get out of the fucking way.”

While I may not be rich, I definitely first engaged with politics as a white person with the idea that I was bettering myself for doing so, and even verged on centering myself in supporting those struggles. Yikes. Well, perhaps this is what Bo hoped for in his audience; to help them recognize themselves in the jokes he’s telling and encourage them to do better after realizing that. Even in light of Bo’s criticism towards the role of comedy used for this purpose, it’s refreshing to consume a piece of media where you’re able to find out something new about yourself as opposed to just losing yourself for an hour or so. It’s felt like a long time since something on Netflix has done that for me.

3.) “#Content” and “what the hell have I been watching?

Bo laying amongst various kinds of equipment, venting about media conglomerates preying on kids as reliable consumers of content.


I won’t be surprised when research emerges finding huge shifts in the amount of different kinds of media people have started consuming during the pandemic. As we’re told to stay indoors as much as possible, people will turn to everything they usually would do while they’re inside: shows, movies, pornography, video-games, social media, music, audio-books, or whatever helps bide the time before you’re able safely go outside. Well, it’s been a year now, and you might be finding yourself in a similar place to me: habitually binging youtube videos and shitty reality television wishing that I had spent my time differently without being able to stop.

It’s become a commonplace understanding that social media, streaming services, and video sites like YouTube structurally incentivise you to keep watching their content. Using algorithms and marketing techniques to exploit your psychology and maintain your attention, it’s common practice for these sites to provide a wide variety of content in hopes of serving every possible need you could have. Providing you with “anything and everything all of the time”, in hopes of mining you for user data or ad revenue. This concept is taken to it’s radical conclusion in Bo’s song “Welcome to Internet”, with indicting lines showcasing the hidden principles of these digital media corporations like “apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime” as well as the absolute whiplash they provide to their users when attempting to do this:

Bo performing 'Welcome to The Internet'

“Here’s a healthy breakfast option! You should kill your mom. Here’s why women never fuck you. Here’s how you can build a bomb. Which Power Ranger are you? Take this quirky quiz! Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids.”

The creeping and increasing tempo of the song does an excellent job demonstrating the absolute info-overload that we know and love (but mostly hate) from the internet. Despite it’s scarily catchy lyrics considering it’s content, this isn’t even the most poignant part of the song! After a couple verses, Bo does a tempo change and shifts to a reminiscent tone:

“Not very long ago, just before your time, right before the towers fell, Circa ‘99, this was catalogues, travel blogs, a chat room or two, we set our sites and spent our nights waiting for you, you, insatiable you. Mommy let you use her Ipad, you were barely two. And it did all the things we designed it to do. Now look at you. Look at you. You, you, unstoppable, watchable. Your time is now, your insides out, honey how you grew, and if we stick together who knows what we’ll do? It was always the plan to put the world in your hands. *maniacal laughter*”

This bridge in the song is spoken from the perspective of what we now know to be huge digital media/tech corporations before they accumulated the incredible wealth and power they have today. The initial lines of this part describe how these companies were lurking, waiting for their first perfect consumer: literal toddlers. The second half shares an insidious admiration of how they’ve moulded these children into retaining these desirable traits, mainly being  “unstoppable” and “watchable”. It’s scary to think of anyone viewing children this way, as “the reliable target audience” for their product. And it feels even worse when you realize it’s about you. We were those kids and, well, look at us.

Bo playing the closing song 'Goodbye'

All and all, there’s a lot to take from Bo Burham’s Inside, much more than I can cram into this article. It masterfully encompasses a variety of interrelated themes from this past year. Through publicized personal analysis of himself and his career, Bo encourages us to reflect on our own lives as we live through times where evil is an everyday occurrence, and tragedy is met with equal parts apathy and outrage. Saying that this Netflix comedy special is unique would be an understatement, which is pretty on brand for Bo. There aren’t a lot of comedians producing the same kind of material that he consistently provides. Hopefully this won’t be the last special we get from him. Otherwise it may be a while before we encounter something like this again, which is all the more reason to cherish this beautiful and twisted labour of love he’s shared with us while we can. If you haven’t yet (lucky you!) check it out and see what else you’re able to glean from it. If you’ve already seen it, I hope this article gives you an opportunity to watch it again in a different light. Regardless, thanks for reading and take care.


OPIRG - Dis-O Week 2021
New Canadians Centre
Sparq Retail
Written By
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OPIRG - Dis-O Week 2021
New Canadians Centre
Sparq Retail

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What’s a Rich Text element?

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A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. Voila!

How to customize formatting for each rich text

"Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system."
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