Bo Burnham’s INSIDE

Netflix is placing this with their standup and comedy specials. Netflix doesn’t know what else to do, in their infinite algorithmic prediction never anticipated a poioumenonic one-man cabaret filmed alone through the slow-motion breakdown we’ve been calling the Pandemic. The form of the musical revue is a classic though; I think it’s not an accident that all the people I know who have seen Inside also happen to be part of the flotsam & jetsam of professional theater, and all so eager to talk with one another about what we just saw, spilling out still tentatively into the venue lobbies of each other’s kitchens with the newly rediscovered sensation of having Seen A Show. 

During my own solitary drama of the past year, at one point I ended up on Etymonline looking up the root of the word ‘humor’ to see if it had any connection to ‘humanity’ (no). But at the end of the entry, just like an aside, a tossed off P.S., as if this wasn’t going to change the way I thought about comedy forever, Etymonline offers a guide from a Mr. Henry W. Fowler in 1926, “for aid in distinguishing the various devices that tend to be grouped under ‘humor’.” There are eight sorts laid out: Humor, Wit, Satire, Sarcasm, Invective, Irony, Cynicism, and Sardonic, and for each Fowler has, with just a word or two, defined its Motive/Aim, its Province, its Method/Means, and its Audience. The conciseness of it is truly something to behold—it’s really hit at both of the kitchen tables I’ve read it aloud at in the past week, in the midst of us trying to figure out just what the hell is happening with comedy in Bo Burnham’s Inside

I have a theory that like any good personality matrix, a whole new realm of fun pops off when you start layering things. What I’m wondering is if this might be something like Satire approached though the lens of Irony, with the resulting combination feeling way more unprotected than either on their own through this sort of double-negative of deflection. Because it’s like any ironic distancing he’s using is toward the use of satirical mockery itself—haha we’re all in on knowing satire is humor for the self-satisfied—but in pointing this one type of deflective humor at another deflective humor also in the room, and it’s a small room, he’s also catching himself being filmed from this whole other angle in the mirror behind him, and that I think is the strange and new quality to the way vulnerability is being accessed here.

Or you know, that’s just one sort of arcane theory about what’s happening. Another could simply be that the young man who wrote and directed the startlingly empathetic Eighth Grade happens to still be someone capable of startling empathy. The perfect sample case here of course would have to be ‘White Woman’s Instagram’. Maybe his number with the most production value, given just how many set-ups he did for his nearly Unseelie accurate montage mimicking a particular kind of Insta grid; certainly his number with the most Gender in it, which is so very fun. Sure it’s mean, if you want to get technical, but it’s mocking something deserving of being mocked, right, and like, it’s clueless white women, it’s fine.

Until the bridge comes in, and suddenly he is gently, devastatingly reminding us that every social media performance is the filter in front of another real human person, with real feelings and often real loss in their lives. As one of my friends put it, it’s this incredible moment because he’s still calling out something ridiculous, now the wince-inducing experience of people putting their grief online, but at the same time asking, where else do we have to put it? All this trauma? And so then that’s like it’s own level of tragedy as well! Fuck, fuck, Bo. And then! it’s so important to how this part works! that after the song ends we see him watching the playback of himself singing it on his laptop in the dark. Throughout this whole show the usual vectors of who is being implicated in the joke are being thrown off from the either simply other- or simply self-deprecating angles we’re used to in social comedy, catching him & all of us in the disco ball refraction of this little room.

Part of the strength of this meta-project definitely comes from the long legs it has in the historical tradition of the musical revue, particularly the darkly satiric mid-century chansons of Tom Lehrer or Jacques Brel. But I don’t want to miss the particularly of-the-moment legs this work stands on either, and I mean mostly the long bare ones of Bo Burnham himself. Inside is a time capsule of the 2020 condition in many, many ways, but maybe most visibly, god has he captured the lint and horniness of self-presentation in lockdown. Grown-out hair, smudges on your shirt, and posing with no pants like a self-aware depressed pinup just for yourself alone in your house—whomst among us, etc.!

I thought a lot about whether I think the question of “reality” in autobiographical art isn’t missing something about the experience of both art and reality. I thought a lot, throughout, about how he took care to include that early shot, in the sort of visual overture of the piece, of him moving his light source around and tilting his head to see the way the shadows changed on his face, and how I did that too before important Zoom calls. I thought about how the audio & visual cues he had to hit live while filming were always the most fun and the most sad because you saw him do it, because the constraint of just these four walls and these four limbs was so important to capturing…It. I thought about surrealism as a truer kind of honesty and accentuation as a kind of signal flare for something you might miss in the dark. I thought the phrase: “‘millennial-trained Brechtian Vine skills’, is that anything?”

I thought about the Elaine Kahn bit that goes:

I understand myself
only insofar
as it is funny.

(Admittedly I think about that line all the time.)

I thought about my own lockdown isolation. Holy shit I thought about my own lockdown isolation. The wavering, prolonged mental episode of it. The projects, the fixations, the bitter lethargy, the sodium lamp burn of a brief weird joy, and then it was gone. The Days of Crying turning into weeks of crying turning into somehow August, somehow a year. And how sometimes in an attempt to make my outside match my inside, I’d fall into a sort of theatrical heightening of the sad chaotic unwellness I was feeling, just to make it look a little more operatic, even though I didn’t even have a future audience I was trying to communicate my distress to, trying to convey it to them. If I did, I think it could have looked a lot like this.

Excepting of course the one hugely essential thing that somehow, unbelievably, I haven’t even addressed until now: the songs are really good. Bo Burnham is a pretty fucking extraordinary songwriter, and music…it does something to a person. Whether it’s this preposterously catchy, absurd little riff that makes you laugh every time in a way you can’t explain, or this heavily filtered, drowning swoop of strange heartbreaking beauty that you also can’t quite define, music can access emotional registers that we still don’t really have words for, even when the words are part of it. It’s a medium that connects something from soul to soul, something of the human condition. And in a solo show made in this tiny space cut off from the world, suspended in drawn out fear and loneliness for it, the thwarted connection in every song arrives to us now feeling like finally grasping a reaching hand.

Maybe that’s the best explanation for it.