“Real authenticity is just empathy because everyone views their own experiences as being the gold standard for authenticity. If you can empathize with people and make them feel that what you’re talking about is somehow reflective of their own experiences, then you’ve won their vanity and thus achieved authenticity.”
This is a throwaway line from a Josh Tillman (AKA Father John Misty) interview, but the line “you’ve won their vanity” has stuck with me, and now it’s not far from my thoughts when making or enjoying any kind of art. What it says for me is that vanity—the need to be seen, understood, admired, appreciated—is there in any artistic exchange. As both artists and audiences, we need to see something of ourselves in the work.
But we know, and Bo Burnham knows, that vanity is a monster. The need to be regarded can be all-consuming. We can step away from our better selves in the need to be seen and heard. Bo knows the threat of the attention-monster because he is one. In his previous comedy specials (which I only finally watched after watching his latest, Inside, which debuted May 30th on Netflix), he has the sort of kinetic energy of world-class attention monsters like Jim Carrey, Dane Cook, or Robin Williams—guys who just won’t stop performing for fear that you might look away. It’s that struggling vanity that made his earlier specials Make Happy and what. off-putting. (Among being a little too fond of using words like “pussy” and “faggot.”) Really, Bo just needed to grow up, and miraculously, he did.
Among those earlier specials, Bo also shows both the cultivation of intense self-awareness and a knack for using formally daring audio visual effects—prerecorded audio, stage lighting, off-stage video, etc.—and it’s the cultivation of these skills that have prepared him for Inside. When the time is right, he corners his inner attention monster in a room and shines a dazzling light on him, and in doing so reveals something reflective of his audience as well.
The songs of Inside appear on their face to be little more than uncannily well-made pot-shots at aspects of internet living. Bo takes on the all-too-cliche stagecraft of Instagram posting on “White Woman’s Instagram,” the hurdles of using digital tech with baby boomers on “Facetime with my Mom,” the perils of expressing sexuality through emojis and photos on “Sexting,” and the problem of having a public internet past as a young artist on “Problematic.” Musically, visually, comedically, they all hit direct center of their targets while parodying genre forms from the thirsty white-boy soul of “Facetime” to the chugging movie-montage of “Problematic” with laser accuracy (It doesn’t hurt that Bo is in varying states of undress throughout, and brings a lot of grown-up beard-o sex appeal to the choreography).
Funny songs would have probably been enough. But look again at the tracks that make up the first half of Inside without the musical verve and hilarity (as Bo often asks you to do by soundtracking his spoken word interludes with brooding variations on the themes of earlier songs) and you begin to notice a pattern: the surreal expansion of the digital space into everyday life, and the dissociation of that digital content to the reality of the outside world.
This dissociation gets its most acute representation well into the second half at the special’s poetic center—the song “That Funny Feeling,” which asks you to look at a litany of juxtaposed happenings from the past year through the lens of internet-induced psychological derealization. “In honor of the revolution, half off at the Gap,” “Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war.” The “funny” here is a double entendre. Sure, funny as in comedy, as in “isn’t the internet crazy?”, but also funny as in odd, as in surreal, as in somehow wrong, funny as in the way capitalism will wear any and every mask of concern, funny as in the feeling of playing-out of complex interior needs through digital simulation. Bo sings, “Reading Pornhub’s terms-of-service, going for a drive, and obeying all the traffic laws in Grand Theft Auto 5” in front of a projection of forest trees as an LED lighting system approximates the flickering light of campfire to match his folksy guitar playing.
“That Funny Feeling” has Bo “googling derealization, hating what you find.” If you go ahead and Google “derealization,” this is what you may find: “An alteration in the perception of the external world, causing sufferers to perceive it as unreal, distant, distorted, or falsified.” Indeed, our relationship to the internet, like our relationship to TV before it, changes how we perceive all things. “That Funny Feeling” brings the enormity of the situation into focus—between our technology and our vanity, we are not what we were before, and for better or worse (and let’s just admit, worse) we may never be the same.
The sharp contrast between inside and outside life allows Bo to create a kind of mythic space of interior and exterior-ness, outside and Inside, to mean physical vs. digital, but also outgoing vs. self-involved, anxiety vs. safety.
The long curve of this derealization gets its emotional internet history told in “Welcome to the Internet,” where Bo plays a carnival organ grinder shilling for the internet’s “little bit of everything all of the time.” He then switches gears to paint a nostalgically optimistic picture of the rise of internet 2.0, its utopian vision and promise of emotional involvement, only to pivot back to the carnival persona with a devilish laugh to reveal the whole digital promise was a Faustian bargain: “It was always the plan to put the world in your hand.” The agoraphobic consequences of this plan point back to one of “That Funny Feeling”’s most devastating lines: “The world is at your fingertips. The ocean’s at your door.” Even before global pandemic, this feels achingly true.
But, the pandemic as a staging device for Inside is perhaps its greatest asset. The sharp contrast between inside and outside life allows Bo to create a kind of mythic space of interior and exterior-ness, outside and Inside, to mean physical vs. digital, but also outgoing vs. self-involved, anxiety vs. safety. As the lines, blur “inside” oscillates between haven, hiding place, and prison.
At the same time, the pandemic moment itself turbocharges the expansion of the digital sphere—that is, as the pandemic makes interacting in physical space prohibitive, it necessarily and conversely increases the frontiers of the digital social landscape. That digital space becomes ever more vital, more necessary for emotional sustenance, and more central to the sharing of ideas as it absorbs our attention, and this wildly dissociative vanity planet grows and grows.
Bo knows all this because it has long been his bread and butter. His 2018 film Eighth Grade is all about the dissonance of living in both the digital and physical social world. Its protagonist is coming of age in this digital vanity world and projecting her social anxiety in the physical world directly into the pure cringe of a painfully curated “knowing” internet video persona. Bo knows all this because he himself was an internet content creator that got his start while YouTube was in its infancy and has built his life from those beginnings. He made silly songs as a youngster and the internet kept asking for more content—a process which has led him to stardom, and also depression and panic attacks. A lifetime of coming to terms with the internet’s terms-of-service has prepared him for this moment.
Inside’s brilliant “reaction video” bit, in which Bo ends up accidentally reacting to his reaction video, works much like the arc of the entire special. Bo makes a funny song. He reacts to seeing it by trying to dignify it with heady thematic explanations. Then, he reacts to that by calling his reaction pretentious, and even reacts to that by exposing his need to level every criticism possible to anticipate outside criticism, and ends by admitting “I want this to stop.” Likewise, eventually the tongue-in-cheek virtue signaling of Bo’s call to adventure “Healing the World with Comedy” breaks down over the course of the special’s 90-minute run time and Bo is left with little but the apathy and vanity of “All Eyes on Me,” which does away with any rationalization for attention and demands directly of the viewer unmediated adoration and solipsistic affirmation that humanity is a lost game. Not surprisingly, it’s time to stop.
Inside’s tiny door to the outside is the same door Bo exits at the end of his previous special Make Happy. In that special, from the inside of that door we see Bo exit onto a green lawn and walk toward what appears to be a loving pet and girlfriend. We’ve been conditioned to resist the temptation to call this a happy ending, but we are nonetheless allowed to if we so choose. We are allowed no such fantasy watching Inside. The stage has expanded to include that space as well, outside is just another part of inside, another stage on which the ego plays out its vanity show, indeed soon Bo is back inside his room regarding the whole scene. A last second smile is all we have. Is this an authentic glimpse at Bo’s interior state? Probably not. It’s little more than a polite emoji in an email.
I’ve only touched on part of Inside, which is sprawling but thoroughly captivating. I’ve not even mentioned two of my favorite bits, one with a woke sock puppet named Socko, another with a woke brand manager with a man bun, that while hilarious, illustrate respectively how wokeness is brought into the waiting maw of capital either by stick or by carrot.
One way or another, we are all having to come to terms with the terms of service and this is why Inside is so powerful, because in some way Bo’s reflection on his technologically enhanced self-regard is our own. Bo has “won” our vanity, in the Josh Tillman sense. And, perhaps ironically, has succeeded in capturing that elusive zeitgeist somewhere at the intersection of comedy, entertainment, technology, and self-regard in a way Tillman has long tried but come up short of the prize. It’s no fault of Tillman and others who have attempted, Nero-like, to sing the fall of our particular civilization, but perhaps in keeping the internet at arms-length (one might argue for good reason) they just don’t know, like Bo knows, what the place looks like from the inside. | Mike McCubbins