Bo Burnham is Trapped in Parasocial Self-Awareness: ‘Inside’ Questions Performance and Authenticity Ad Infinitum

Bo Burnham looks at his phone as a video of himself is projected onto his t-shirt and the wall behind him.

Content Warning: Mental health, violence.

In one of many bizarre skits throughout his latest Netflix special, Inside, comedian Bo Burnham dons the character of a comedy singer-songwriter who performs a jazz number about unpaid interns, later transforming into a commentary YouTuber who reacts to his own performance. Caught in an endless cycle of analysing himself, Burnham grows increasingly more disturbed, noting, “I think that, ‘Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.’ But it…it doesn’t. Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.” 

Ironically, this very confession allows us as an audience to empathise with him even more. While he tries to warn us to hold him at a distance as an entertainer – that this is all a performance – we recognise ourselves in his painful introspection, and can’t help but feel a connection. His unlikeable “desperate need to be seen as intelligent,” (his own words) does the very opposite of what he proposes: it only makes us like him more as we understand his human need to be validated. 

Throughout the show, he retains this self-awareness as he plays, in different ways, the parts of both the performer and viewer, often watching himself talking to us, in a mirror, on his phone, projected onto the wall, or even his body. And because his comedy centres heavily on his own experiences and perspective, by proxy it becomes a mechanism to his own mental deterioration. He becomes his own worst critic and doubts his intentions and sincerity throughout the film, questioning both small incidents of his past such as the offensive nature of an Aladdin costume he wore at the age of 17, to larger existential questions about his own profession like, “Should I be joking during a time like this?”

The premise of Inside is deceptively simple: over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnham writes, directs, stars in, films, and edits an hour and a half special all within a room inside his home. It becomes, however, a direct reflection of the task that we were all given during the pandemic: to limit outside interaction as much as possible in order to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe, while also maintaining sanity during a year of, at times, unbearable grief, rage, and even boredom. 

Playing the role of a commentary YouTuber, Bo Burnham is caught in an endless cycle of reacting to himself perform.

Burnham’s musical lyrics reflect this jarring existence of being trapped inside. His song which describes “that funny feeling” is an almost exhausting list of pop culture references and current events we’ve lived through via the Internet in the past year, mixed in with the mundanities of everyday life in quarantine. Inside with no distractions and an inordinate amount of time, we are free to expend our emotional energy on anything that can grab our attention for more than a couple seconds. With “a little bit of everything all of the time,” we are both overstimulated with access to information and disconnected at the same time. As Burnham observes, whether we’re getting the self-help book we ordered delivered by drone, or following traffic laws in a video game, we live in constant contradiction, and the lines between the virtual spaces we inhabit and our reality are blurring.

The staging and set up of Burnham’s acts similarly explore this paradox of being able to communicate with the outside world while still inside. In a skit where Burnham mimics a stand up set taking place outdoors, we hear birds chirping in the background and see the shadow of foliage on the wall behind him. After his monologue – performed of course, from the seat of a barstool – about the digital world being much safer than any real human-to-human contact, the camera reveals the glaring stadium-like lights that help sustain the illusion. 

These moments of transition – Burnham watching footage of himself on his laptop with electrical cords strewn on the ground and stands blocking passageways – showcase the behind the scenes of his creation of the show. They simultaneously create an allure of authenticity while also sowing the same seeds of distrust Burnham is feeling in himself. An inside look at Burnham’s own frustrations at taking a breath at the wrong moment, or having to record another take, now become a part of the performance as well. What starts as endearing moments of humanity turn frightening as we begin to question whether they are just as fabricated as the skits. Like Burnham, we are left Googling “derealisation” ourselves.

With his own humble beginnings on the Internet, Burnham is no stranger to understanding his audience and replicating authenticity. In 2006, he began uploading videos of original musical comedy to YouTube, which launched his career, landing him a record deal with Comedy Central Records. At the age of 18, he became the youngest person to record a half hour special for the network. With his special, Inside, Burnham returns to the same feeling of being restricted to one’s childhood bedroom (as many young professionals similarly moved back into their parent’s homes during the pandemic), at one point watching footage of his first Youtube video on a projector, at another point pondering, “Am I going crazy? Would I even know? Am I right back where I started fourteen years ago?”

Wrapped in a blanket, Burnham lies on the ground speaking into a microphone with cables strewn around him.

If YouTube’s mission statement is a DIY attitude, then its currency is relatability. Before mainstream media corporations and celebrities began flocking to the site after seeing its skyrocketing financial success, the attraction of the platform was that to the extent a meritocracy could ever exist in our society, anyone who had access to a camera and the Internet could record and upload a video for millions to see. In a personal essay on writing his 2018 feature-length film Eighth Grade, which was a tribute to young people, Burnham says, “[young vloggers] failing to articulate their own lives was, to me, as beautiful and vivid a description of what it means to be alive today as anything I’d come across. These kids in these videos were somehow, all at once: personal, generic, public, private, confessional, conciliatory, clearly lying and yet deeply honest.”

Whether we go to the platform to escape our own lives or to feel seen, we still crave that authentic connection to the person behind the camera. With Inside, Burnham begs the question, does it matter whether that performed authenticity is sincere, manufactured, or perhaps even projected onto the actor by the viewer themselves? 

Parasocial relationships have been thematically featured in Burnham’s other work as well, most notably in a seven-minute Kanye-style rant performed at the end of his previous Netflix special, Make Happy. In very un-Kanye-like fashion, however, he reminds us he’s just a normal guy with relatable problems, first joking around about how he can’t fit his hands inside a Pringles can or keep the filling from falling out of an overstuffed Chipotle burrito, before very honestly admitting, “The truth is my biggest problem is you. I wanna please you, but I wanna stay true to myself. I wanna give you the night out that you deserve, but I wanna say what I think and not care what you think about it. A part of me loves you. A part of me hates you. A part of me needs you. A part of me fears you.”

With Inside, Burnham takes this conversation further, exploring the idolatry entertainers become entrapped in. He plays with religious imagery, wearing earrings with the shape of crosses, his hair grown out to look like the messianic figure of Jesus himself, and introduces the special with the song, “healing the world with comedy” where he sarcastically purports he’s a “special kind of white guy.” At one point, he stands against the backdrop of a projection of a cross, effectively declaring himself both our salvation and a mockery.

Burnham is splayed onto the wall against the backdrop of a projected light in the shape of a cross.

The audience is always in on the joke however, and it is these moments of laughter and levity that buoy us throughout the show. Burnham invites us to recognise ourselves in the moments we perform online as well, curating a sense of self. With the song, “White Woman’s Instagram,” a game of blissful naïveté and imitation is afoot as we recognise stereotypical images of pumpkins, cursive lettering, and off the shoulder flannels. Underneath these jokes however, an undercurrent of anxiety exists. If all the world’s a stage, and we are all merely players, where does the emulation begin and where does it end? 

The most chilling moments of self-awareness, however, lie within skits which act as microcosms of the very meta-commentary Burnham is eschewing. In a song about “how the world works,” Burnham mimics a Sesame Street style educational lesson acting as metaphorical and literal puppet master to “Socko,” a sock hand puppet. Once Socko claps back at Burnham, exclaiming, “Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualisation? This isn’t about you,” he receives a talking to and is violently torn from Burnham’s hand, reminding us that this show is in fact, about Burnham, a rich white man.

While being self-aware of his privilege, Burnham also reminds us that as an artist, his worth is just as reducible to capital gain for a larger media corporation (as we oh-so-ironically watch his special through the mega streaming platform, Netflix). And therein lies the ultimate tension: as an audience, we are unsure whether it is him holding us captive or us holding him captive. At times, he’s the one holding us at literal knife point while smiling and menacingly thanking his viewers, or commanding us to put our hands up, increasingly more aggressive in his desire to make us have a good time. 

Because we are not physically present, Burnham feels the absence of the audience palpably, and often inserts an ill-timed laugh track, muddling the very thin line of the audience laughing with or at him. At the end of the show, it is him who is surrounded. On a stage and locked outside of his home, he feebly covers his body with his hands in a pathetic attempt to hide himself from the spotlight and the derision of the audience who have got him right where they want him again, their laughter only growing louder.

In front of his house, Burnham stands on a stage by himself, with a spotlight on him.

Periodically, Burnham “checks in” with the viewer during the show, updating them on his progress in making the special, much like a vlogger might do. At the year mark, it’s been well past the amount of time Burnham says he’s anticipated working on the project, and after a confession that he’s not doing well, in a moment of absolute vulnerability, he breaks down and sobs. It is this emotional climax that is perhaps most sinister because while we are deeply scared for him, we are also caught wondering whether this is just another performance of our collective mental state during our lowest points of quarantine. Was this a sincere moment of vulnerability caught on camera, or a planned re-enactment that took multiple takes like the other songs in the show? Burnham is a much better actor, after all, than the average YouTuber apologising in front of the screen.

While we may never know the answer, the truth most likely lies somewhere in between. More importantly however, the authenticity of the performance is not the point. As the camera eerily pans in towards the camera in the shot facing us, almost as if capturing our reaction as a part of the scene, we’re pushed inward to the dark realisation that even if this was a cry of help from Burnham, his breakdown will remain memorialised in film as just another piece of art for us to consume and then continue on with our days. Burnham’s self-awareness does not relieve him of his pain no matter how much we as an audience feel for him, and our self-awareness as a collective does not absolve us from the harm that we inflict both publicly and privately. In true fashion, Burnham leaves us with more questions than we began with and the disquieting, funny feeling that there is something deeply and irreversibly wrong with the world, and in turn ourselves.

Watch the video essay version of Anuska’s piece here.

by Anuska Dhar

Anuska Dhar (she/her) is a queer Bengali-American poet, screenwriter, and essayist hailing from the Midwest. Her favorite shows/films include Insecure, Pen15, BoJack Horseman, and First Reformed. When she’s not actively trying to lead the entertainment industry revolution, she can be found reading, thrifting, or consuming way too much reality TV. 

You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @anuskadhar.

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