By Matt Hanson
Bo Burnham deserves kudos for calling himself out on his own bullshit. But that doesn’t absolve him of seriously confronting the problem of excessive self-consciousness, especially nowadays.
Bo Burnham burst onto the scene as a teenager back in the early aughts when the silly, sarcastic, outrageous wordplay in the songs he recorded in his bedroom appeared on YouTube and went viral. Baby-faced, hyperliterate, and gleefully outrageous — one particularly controversial, albeit tongue-in-cheek, ditty was entitled “I Fuck Sluts” — Burnham’s specials for Netflix like what and Make Happy showcased his skill at parodying and deconstructing comedy and musical clichés. Born in 1990, Burnham, like millions of millennials, grew up besieged by the nonstop barrage of imagery on the internet. He is keenly aware of both how powerful and how emotionally flimsy cyberspace really is.
Burnham’s new Netflix special, Inside, is his first public performance since he quit doing live shows years ago, after having experienced panic attacks onstage. The brash young upstart is gone — his hair is long and shaggy, he has a scruffy beard — and you can see a forlorn look in his eyes. The special was filmed throughout the quarantine year entirely in one room in his Los Angeles home, produced entirely by himself. It’s a nonstop one-man variety show, filled with songs and skits and ostensibly soul-baring monologues. Burnham’s caustic musical takedowns often hit the spot between silly and serious. But his meta instincts undercut his apparent desire to give us a sense of who he really is.
The amusing song “How the World Works” veers from a Sesame Street-like singalong detailing how plants and trees do their thing to Marxist analysis (spouted by a sock puppet) on white privilege and separating the worker from capital. It ends with the sock begging its complacent creator not to whip it off the hand that moves it. Burnham grins awkwardly: the point about exploitation and domination is nicely underscored.
There’s a brilliant show tune about the internet’s promise of offering “everything all of the time” by indulging anyone’s interests, no matter how weird they might be. The web promises users the power to wallow in everything all the time, ranging from creepy stuff like foot fetishism to such decent goals as fighting for civil rights,. The song’s jaunty, circus clown melody gradually morphs into a sinister laugh (comic book supervillain variety). The message — the omnivorous hideousness of the internet — is driven home perfectly. Another skit features Burnham surrounded by electronic gizmos, wrapped up in a blanket and curled up in the fetal position on the floor. He wonders aloud, in a preternaturally calm voice, if the dopamine rush generated by social media likes (and the profit-driven infrastructure on which the system rests) is healthy for young children.
There’s some pretty involved skits that take aim at the lifestyle branding of white women’s Instagram pages, the clumsiness of FaceTiming with your Mom, and the do’s and don’t of sexting. Burnham worked out all the production values in detail, including the use of complex editing and lighting cues. The result is impressive: it is a one-man show that moves briskly over an hour and a half.
Where the comedian gets into trouble is when his self-reflexive ironies and meta-commentary spin out of control. In one skit, Burnham performs a standup routine where, dressed all in black, he sits on a stool in a spotlight and wonders why everyone feels the need to share their opinions on everything. Of course, he’s making his own statement at the same time — clearly, the joke is on him. The problem is that the punchline is so obvious.
Then he takes the jape even further, performing a ’50s-style jazz tune about the woes of unpaid internships, which is abruptly cut off for the sake of a comment delivered in an annoyingly heavy NPR-style voice. And then that commentary is interrupted for a comment on the previous comment while the previous clips continue to run. And then he goes through the process again and again. As the screen-within-a-screen format yammers away, Burnham talks about the pretentiousness of this comedic concept. Essentially, he confesses he is motivated by the nagging need to seem smart. Admitting this, as he points out, is in itself a defense mechanism. Four screens deep into the meta-commentary, he finally makes an observation that is all the more profound because it is so casually tossed off: “Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything.”
The satire is obvious, and at his own expense. Burnham deserves kudos for calling himself out on his own bullshit. But that doesn’t absolve him from engaging the question raised by the issue of excessive self-consciousness, especially nowadays. The past year of quarantine gave us all plenty of time to burrow deeper into the recesses of our own heads, into our own specially curated clouds of media discourse. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the urgent problems we’re faced with, nationally and globally, as we crawl out of bondage to so much self-involvement.
Burnham is aware of how absurd comedy is in a world as screwed up as this one. The special starts on that note. Singing autotuned songs about having “all eyes on me” while he’s alone in a room he hasn’t left in months shows that he is willing to admit that his intentions are mixed. But the routines don’t go beyond confessing that he suffers from too much self-awareness. They don’t reveal (or absolve him of) any of his all-too-human failings. If anything, the gestures diminish them.
There are some quiet moments, when Burnham stops all the singing and dancing and tries to show what a fragile mental state he’s in. He looks haggard and weary and even seems, at one point, to break down in tears. He wants to break through his self-regard to something raw and real. There is an urge to share his own all-too-human confusions with an audience whose attention and respect he openly admits to craving.
But you can’t help but wonder, is this attempt at intimate self-exposure just another one of Burnham’s deft tricks of the trade? Why should we take him seriously when he drops the façade and starts acting real. Hasn’t he been self-consciously doling out façades all along?
Let’s accept that Burnham believes that self-awareness doesn’t actually absolve anyone of anything. That suggests that Inside is more superficial than even the comedian realizes. All the amusingly satirical song and dance routines end up pushing Burnham away from doing what he seems to want most. He is anxious to offer up a glimpse of something real — or at least gesture toward where it should be. But he gradually disappears down the endless length of an intricately constructed hall of mirrors.
Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at the Arts Fuse whose work has also appeared in American Interest, Baffler, Guardian, Millions, New Yorker, Smart Set, and elsewhere. A longtime resident of Boston, he now lives in New Orleans.