A Love Letter to Bo Burnham: Inside

In the spirit of the meta-commentaries in Bo Burnham: Inside, it would be acceptable to break the fourth wall and say that this is coincidentally the fourth draft (even if the second one already passed the 700-word mark) of my attempt to understand why I love Burnham’s recent Netflix special. I finally came to realization in my twelfth rewatch why I kept going back to this work marketed as “musical comedy special”, dubbed by others as “performance art“, “documentary“, “chaotic masterpiece“, and by Burnham himself as “whatever this thing is.”

I love watching creative people do creative stuff, is what I realized and what I also said the first time I watched this special which prompted me to write about it in the first place.

My mind map for this essay

Burnham’s special presented a smorgasbord of topics such as internet culture, loneliness, social reckoning, and capitalism embedded in his songs and jokes which I attempted to unravel to get into the root of the Inside’s allure. In my initial viewing, I liked the songs FaceTime with My Mom, White Woman’s Instagram, Sexting, and That Funny Feeling. Initially, it was Burnham’s lyricism that drew me in, such as the verses White Woman’s Instagram veiled at first as mockery to influencers which switched to compassion during the bridge. Then it was the impressive use of different aspect ratios to enhance narratives like in FaceTime with My Mom or White Woman’s Instagram. The boxed ratio in White Woman’s Instagram, purposely applied to accentuate the vapid images in Instagram, is reminiscent of the intentionality of using 1.19:1 in Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse (a film which I also loved) to capture a sense of claustrophobia.

Like Winslow and Wake trapped in the titular lighthouse, Burnham conceptualized, performed, filmed, and produced Inside while stuck inside a room. But was it all real? Both fans and critics wonder in their think pieces, which is very ironic given that Burnham has a skit asking “Can any single person shut the f*** up about any singlе thing for an hour?” to which he added “And I know you’re thinking, ‘You’re not shutting thе f*** up right now,’ and that’s true, but…” which made me think: perhaps it was not in the songs or visuals per se but in Burnham’s wit as a comedian and creative?

Prior to Inside, Burnham already had three comedy specials: Words Words Words in 2010, what. in 2013, and Make Happy in 2016, all of which are recorded from his live stand-up shows with audiences that made Inside drastically different as it was filmed just alone by himself in his guest house, the same one where Make Happy ended. Years before his first stand-up, he was already big in Youtube in 2006, making comedic songs which is much of what he has been doing in the past years. He has been called “creative genius” by fans as his artistic ingenuity expanded to directing and acting as well. Before knowing Burnham as a comic, I discovered him through his 2018 directorial debut Eighth Grade, a coming-of-age story at par with Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and Olivia Wilde’s Booksmart. His most recent acting credit was the main character’s boyfriend in the 2019 black comedy thriller film Promising Young Woman (which has been in my watchlist for a long time, I am just waiting for a local service to legally stream this). All of these I knew after being engrossed by Inside, so it could not have been Burnham’s past works that made me admire his recent comedy special.

These are the surface-level thoughts that I had in my past drafts: Burnham’s lyrics, visuals, technicality, humor, experience. Just like how the messy room at the backdrop of Inside is a metaphor of his state of mind, it accurately represented mine as well before I came to writing these words. Creating something is a journey, mostly an arduous one, as also shown in this special. Burnham even filmed himself during a mental breakdown due to frustration of feeling that he might not be able to finish it. Whether it actually happened at the time of recording, it is definitely a portrayal of what he had gone through behind the camera.

Bo Burnham’s current profile picture (as of June 25, 2021) in his social media accounts

Days before the deadline, I started to read Beach Read by Emily Henry, which looked like a light romcom judging by its cover, hoping to give my brain something else to think about and then ambushed to find that it featured an author struggling with mental block. For a long time, I had not been captured by a book that I managed read it for five straight hours and during my free time at work. Each time the protagonist mentioned her word goalposts such as four hundred words in page 45 and two thousand fresh words in page 162, I was being reminded that I also have something to hammer out. Hours after finishing the book, here I am with my final draft.

So why did I love Inside? Not actually caring about which of the skits are real or not (from his past stand-up routines, almost everything is premeditated), I deeply connected with it as a creative during the time of pandemic, a situation by the way that has not been directly addressed in this special. As also mentioned earlier, I get a jolt of inspiration seeing people produce beautiful things.

As with anything that I love, I went down the rabbit hole of everything Bo Burnham which led me to his Reddit AMA for Eighth Grade. One of his replies lifted me from my identity crisis as someone who can be conventionally called a photographer, or an artist in general:

Q: Was there ever a single point in your career that you thought “I’ve made it” as an actor/comedian? Was it before or after you decided to turn down Harvard to pursue your dream?

A: You know, that was a problem for me for a long time. Believing that I hadn’t MADE it yet or I wasn’t a REAL COMEDIAN. I think its especially prevalent for people that makes things online. That making youtube videos isn’t REAL. It took me a long time to realize that I’d been real the whole time, and the thing that I am pursuing was the thing I was pursuing doing theater in sixth grade. Do you write? You’re a writer. Do you act? You’re an actor. I’d say don’t wait to get some arbitrary version of success or attention for you to believe that you are doing the thing. You really can start enjoying it right away. You don’t have to wait to be good. The process of doing it is the process of becoming better not being good. I am now looking at your question and realizing you never asked for advice. Am I psychotic? Perhaps!

This is my love letter to Bo Burnham: Inside, for making me realize that creativity can permeate even if you are stuck in a house, because there are creators who has put their work out there while they are also stuck in their houses. You just need to know where to look.

This was written for Art Historiography (Art Stud 196) course in UP Diliman, 2nd Semester AY 20-21.