Bo Burnham Satirizes the Sadness and Ugliness of Modern Life Like No Other ComedianComedy Features Bo Burnham
In Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special Inside, there’s a song called “White Woman’s Instagram” that will, I think, become the most iconic segment when the video finds its way to YouTube. Like a few of Burnham’s songs, the lyrics are mostly a list of objects—”an open window,” it begins, “a novel…a couple holding hands…an avocado…a poem, written in the sand”—that give way to the rising chorus: “Is this heaven? Or is it just a white woman’s Instagram?” As he sings, Burnham unleashes visual set pieces that have become so familiar to the genre: a bowl of cereal with blueberries neatly forming a peace sign, his artificially blue eyes peeking out from the fur-trimmed collar of a hooded coat, a sepia-toned autumnal scene where he sips from a mug that reads “Beyonce is my spirit animal.”
It’s instantly hilarious, and it combines a lot of things Burnham is very good at, from his facility with the English language to his keen eye for superficiality to the superlative directorial skills he displayed in the film Eighth Grade. By the time he sings “some random quote from Lord of the Rings / incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King”—which is only about 45 seconds into the song—even the most offended influencer would have trouble denying the brilliance of the satire.
Then something really interesting happens: as the music slows, Burnham stands in front of a wall outlined in white lights. He stands with his hands in front of his waist, head turned downward in a melancholy pose, and sings the following:
Her favorite photo of her mom
The caption says:
“I can’t believe it
It’s been a decade since you’ve been gone
Momma, I miss you
I miss sitting with you in the front yard
Still figuring out how to keep living without you
It’s got a little better, but it’s still hard
Momma, I got a job I love and my own apartment
Momma, I got a boyfriend, and I’m crazy about him
Your little girl didn’t do too bad
Momma, I love you. Give a hug and kiss to Dad
The minute it’s over, the music picks back up, and so do the lighter lyrics: “A goat-cheese salad…a backlit hammock,” and etc.
An audio-only version of the song recently went up on YouTube (Netflix has since copyright-nixed it), and had hundreds of thousands of views in its short stay. In the comments, the overwhelming sentiment about this verse was that in the midst of the satire, Burnham wanted to show the humanity in the average Instagrammer, and broke off from his teasing to capture the heartfelt nature of some content. As in, “even phonies feel genuine sadness.” This opinion was affirmed by hundreds of likes across several comments.
That is not how I saw that moment. Perhaps it says more about me, and how cynicism has overtaken my worldview, but my jaw dropped at the interlude. Based on the showy lighting on the wall, Burnham’s own melodramatic emoting, and the spirit of the song, I saw it not as a departure into kindness, but a very dark kind of satire that upped the stakes of the song. In my mind, he was telling us that even the more emotional, more apparently sympathetic aspects of these platforms were ultimately superficial and calculating, and that we’ve become so deranged by the attention economy that even the memory of a lost parent isn’t sacred; that, too, we’ll use for clout. It struck me as incredibly bold—”edgy” in the way the word might have been intended in its original sense, as a sincere compliment directed at an artist who sees a line he’s not supposed to cross, crosses it anyway, and creates a distinctly uncomfortable commentary in the process. I thought the discourse around this moment would center on whether Burnham was being too cruel; I didn’t think for a moment that they’d assume he was being nice..
I keep returning to this moment because the YouTube comments made me doubt whether I was right. I hope I am, because the entire excellent special hinges on this idea of attention-seeking, of which Burnham is himself guilty, and where our creative impulses become corrupted by a social media-tinged desire for the dopamine rush that floods the brain with each “like.” This is nominally a special about the pandemic—the “inside” of the title refers to where we’ve been for the past year, and the cluttered, claustrophobic setting for the entire 87 minutes—but it’s really about narcissism, and ego, and the apocalypse. He explores the theme over and over, usually with himself as an object—”all eyes on me!” he sings, and then yells, in a later song.
The most powerful of these moments comes when he sits down to record one of the vlogs that punctuate the special, in which he typically sits, looks frazzled, and makes some small confession. This time, though, the camera is not up close and intimate, but placed far away, so that Burnham sits on a stool and we can see all the other video equipment in front of him. He records several takes, becoming increasingly frustrated with his performance. If you’re paying attention, the first revelation is that these are not the intimate one-take confessionals we might have imagined, but in fact practiced, planned, and obsessively curated. The second revelation comes when Burham gets so upset that he loses his cool, throws down the microphone, and swats his equipment to the ground as he marches off. Here we see a show within a show within a show: The sadness of the first take has been staged-we understand this from the set-up—and the obvious follow-up question is whether the tantrum that follows is also a fake. From there, like an earlier scene in which Burnham watches himself on an infinite television loop and tries to give commentary the entire time, you wonder if any of it is real.
That’s the genius at play here—he wants you to wonder at the bottomless of his, and our, ego. If this is his treatise on the stifling narcissism of our time and our generation, he wants you to know that he’s complicit, that he can’t escape it either. This is, after all, someone who made his name with YouTube videos. If he can see the prison a little more clearly, and if he can manipulate the atmosphere inside more deftly, it doesn’t mean he’s any better at escaping it.
The special is so rich with this kind of commentary that it’s impossible to recap it all, and each time you scroll to a random spot on the timeline, you’re liable to be met with lyrics like this (from a song called “Welcome to the Internet”):
“See a man beheaded, get offended, see a shrink
Show us pictures of your children, tell us every thought you think
Start a rumor, buy a broom, or send a death threat to a boomer
Or DM a girl and groom her; do a Zoom or find a tumor in your—
Here’s a healthy breakfast option, you should kill your mom
Here’s why women never fuck you, here’s how you can build a bomb
Which Power Ranger are you? Take this quirky quiz
Obama sent the immigrants to vaccinate your kids”
If there’s one consistent belief here, one that seems to be divorced from any kind of artifice, it’s Burnham’s bone-deep cynicism. Sure, this could have a performative element too, but I left my second viewing reasonably sure that he thinks the world is coming to an end—literally. My favorite song, and the purest expression of this, is the beautiful “Funny Feeling.” Burnham introduces it with his usual wink—a rustic forest silhouette is projected onto the back wall, and he introduces himself with false modesty, like an indie-folk darling dropping in on an open mic night—and then launches into a very dark, almost distressing synopsis of modern life. Yet again, he’s mostly listing things, from Robert Iger’s face to the wonderful juxtaposition of “a gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall.” And yet again, he punctuates it with a simple chorus, this time simply, “there it is again, that funny feeling.”
We know exactly the feeling he’s talking about—the fatiguing sense of capitalism settling into our bones, leeching us dry right down to the marrow. All of it leads to the best, funniest lyric of them all:
“Twenty-thousand years of this; seven more to go.”
Burnham may not mean this literally, but he is distraught. And if you really pay attention to how incisive he is, how clearly he sees the zeitgeist, and how he satirizes all this shit better than any comedian or writer or director alive…well, maybe we should be scared too.
Bo Burnham’s Inside is now streaming on Netflix.