Politics, Sports & Film Writer, The Paper
Published on November 16, 2021
I am going to be brutally honest when I say that before 2018, I had very little knowledge of who Bo Burnham was. I had seen his two most popular songs “Kill Yourself” and “Lower Your Expectations” on YouTube but I had no idea where they where from or who Bo Burnham was.
In 2018, one of the youtube ads I saw which intrigued me was a movie about an eighth grade girl called “Eighth Grade.” I wanted to see it in theaters but was too lazy and forgot. So two years later when I was stuck in quarantine, trying to find movies to watch, I remembered my desire to see “Eighth Grade” and sure enough it was available to watch on Amazon prime video. I was blown away to say the least. It was so accurate! I found myself relating to so many of the struggles and anxieties that the main character, Kayla, had. Naturally, as someone who was interested in filmmaking, I looked up who wrote/directed it: Bo Burnham. “That name sounds familiar” I thought. Eventually I realized it was the same guy singing those songs on youtube. Through some research, I found that those youtube videos were from a Netflix comedy special he did in 2016 called “Make Happy”. This fascinated me. A comedian who had never written or directed a movie before, had made one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
After I had watched the movie, I showed it to my family (specifically my Mom and two sisters, one of whom was in seventh grade and the other in eighth), and mostly didn’t engage with anything relating to Bo Burnham until he announced on twitter that he was making a new Netflix special from his house, without a live audience. Again Bo Burnham had brought his work to my attention and when it came out, I watched it. And it changed my life. It was the funniest, deepest, most honest piece of art I had ever witnessed.
In contrast to his previous specials, which were performed on one night in front of an audience, Burnham does this one from his home over the course of the pandemic. The main theme of the special is the ironies of how our world is so modern yet messed up. He also explores the themes of growing up and examining his mental health (he sometimes gives us updates about how he is feeling). The special is designed in a unique way in that it is mostly songs with monologue type speeches or just weird shots of him in his little house. Each song is laced with tremendous detail and/or deeper meaning. Burnham takes you on an emotional journey as you can see his mental health decline throughout the hour and a half. The beginning is mostly filled with witty songs about the world (How the World Works, White Woman’s Instagram) while the second half is filled with a lot of reflection about performing, especially without an audience–which crescendos to the powerful All Eyes On Me song. Burnham does a brilliant job of creating quality, comedic songs and also keeping his audience entertained throughout. He showcases his ability to not only be funny but to provide profound social commentary and make a work of art expressing himself and his mental health.
Often his messages were clear and simple. For example, in Bezos I, he’s clearly upset with the modern capitalist society that has produced such a wealthy man. However in other parts the messages are sporadic and hard to understand. Some of my favorite examples are as follows.
The first one is clear to Burnham fans but might not be so clear to the new viewers. At the end of his last special, 5 years ago, after he gets off stage, he sings a little song at the end, reflecting on his experience and inquiring the audience about theirs. Performed in the same house and room of Inside, at the end, he walks out to his girlfriend holding a dog and he plays with the dog and looks very happy. Now, five years later, the first few seconds of Burnham are him entering the small room, signifying the end of him being “outside.”
One thing Burnham does amazing at in this special is that he takes you on a visual journey–always wanting you to get an exact image of what he’s talking or singing about. This is most profoundly shown in Facetime with my Mom (Tonight) where he sings about the struggles of connecting with his parents on facetime and makes the frame of all the shots the exact frame of a facetime screen. Another funny thing he sprinkles in related to this is that towards the end of the song, he says “my mother’s covering her camera with her thumb” and promptly shows a black screen; what you see when someone covers the camera during a facetime. In another song, White Woman’s Instagram, where he gives funny examples of weird things middle aged white women post on instagram, he again makes the frame the exact size of what he’s talking about–the shape of an Instagram post.
As I mentioned before, it’s clear throughout the special that he’s experiencing a decline in his mental health. He’s often discussed this in the past and the strategies he’s used to cope with his anxiety. Obviously, the pandemic was no help to him. Burnham takes a moment to subtly show this around 15 minutes in, when for a just one frame, you can see a visual of him with a headset (this is a whole bit later). Showing himself for just a fraction of a second is undoubtedly a reference to fight club, in which the main character is also has mental health issues. David Fincher, the director, occasionally (I think it’s once or twice) has a visual of Brad Pitt’s character before we even meet him. Fincher did this to visualize the main’s character’s poor mental state and how it’s possible to see people, even in just a second. Burnham obviously recreates this to signify his mental health struggles.
The end of “act 1” (there’s an intermission) begins with Burnham explaining why he’s not going to commit suicide and telling his viewers not to do so as well. Obviously this is a touchy subject which is very intense and he explains it in a very casual way. A lot of Burnham’s jokes throughout his career and even some in this special are about him criticising himself and being self-conscious about the comedy or messaging he puts out. Now Burnham knows he’s in a bit of a rough situation, because if he says this message in a serious tone it might come off as out-of-touch but if he says it too casually, it might come off as insensitive. To show all of his anxiety about explaining this complex subject, he projects himself giving the speech onto his shirt as he sits on a chair and goes on his phone. This could mean multiple things. One, that he feels as though he is just projecting and not understanding the situation well enough or two, that he wants to say all this stuff about suicide but at the same time, he wants to keep it in him.
After a series of parts showing his poor mental state, Burnham sings a calm song called That Funny Feeling. This to me, is his most beautiful and important song. Throughout, he lists contradictions and unnecessary things in our lives. He spotlights all that our culture pays attention to, no matter how unimportant it actually is (billionaires, retail sales, tv events etc.). A great example of these contradictions is the line “The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door.” Meaning that no matter how much information we can have on our phones, we’ve been taken away from the natural world. Humans don’t appreciate the beauty and serenity of Earth and instead focus on the internet. All of this gives him a, funny feeling, giving the namesake of the song to it. He comes to a conclusion at the end when he says “hey what can ya say we were overdue, but it’ll be over soon you wait.” His conclusion is that since this was always supposed to happen to humanity and the power of the internet’s influence is so strong, humanity or the internet will die soon. One or the other will happen first but humankind can’t keep living on the internet for the rest of history. One will destroy the other, and the choice of which goes first is up to us.
In his song All Eyes on Me, Burnham explains the situation of how this special came about in a spoken monologue. He says that the last time he was doing live shows, five years ago, he was beginning to have panic attacks before and sometimes during his shows. For this reason, he decided to stop his tour and focus on his mental health which he said worked. He was going to have another in person special but then the pandemic hit so he just made it inside. The chorus, “all eyes on me” mixed with his voice being lowered an octave and with a fake audience is something very interesting. Burnham is contradicted with having a live audience. He likes to entertain and misses the mass gathering of his fans but also wants to hide behind his true identity (thus the deep voice) which is someone who wants attention and is very anxious/nervous.
At the end, Burnham sings a powerful goodbye song featuring some parts of his other songs and him setting up equipment and lights for certain shots. What comes next is the most fascinating part to me and is a perfect summation of everything he has done in the special thus far. This scene starts off with Burnham looking at the door which is now cracked open. Because he has finished his special, and presumably because the pandemic is ending with the vaccine, he is free to go outside and live his life. He takes one step out of his front door and is greeted with a spotlight and a round of applause. He then tries to re-enter his house but the door has somehow been locked. He desperately tries to open it—pulling and tugging with no luck with a laugh track playing at full volume. Burnham wants to be recognized for his work but doesn’t wants to confront the realities of the world. He doesn’t generally like people or being the center of attention and knows he would regret going outside, no matter how much he wished for it during the pandemic. This shot of him pulling on the door quickly turns into a video being projected inside which is revealed to be being watched by Burnham in a chair. He watches himself deteriorate after trying to open the door, sitting down in front of it, hands over his face, as the “audience” is still laughing. After a second, he gives a slight smiles and it ends. Even though he doesn’t like interacting with the outside world, he knows that as embarrassing as going into the world may be, he is still making people laugh regardless. He knows that it’s inevitable (possibly from previous experiences), that people will laugh at the parts of “Inside” where he earnestly conveys his mental health struggles. All people want to do is laugh and not see Burnham as someone who is struggling but someone who is funny; which he can be, but just doesn’t want to be all the time. Regardless of this sad fact, Burnham knows that no matter the specific reason an audience is laughing, it’s still nice that they’re laughing. They’re enjoying themselves. For 14 years, he’s made audiences happy time and time again and knows that he’s done it once more.
If this special has done at least one thing, it has made people think. It certainly has made me think. It’s given people an open view as to what it was like to live with mental health issues—especially during the pandemic. What it’s like to be a performer. An entertainer. A content creator. Someone who’s filled those roles for 14 years. It’s given people an opportunity to challenge their own views on the world. On social issues. On the internet. To say it is a comedy special is a big understatement. It has comedy but it’s about so much more. Bo Burnham’s psyche during the pandemic was expressed and widened to fit in an hour and a half. He has connected all kinds of people with this special. He created legendary, hilarious, and heart throbbing music. If one thing from the pandemic should live on past it and for eternity, it should be this. The effect Bo Burnham made with this special was a big one in that it has resonated with so many people. Burnham tends to do this a lot, especially in Eighth Grade. Throughout the movie you follow Kayla, an eighth grade girl, experiencing stressful situations and learning how to manage her anxiety. Burnham didn’t make the movie because he was a 13 year old girl in middle school. He made it because the feelings he had as a 26 year old man (and comedian, entertainer etc.) were almost exactly the same as the ones anyone with anxiety might have. Middle school is just the time in someone’s life when we have the most anxiety. And with “Inside”, it follows the same logic. We all went through the pandemic, we’ve all encountered negative thoughts. It doesn’t matter where you are on the spectrum, everyone has had experiences related to Bo’s. But the problem is that Hollywood is afraid of showing it. Barely any movies that are being made are about the pandemic because they think that audiences want to distract themselves from the pain. But with “Inside”, we all felt the pain together. And it was cathartic. And it started to heal us. Humans will never be the same after the pandemic. But the process of recovery from the pain of our dark times comes in the form that Bo Burnham so brilliantly displayed. It comes in comedy. It comes in self-reflection. It comes in acknowledging our pain. It comes from watching Inside over and over again.
- Header Image: Bo Burnham performing in “Inside” – Netflix