What’s ‘Inside’ Bo Burnham — an Angel or Demon?

Bo Burnham is an Angel Sent from Heaven to Console Us

By Becky Oppman
Is Bo Burnham an angel or demon? Read what these two authors learned after watching 'Inside'.
(Photo credit: Netflix)

I can’t remember the last time I experienced something so creative, poignant, witty, relatable, authentic, heart-wrenching, exhausting, and euphoric — all within 90 minutes. Bo Burnham’s Inside proclaims the truth of the human condition in the digital age, and it’s a truth that sets us free.

Inside has obvious references to the struggles we all faced in the isolation and social disruption of the pandemic, but after watching it a second time, I realized that Bo never explicitly mentions the lockdown. This is an evergreen depiction of the loss, grief, and loneliness endemic to our generation. 

Inside is most relatable in the way that it presents the struggle to keep our heads above water, but I also sympathized with Bo in the effort it takes to create something. To make something original, to do something with our lives beyond going with the flow, takes a lot of courage and perseverance. And when you’re the only one who is both executing a vision and holding yourself accountable, it’s a lot of pressure. 

As a creative myself, it’s an understatement to say that finding motivation to work in the past year was difficult. To be honest, it was hard to find purpose in my life at all, and trying to be optimistic felt like I was lying to myself. 

The weight of this past year didn’t come crashing down all at once. It was incrementally stacked on, one day at a time, so slowly yet deliberately that I didn’t even notice the load I was carrying. Now, as we are coming out of the pandemic, it’s becoming clear how much of a toll this experience has taken on me. Like Bo and many others, I have felt confined in a liminal space this past year — both physically in isolation and loneliness, and mentally, as if I’m stuck in my own head with no escape.

With skits and songs that are alternatingly hilarious and depressing, Bo reveals that we are all “inside” all of the time. Even when I go outside, I’m inside. And there’s something about being inside my own mind that can make me feel trapped. There’s no one else there — it’s only me. 

And the nature of the internet and social media only heightens this isolation, even as it gives the illusion that it’s tearing down barriers and bringing people together. We all wear a mask when we depict our lives online — there’s always a gap between what we present to the world and the truth of our experience. We don’t know what is truly happening in the lives of others, or even if it’s appropriate to inquire. 

This special is a spelunking tour to find authenticity — Bo is on a mission to find and express what is real about what’s going on inside of himself. The journey is complicated by the fact that the medium he’s using to present it inherently distances us, but the force of his personality and comedy breaks through that wall. 

After an intermission in the special, the second half gradually gets darker and more depressing. Bo rings in his 30th birthday in solitude, dances in his underwear, and sings about dark topics blanketed in cheerful pop melodies. The juxtaposition of absurdity and seriousness is what makes this special so damn good, but what’s sticking with me after watching it is not the catchy songs. It’s the transparent and genuine depiction of what it means to be a human. 

Inside isn’t necessarily a piece about perseverance or hope. It’s a frantic and authentic depiction of what it means to feel both the desire to create and the pressure to succeed — and how sometimes that means breaking down and accepting that you’re not okay. 

And by showing us the human experience in such a vulnerable way, Bo helps us realize how messed up it is. Watching it felt like seeing my reflection in a mirror — I recognized a lot of myself in his art. He gave me the gift of seeing my experience for what it really is. It felt like being pulled back to reality, like he is giving me ground to stand on. He made me feel seen.

And perhaps that’s the only way out of this trap of being inside our own minds: reaching for other people in whatever way we can, as authentically as we can. Even though we’ll never be able to get outside of ourselves, even though the best we can do is to share a representation of ourselves and not the real thing, it helps to know others are reaching out for us as well. 

Or at least Bo is. 

Bo Burnham is a Demon Sent from Hell to Torture Us

By Father Gregory Haake, CSC
Is Bo Burnham an angel or demon? Read what these two authors learned after watching 'Inside'.
(Photo credit: Netflix)

Literature, film, and music often give voice to a demon — from Goethe’s Faust to Milton’s Paradise Lost to … well, John Milton, Al Pacino’s over-the-top performance as the prince of darkness himself in The Devil’s Advocate in 1997. The message of that film is that the devil will get you any way he can, and audiences seem to find this message entertaining or at least intriguing. 

This fascination with the devil perhaps explains the enduring popularity of C.S. Lewis’s 1942 novel, The Screwtape Letters. The set-up of the novel is simple: Screwtape, who is literally a worker in bureaucratic hell, mentors his nephew, Wormwood, a devil and temptor of humanity in training. Lewis offers us a satire on the ways in which human beings rationalize and justify their actions, but it is also a cautionary tale about the perils and pitfalls of our attempts at virtue.

Lewis cleverly and humorously demonstrates how the temptor never really leaves us; he just takes different forms. The comedian, Bo Burnham, whether he intends to or not, updates Screwtape’s voice in his latest show Inside, available on Netflix, and also as an album

Burnham explains that he had been away from performing for several years after suffering panic attacks on stage, and that just as he was getting ready to come back, the pandemic hit. Whatever he had been planning to do for his comeback, he has certainly seized the opportunity and has given us a cutting and insightful commentary on who we are and what corrupts us in 2021. Short answer: the internet — the demon we love to hate and hate that we love.

Burnham pokes fun at many things on Inside: the state of comedy in “Comedy;” the superficiality and narcissism of Instagram in “White Woman’s Instagram;” the need to seek reconciliation for one’s past online sins in “Problematic,” a song that hints at Burnham’s Catholic upbringing. 

It is in “Welcome to the Internet,” however, where Burnham speaks as a contemporary Screwtape and presents a lens through which he understands his life inside his house and inside his mind during the pandemic. At the same time, it is clear that we fell down this hole long before, and the past year and a half have only exacerbated these tendencies and temptations.

For most of the song, Burnham sings in the combined style of a Disney villain and circus ringleader, frenetically shining the spotlight on the many delights that the internet has to offer. Seemingly worthy pursuits such as the news or expressing solidarity with a good cause are on display side by side with violence, tragedy, or pornography.

“Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found,” he sings, and thus, it is all-consuming. The internet is anything and everything, all of the time. As the tempo increases, the spotlight becomes a strobe that flashes from attraction to attraction as it mesmerizes and hypnotizes. The content no longer matters — it is that we lose ourselves in it, that we give ourselves fully to it.

This is why the ending to the song is perhaps surprising. Burnham’s voice takes a turn that makes his satire go full Screwtape. The ringleader becomes the loving parent, flattering the target of his temptations and twisted affections. It’s now the father indulging the “you, you, unstoppable, watchable [you],” celebrating a sort of miseducation of the child.

Just as Screwtape teaches Wormwood that flattery works wonders — even on the virtuous — to indulge our pride in our own righteousness, Burnham lays bare the trap in which the internet ensnares us. It makes us think it’s about us — that we’re in control, even when it takes control of us all the more. The irony of the song is that Burnham, who so expertly critiques our relationship to the internet, gives in to it, growing his fame and popularity while smarting at the means of his success.

The challenge for us is both to see clearly the temptations of the world as we know it, but also to acknowledge that our God is as relentless as the demons of the internet and of our feeble heart that so readily responds. The solution isn’t to give up or give in, to keep consuming in an endless loop of distraction. The solution is to give ourselves over to a God who wants to consume us with His love. He made us for that love, so our restless hearts can only rest in Him. Without it, we turn into the frenetic, desperate engines of desire Burnham depicts so clearly. 

In the tradition of Lewis, Burnham shows how compelling our jesters can be in revealing the truth of who we are and where we can go wrong. Inside hits the mark, no doubt about it. But we have a choice in how we respond to that truth: we can step outside of ourselves to relate authentically with God and the world. Out there — outside of our self-absorption — is where we’ll find God’s love and the transformation and freedom we so desperately want. 

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