If the internet has been good to anyone, it’s Bo Burnham. The comedian, actor (Promising Young Woman), and filmmaker (Eighth Grade) can credit much of his astounding success to YouTube, the platform on which he made his debut fifteen years ago at the tender age of sixteen. By the time he was eighteen, his homemade videos had scored him a massive fanbase. He deferred his spot at NYU for his comedy career and went on to sell out giant venues, sign record deals, and make and appear in popular comedy specials.
The internet has also remained a constant part of Burnham’s rise as a comedian and artist. His first album, 2008’s Bo fo Sho, had an online release. His second comedy special, 2013’s what., was released on YouTube. And, perhaps most significantly, his 2018 feature filmmaking debut, Eighth Grade, which follows a teen girl as she relatably navigates the unforgiving world of middle school, poignantly portrays the disconcerting, dystopian nature of growing up in the so-called digital age while not being at all judgmental or condescending toward those who are forced to do so.
Burnham’s latest feat is a solo comedy special he directed and shot in his home during the pandemic called Bo Burnham: Inside. It investigates the nuances of the internet era in the same vein, and digs deep into everything that scares people about the internet, including Instagram, FaceTime, cancel culture, video games, and the sinister power of Apple. But this time, rather than observe those who are participating in the digital arena, Burnham depicts the internet itself.
While it is common for contemporary comedians and other media personalities to spend a good amount of their repertoire discussing the internet’s flaws and perils, someone embodying the flaws of the internet in order to exact such a critique is a fresh idea.
Inside is made up of little vignettes, most of them satirizing a different sect of internet culture, as in one segment that explores the phenomenon of “white women on Instagram.” Through song and accompanying music video, Burnham imitates the typical white woman’s Instagram post: tiny pumpkins, mirror selfies, and acaí bowls abound. But Burnham’s personification is not simply a parody. The bit is actually rather sympathetic.
Burnham sets up his shots for the segment meticulously, with care and expertise. There’s one shot in which he lies on the ground with daisies over his eyes that emulates a luscious 16mm film grain — or maybe a filter that replicates that aesthetic. Later, he layers strings of autumn leaves in front of the camera, displaying an impeccable understanding of depth-of-field, as well as of a general pleasing visual sense that one tends to associate with this particular photo-sharing social media app.
It would have been easy for Burnham to simply mock white women on Instagram in flat, thoughtless shots. But he understands that the pressure to keep up appearances on social media is no joke and that snapping a beautiful shot for Instagram is no easy feat. These are not simply narcissistic, attention-starved women but women who have carved out a small place for themselves in a digital matrix that demands women be perfect.
A similar sentiment is apparent in a segment during which Burnham role-plays as a live-streamer critiquing a video game of Burnham’s own quarantine life. He indeed offers a critique of the video game internet persona but not without first acknowledging the artistry of video games themselves. And the same magnificent craftwork crops up again when Burnham delivers perhaps the most lighthearted bit of Inside: a skit about the agony of watching your mother grapple with FaceTime.
Remarkable cinematography is consistent throughout Inside, though, with each shot framed to perfection. Burnham uses strobe lights, creative reflective lighting (shining a flashlight at a disco ball, in one memorable sequence), multi-color gelled lights, and interior lighting that mimics daylight. He does not allow a single shot to pass that isn’t bold, exciting, and beautiful. This automatically draws out the nuances of his subject matter. When critiquing something, if you make that something beautiful, too, does that not confuse the critique?
In the second half of the special, Burnham pulls his focus inward. He talks more and more about the fact that he is filming a special, and how difficult it has been. We are no longer just watching Bo Burnham; we are watching Bo Burnham watch himself. In one of his most impressive technical feats, Burnham watches a video of himself performing and offers live commentary. Then, he comments on that video of his commentary of the video, and then he comments on that, and so on, and so on. This feedback loop provides a stark emphasis to the special’s previous riffs on internet culture.
By engaging in internet culture in order to critique it, Burnham finds himself inextricably tangled in the web of the internet in a way he had not expected to be when embarking on this project. That result is inevitable when becoming immersed in the internet. Burnham’s mental health begins to rapidly deteriorate as he isolates himself and focuses intently on the destructive nature of the internet. In a way, Inside also begins to deteriorate. It stops being particularly funny and loses its structure, for the better. It becomes less about the effect of the internet on the world and more about the effect of the internet on Burnham during his year of self-quarantine.
By the end of the special, Burnham struggles to differentiate between the internet and the real world. He watches videos of his younger self, and, in the last scene of the film, he watches a skit he made for Inside, on a projector. In the final shot, he smiles at the perceived success of that skit.
Bo Burnham: Inside tracks the destructive nature of the internet during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike many other works belonging to the internet-critique genre, however, the special is not patronizing in its treatment of internet users. Burnham himself rose to stardom because of the internet, so he has no reason to reject it. Instead, he engages it, in all of its intricacies, and he empathizes with all kinds of people who build all kinds of identities on it.
That immersive recognition and embrace of the internet is understandable and definitely appreciated because if there’s anything we’ve learned after being stuck inside for a year, it’s that the online world is unavoidable. We might as well try to build something meaningful with it.