For the past few days, social media has been awash in reactions to Bo Burnham’s new special, “Inside.” My Twitter and Instagram feeds are a constant barrage of glowing reactions to Burnham’s introspective, 90-minute performance art piece. As I scroll through my TikTok For You Page, songs from “Inside” play on endless 15-second loops, worming themselves deeper into the app’s notorious algorithm the longer I listen to the lyrics repeat.
When Bo suddenly announced he had a new special coming out this year, his fans, including myself, were ecstatic. After six years without performing live, no one was sure what “Inside” had in store. As someone especially moved by his 2018 film, “Eighth Grade,” I was excited and also a little terrified. I knew that, no matter what, the special’s release would be An Event.
Just hours after “Inside” was uploaded to Netflix, friends and family started messaging me about what a masterpiece it was. And how weird it was. And how sad and heartbreaking and hilarious and troubling it was, which it is. “Inside” is all of these things rolled up and crammed into a tiny studio in Bo Burnham’s backyard.
There is a magnitude to “Inside” that lets viewers know, from the first bars of its overture, that this is not just a momentary internet craze like “Tiger King” or “Bridgerton.” It’s meant to mean something to you and you singularly. It is addressed, signed, sealed and hand-delivered to you with a capital Y. And that’s why I refuse to tell you what I think of it.
There is no denying that “Inside” is good. Objectively, it’s a creative tour de force. The song “Welcome to the Internet” alone could have cemented the special’s place in 2021’s cultural history with its diatribes against technology-induced mania. Hundreds of thousands of people have latched on to the special’s messaging about the normalization of performance as an aspect of everyday life rather than something confined to a controlled setting, with the most vehement of those testimonials coming from social media. As Burnham snidely puts it, “The outside world, the non-digital world, is merely a theatrical space in which one stages and records content for the much more real, much more vital digital space.”
Fittingly, Burnham includes multiple scenes in which he points the camera in a mirror, capturing both himself and a reflection of the audience as we stare back at him; we are subject to the literal Black Mirror, the veneer of a screen that’s come to signal our fear of the future and ourselves. “Inside” begs us to look inward. It’s an exasperated response not only to the absurdity of pretending Everything is Fine in a near Huxleyan dystopia (see “That Funny Feeling”) but also to the inability of anyone to experience genuine self-awareness without demanding someone bear witness.
Burnham levels his final challenge to the viewer in the special’s grand finale “Goodbye,” daring them to question their willingness to perform the passive role of spectator, one which risks nothing and yet demands “everything all of the time”: “Hey, here’s a fun idea, how ‘bout I sit on the couch and I watch you next time?” Right now, with all of our TikToks and Tweets and half-baked hot takes, we’re doing exactly that: playing our part.
In return for a spectacular piece of entertainment, fans of Bo Burnham and “Inside” have reinforced the deeply intimate display of total artifice as consumable content for profit. It’s the exact kind of breakdown/trainwreck/horror story we’ve been conditioned to devour. Like a reality show about how exploitative reality shows are, “Inside” has established itself as an Internet darling despite its pleas for us to put down the phone and go outside.
I’ll admit critique was my first instinct as well. The second I formed a rational thought about the special, I felt an impulse to divulge immediately about it on any platform, hoping someone might listen and identify with what I had to say. Like most members of my generation, I’ve been raised to believe my voice matters and that I should be heard. “Inside” pleads for us to think again.
In the climax of Burnham’s earlier special “Make Happy,” the comedian includes a speech that lays the groundwork for “Inside” five years later: “(Social media) is performer and audience melded together. What do we want more than to lie in our bed at the end of the day and just watch our life as a satisfied audience member? I know very little about anything. But what I do know is that if you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.”
Calling myself out on my desire to speak about “Inside” makes me no less self-aggrandizing, just as Burnham concedes that defensively calling himself “pretentious” doesn’t make him any less so. Instead, I am opting to say nothing at all. I won’t critically review Bo Burnham’s “Inside” nor will I broadcast what it means to me personally. I won’t write a blog post or well-researched thinkpiece or lip sync to “Unpaid Intern” even though I’ve unfortunately become one this summer. I will keep “Inside” on the inside for as long as my diseased Generation-Z brain can handle it.
So, Bo, I am, as you asked so eloquently, shutting the fuck up. I will say this, though, as no one can really shut up for even, say, an hour: It’s been an honor to perform with you once again.
Daily Arts Editor Anya Soller can be reached at email@example.com.