There’s an emerging genre of hyperactive art that emerged from the minds of people who were online before puberty – call them Dispatches from a Mediated Mind. These are works (whether written or performative) that explore what it means to live with a brain that has been broken to pieces by a steady stream of social media and open tabs and reality TV. Riddled with Reddit slang and obscure pop culture references, the pieces may not be understandable to those over sixty, say, or who are generally well-adjusted to have a healthy relationship with their phones. But for the rest of us, they’re both a relief and a horror, a mirror held up to our own exhausted, broken consciousness. I think of “Nobody talks about it“, The novel by Patricia Lockwood, the dives into the headspacee of a woman obsessed with logging into the “Portal” and half famous for tweeting, “Can a dog be twins?” Or the crazy podcast “ATTEMPT“In which comedians Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak parody and indulge their own obsession with wellness culture. Or “This American Wife”, a work by the “Live-Stream-Multi-Camera-Internet-Theater” of the collective Fake Friends, which follows three men trapped in a villa on Long Island and having a feverish dream (Slash Psychotic Break) experience by watching too many episodes of “The Real Housewives”. These cables are not so much about psychological well-being (although mental health and its precariousness is a major issue in a world of relentless stimuli) as the push-pull tension between the self and the media we produce and consume. We all have multiple personalities now; we are constantly on the move. It is exhausting. It is exciting. It makes us manic. It makes us depressed, and it never makes us depressed more than it did last year when many of us were isolated and our faces pressed to our laptops like homesick sailors peering through portholes.
One of the leading writers of the mediatized mind, 30-year-old comedian Bo Burnham, has a new Netflix special, “Inside,” which, with a frenzied and dexterous clarity, brings the floating, wired, euphoric, listless feeling of. is very online during the pandemic. The 90-minute show that Burnham wrote and directed is by no means a traditional comedy special in which a person tells jokes while standing in front of an audience. It contains barely spoken punch lines except for a few canned, tinny segments in which the “bits” seem deliberately trite and out of date. (Why don’t pirates laminate their treasure maps, huh?) Instead, “Inside” is a virtuoso one-man musical spectacle and also an experimental film about how to break down over a Wi-Fi connection while trying to get the one-man -Musical to make extravaganza – although in the media age, when genres are twisted and mixed together, the characterization almost gets over the point.
At its core, “Inside” is an exploration of what it means to be a performer when you’re stuck in front of a screen, but also in your head. Burnham never specifically mentions this pandemic, a deliberate omission that allows the title of the special to have multiple meanings. Technically, yes, “Inside” is a variety show about the isolation of life in quarantine. It’s also about Burnham’s particular inner discomfort. He longs to be seen, but resents his nagging, insatiable need for feedback. (During his last live set in 2016, he told the crowd, “If you can live your life without an audience, you should.”) Burnham jumps between visual and musical references with a boastful fluency. In one segment he meticulously reproduces the sleek, manicured aesthetic of an “Instagram of a white woman”. In another, he slips into the role of a blasé Twitch streamer testing a new video game, also called “Inside”, in which he controls a Bo Burnham avatar who can only do a few things: cry, walk, sit. This sight gag underscores the essential claustrophobia of Burnham’s project and last year in general – but it also conjures up the self-punishing aspects of acting. Much of the Special tries to pinpoint the feeling of living in the same moment inside and out, and the defensive mentality it can inspire. “The backlash to the thing that has just started,” Burnham sings in one number.
Burnham is no stranger to sitting alone in a room and recording himself. As a teenager, he became famous for the YouTube viral videos he shot in the bedroom of his home in eastern Massachusetts. Announced as a comedic child prodigy and a kind of millennial fortune teller, he lived through the comment column from an early age, painfully attuned to what others thought of him and his work. “The reason people shit me is because I came from the internet and didn’t get enough criticism in the clubs,” he said during a round table discussion when he was twenty. “But the truth is, the older comics that say that read ten thousand internet commentaries and see if they don’t feel totally criticized.” Burnham had made three live specials by the age of twenty-six and was torn from a decade of whirling around “content” (a word he uses with significant frequency on “Inside”). As my colleague Michael Schulman in a. reported profileIn 2018, Burnham gave up the live performance after suffering regular panic attacks before going on stage. Instead, he focused his efforts on working behind the camera, directing specials by Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael, and making “Eighth class“, A film in which he tried to” emotionally take stock “of what it feels like to be plugged in all the time at a tender age. (He also turned to acting and appeared in Emerald Fennell’s “Promising young woman“As the love interest, the true nature of which is revealed by a resurfaced piece of old video footage.) On” Inside, “Burnham explains that he finally had his fear under control and planned to get out from behind his laptop and on stage sometime in 2020. “I thought: you know what? I should start performing again, ”he says. “I was hiding from the world and have to come back. And then . . . the funniest thing happened. “
“Inside” unfolds in two acts with a short “pause” in which Burnham slowly wipes his camera lens with a squeegee – one of the special’s many meta-references to his own careful creation. We also see cables tangled on the floor, footage of Burnham editing the footage we just saw, a montage of him putting on a costume and putting up cardboard backgrounds, a scene of himself re-records while singing because he is breathless wrong moment and monologues about the progress of the film, which he shoots while staring at his own reflection in the mirror. Those looks behind the curtain give the work an air of authenticity, but Burnham is quick to tell us we shouldn’t necessarily trust them. About half an hour into the special, he sings a jazzy song about unpaid interns and exploitative work (one of several short, disorganized riffs about life in late capitalism) and then makes a “reaction video” of his own performance praises. Then he films a reaction video to that reaction video, and so on, until it is so many layers deep that his reactions no longer sound true at all.
As the special progresses, things get sadder and stranger. Burnham’s hair and beard grow longer and he looks more and more stranded at sea. At some point during the filming, he turned thirty and celebrated by ticking a clock until midnight and then playing a pop song about existential panic in his underwear. Worried about finishing work on the special, he tells the camera, “That means I don’t have to work on it anymore, and that means that I just have to live my life.” At some point he starts crying and knocks over his lighting equipment. Now the web is always there and mocks him. In one of his best numbers, “Welcome to the Internet”, he wears round glasses reminiscent of carnival and appears in front of a planetarium projection. “Could I interest you in everything all the time? ”He sings.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was much talk on Twitter about Shakespeare writing “King Lear” during the plague; Would isolation give us all the time to complete our own masterpieces? On the other hand, wasn’t it hard enough to stay sane without expecting big things from us at such a fearful, overwhelming time? “Inside” is about feeling headstrong and alone, but it’s also a record of a pandemic year in which extreme, electrifying efforts were made to create something. For each shot, Burnham constructs tableaus with creative lighting techniques born out of isolated necessity: a disco ball lit by a headlamp, a phone screen as a chaser, a white wall cleverly turned into a green screen. But my favorite scene towards the end is a quieter one, in which Burnham performs an acoustic song in front of a projection of aspen trees, which is only lit by candlelight (an allusion to Tick tock‘s “cottagecore” aesthetic, another visual joke). He spits out a list of terms – “‘Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / A souvenir shop at the shooting range, a mass shooting in the mall”- that doesn’t make any sense together, other than when you have an online brain, they do. “There it is again, that weird feeling,” he hums. At the end of the special, he briefly finds a way out of his room into the sun – but freedom also turns out to be a ruse. As we emerge from a long year of solitude, many of us negotiate a version of the same internal conflict that torments Burnham. Is it more frightening to “never go outside again” as he sings in his last song, or to give up our mediated inner workings for a riskier kind of exposure?