Inside, Bo Burnham’s new musical-comedy special (or experimental film), is something new and unforeseen. It starts off as a lockdown comedy special in isolation without an audience and then turns into a full-scale existential freakout.
There’s a shot in Inside where Burnham sullenly sits and takes in video of his former 16-year-old self projected on the wall of his room–one of the sparky musical YouTube videos that catapulted him to internet fame and beyond. I was reminded of Krapp, the protagonist in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, who is also forced to reckon with a version of his former self on a tape recording. Krapp had been obsessively making recordings throughout his life–a practice that isn’t a far cry from many of our podcasters these days.
Prolonged isolation as we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic can provoke excessive self-consciousness and rumination. When there’s enforced isolation some of us turn to technology for some company. Our devices are like what a soother is to a baby. Even though Krapp is using more retrograde technology than Burnham, his tape recordings also completely consume him. Disgusted by his cocky-sounding former self, Krapp tries to wrest some solace from the fact that his youth is over: “Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank god that’s all done with anyway.”
Burnham has admitted that his brilliant directorial debut, Eighth Grade, was his way of forgiving his 16-year-old self. The current culture mores have rendered him apologetic about some of the more insensitive jokes from his earlier songs, jokes he made, like most teenage boys do, to sound edgy.
As is the case with most public figures, Burnham has to deal with the enduring existence of his former self in his early output preserved in YouTube videos. He doesn’t have the luxury of sequestering away his former self in tins as Krapp does with his reels of tape. Much like many of us, Burnham’s output is a matter of public record. The internet is a permanent timeline of our floundering–particularly as youngsters. Burnham’s early work is a standing embarrassment to him. However flippant and harmless it might seem to many of us, it’s open to criticism, like most things in our moralising climate. Only the completely anodyne escape the scrutiny that is now in vogue.
Empathetic and thoughtful, Burnham is determined to be on the right side of history with regards to political correctness: “I’m happy to be an example of someone that failed out loud publicly” he said in a CBS interview. Some might point out that his fame was already cemented before this calling out became common. He probably wouldn’t have made those videos in the context of all these Twitter storms. A more intelligent artist than many other people parroting the party line, Burnham does, however, temper his support of political correctness by saying: “I do worry that kids don’t have that freedom anymore (…) They don’t have the freedom to fail out loud.’
This is an interesting thing to say. One suspects the sometimes febrile atmosphere that has seized our collective conscious in which we call out people and try to have them “cancelled” has a lot to do with how we wince at our own selves, both former selves and potential selves. Krapp can’t tolerate his former self. But there are few who can fully embrace their former selves, particularly if said self’s behaviour has lead to a catastrophic present.
However sincerely penitent Burnham is, halfway through Inside he can’t help but let some irony colour his song “Problematic”, offering himself up to opprobrium and outrage. He reflects on his upbringing as a “suburbanite” who watched Family Guy in “an overwhelmingly white” town.
Happily, songs can betray an ambivalence at odds with the official line the songwriter is taking. We need art to stop us from becoming literalists. Lyrically, the song is a tour-de-force as it aptly conveys the often tedious struggle of our moment, in which we try to square our desire to be good with our need to also be fallible humans that get to make mistakes (or simply just blow off steam in an irreverent manner). Burnham sounds contrite, yet he can’t resist poking a little fun at the newfound censoriousness now afflicting the culture–even though he is part of it. In the inspired second verse, he grovels, apologising for the previous verse:
"I want to show you how I'm growing as a person, but first I feel I must address the lyrics from the previous verse I tried to hide behind my childhood, and that's not okay My actions are my own, I won't explain them away I've done a lot of self-reflecting since I started singing this song I was totally wrong when I said it"