Burnham: Inside (2021) | featured image
Bo Burnham in Inside (2021) | courtesy of Netflix

Bo Burnham’s Pandemic Comedy Special ‘Inside’ Is the Krapp’s Last Tape of Our Times

Like Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, Bo Burnham’s Inside offers rich insights into how our psyches and sense of self get warped by ever-advancing technologies.

Bo Burnham
Netflix (US)
30 May 2021

Social Media and Self-Scrutiny

Krapp might find it difficult to stomach his 39-year-old self, but these days, the ever-changing norms mean that you can now be taken to task for something which wasn’t deemed so offensive fairly recently. “Problematic’s” tension between mocking and participating in this moment feels like a progression. It hints at the way comics can be funny in the new world order. In the imagery accompanying the song, we see Burnham martyring himself, stretching out his arms like Christ before a crucifix superimposed on the wall behind him.

While Burnham is well-known globally –Netflix is available in nearly every country in the world–Krapp had to toil and age in obscurity, his literary output only amounting to “seventeen copies sold”, eleven of them to foreign libraries. “Getting known” Krapp sarcastically quips. Though Krapp’s readership is almost nil, he does have recourse to one precious trait that is in small supply in our over-exposed work: privacy.

The scrutiny of our culture can lead the neurotic among us to excessive self-scrutiny. An unseemly digital trail follows our every move online. Facebook users are often besieged by the “memories” feature. The extent to which we punish people for the former versions of themselves likely stems from concerns about our own dubious track record.

Often, we can’t relate to our former selves. They are intruders, aliens from another galaxy that rear up to scorn our sense of forward momentum. Krapp impatiently fast-forwards his younger self’s pontificating about the artistic epiphany he had on a jetty. His bumptious attitude when he was thirty nine led him to believe he could go it alone, and turn his back on love, a loss that now haunts him. Krapp can’t feel any regard for this cocky younger self that has rendered him destitute and isolated in old age.

But while Burnham may regret some of his earlier jokes, he’s not interested in disavowing the messier, more unlikable parts of the self. Perhaps fuelled by the acceleration of technology, millennials are more prone to transparency that any preceding generation. This can lead to more honesty, but it also means the separation between the private self and the public self has all but completely collapsed. Burnham is no exception. All his messiness – both the literal messiness of his room with its tangled wires, and the messiness of his psyche – is laid bare in Inside.

The first half of the special has an underlying melancholy, but it is for the most part broadly comic like his earlier work. There are, however, some disarmingly emotional moments that foreshadow the heaviness that is to come. This is particularly true when Burnham is excavating the irony of how technology has made us both more exposed and yet more isolated in lockdown. 

 Two bitingly satirical and hilarious songs, “White Woman’s Instagram” and later “Welcome to the Internet” get to the heart of over-exposure and the jarring bombardment that is the internet. The latter song does a wonderful job of conveying the hectoring algorithm, where mind-numbing trivia and raw horror are bosom buddies in the never-ending quest for your clicks:

"Welcome to the internet! Put your cares aside
Here's a tip for straining pasta; here's a nine-year-old who died
We've got movies and doctors and fantasy sports
And a bunch of colored-pencil drawings of all the different characters in Harry Potter fucking each other  

Similarly, “White Woman’s Instagram” brilliantly enumerates all the by rote images that an Instagram user might put up in complete lockstep with the rest of their peers — “Some random quote from Lord of the Rings/ Incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King”.

Burnham isn’t just interested in the shiny facade, but also the brokenness behind it. Before the song reaches its climax there’s a jarringly serious bridge where the titular white woman addresses her late mother in a caption underneath her photo:

"I can't believe it 
It's been a decade since you've been gone 
Momma, I miss you 
I miss sitting with you in the front yard 
Still figuring out how to keep living without you 
It's got a little better, but it's still hard 
Momma, I got a job I love and my own apartment 
Momma, I got a boyfriend, and I'm crazy about him
Your little girl didn't do too bad
Momma, I love you. Give a hug and kiss to Dad"

The song then returns to the silly ephemera –“A goat-cheese salad/ A backlit hammock”–but some unexpected poignancy has been swirled into the mix along with the “latte foam art”. There’s a formulaic quality to the tribute to the dead mother, and yet there’s sincerity in it too. The average social media user is capable of sincerity while still being in the grip of the vanity that social media encourages.

If Inside had just been comprised of the first ten songs, it would still have been something special. Instead, Burnham does something radical: he lets us in on his own brokenness.

 Eighth Grade was not only a really good film but also a testament to the extent of Burnham’s empathy for a generation that has social media as a nagging constant in their lives. In Inside, possibly influenced by the process of making that film, he offers the drollery: “maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neuro-chemical drama of our children for profit, maybe that was a bad call.”

But like many empathetic people, Burnham clearly doesn’t always extend that same kindness to himself. Inside’s latter half paints a picture of a depressive obsessive who lambasts himself for not being productive enough. We are exposed to real pain. We see him berating himself for not getting a monologue right. The cognitive dissonance of whether you should laugh or cry is confronting.

You may feel like you’ve been hoodwinked into something different from what you signed up for. Another question irked me around the time I watched him somewhat self-pityingly note that he was spending his 30th birthday alone still making the special: is this performative narcissism masquerading as radical honesty? Surely he can at least go for a walk outside. Surely he is interacting with loved ones? Is his misery purely an aesthetic?

It soon becomes clear that the question of artifice vs sincerity is baked into the special, just like the white woman who is both capable of great feeling and performative triviality. At the end of the special, we see Burnham escape his room only for the shot to be replaced by a grainier image of the same shot. We realise that it’s an image of Burnham escaping his apartment projected on the wall. But of course, in order to film this scene, he would have had to have left his apartment for real. This tension between the need to perform through artifice and the need to sincerely connect is what makes this special the perfect encapsulation of our current zeitgeist.

The question of whether this is narcissism or an act of solidarity with those who have suffered through lockdown is a generative one. Burnham is all too aware of his need for attention as a performer. In “Comedy” he jokes about his need to “heal the world with comedy (…) while being paid and being the centre of attention”. Seeing as this special is part and parcel of our narcissistic times, where we can’t stop broadcasting ourselves, the admission of narcissism is the same as extending an olive branch to the collective who are also self-broadcasting through their suffering.

This is the tragic dimension of social media: we can’t curate the deep-down self. This self won’t allow it. We get ambushed by this deep-down self. Our will gets hijacked by this self. Fair dues to Burnham for letting this brokenness infiltrate the frame. Most people devote their energy to keeping it hidden.

In the latter half of the special, moments of suicidal ideation and depressive confessions about getting panic attacks on stage drastically change the mood, even though plenty of funny moments still abound. You might find yourself resisting what you’re seeing, feeling that the bleakness has suddenly overwhelmed the work. People often treat depression like an antigen, for fear it might remind us of a past self, or be the fate of our future self.

In Inside you’re being forced to look at something all too real and yet familiar, that which is often behind these shiny, glossy selves we project out into the world. It’s not pretty but how could it be? It feels vital. Like those former selves, depression is an intruder, and sometimes you have to let the intruder in so that he might eventually stop lurking around the premises. Raw and visceral pain has broken through the facade, even though it sometimes gets mingled with the artifice of the persona.

Besides, artists are the original self-broadcasters, narcissists par excellence. While a beloved comedian making a special for Netflix might not strike you as the most unfortunate person on the planet, it is instructive to see just how relative a person’s misery can be.

Such vulnerability is a rare thing. One can only imagine the nerves Burnahm must have had on the eve of this special’s release.

Throughout the special, we see a bearded Burnham transform into a primitive in appearance (or a member of the Fleet Foxes), an inhabitant of Plato’s cave, with no choice but to settle for alter-egos as companions (most notably a nihilistically socially conscious sock puppet). During the haunting, elegiac “All Eyes on Me”–a song in which he bemoans the fact that he can’t play for a live audience–Burnham lunges violently at the camera, only to initiate a sort of dervish-like dance with the technology that has to be both his salve and his curse. The effect is gripping, haunting, and very cool.

In the lyrics, Burnham keeps exhorting a non-existent audience to “get (their) fucking hands up”. He’s caught somewhere between embracing and attacking the camera, this ambiguous object that he has used to stay sane. And yet this technology is also threatening the world’s sanity. We may have been glad of how advanced our technology is at the start of lockdown, but its sophistication has only ensured our further dependence on it. Similarly, Krapp both resents his tapes and needs them to hold his shaky identity together–even though the selves are often incompatible with each other.

Krapp’s Last Tape is one of Beckett’s most autobiographical works. Beckett understood the “wretchedness of writers”. Still, at the time the play came out, Beckett was a literary sensation, unlike Krapp. Beckett had to use some fictional elements to distance himself from the work. Dramatists feel the need for self-exposure, but their coyness means they use artifice as a smokescreen. There’s far less withheld in Burnham’s baring of himself, even if we may question the authenticity of certain moments.

That Christ imagery might be more apposite than he realises. It’s interesting to try and predict how Bo Burnham will look back on this special in 30 years’ time. One would hope he can reflect on this special with pride. It’s not every performer that runs the risk of displaying the pain behind the performance, confronting the hidden self. Hence ,how Krapp fast forwards the tape of his boastful younger self. 

At the end of Beckett’s play, Krapp can’t help but re-listen to his younger self recount the last moments with the girl he is haunted by. Often, we’d rather jettison our former selves, but rejecting them outright can prevent us from actually moving on. Just like Burnham, Krapp may finally realise that if a past self is going to haunt you, you might as well invite it inside.

Sources Cited

Beckett, Samuel. The Complete Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett. Faber & Faber. 2006.

Billington, Michael. “Play it again, Sam: why Krapp’s Last Tape still leaves us reeling”. The Guardian. 8 August 2017.

Bo Burnham on political correctness in comedy”. CBS News. Youtube.

Bo Burnham Forgives His 16 Year Old Self”. The Off Camera Show. Youtube.