There is an emerging genre of hyperactive art born of the minds of people who have been online since before they hit puberty—call them Dispatches from a Mediated Mind. These are works (whether in writing or performance) that explore what it means to live with a brain broken into shards by a steady stream of social media and open tabs and reality television. Peppered with Reddit slang and obscure pop-culture references, the pieces may not be comprehensible to those who are, say, over sixty, or who are generally well-adjusted enough to have healthy relationships with their phones. But to the rest of us they are both a relief and a terror to encounter, a mirror held up to our own frazzled, fractured consciousness. I’m thinking of “No One Is Talking About This,” the novel by Patricia Lockwood, which dives into the headspace of a woman who is obsessed with logging onto “the portal,” and who has become semi-famous for tweeting, “Can a dog be twins?” Or the zany podcast “POOG,” in which the comedians Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak both parody and indulge their own obsession with wellness culture. Or “This American Wife,” a work of “live-stream multi-camera Internet theater,” by the collective Fake Friends, which follows three men who are trapped in a Long Island mansion experiencing a fever dream (slash psychotic break) brought on by watching too many episodes of “The Real Housewives.” These dispatches are not so much about psychological well-being (though mental health, and the precarity of it in a world of relentless stimuli, is a major theme) as they are about the push-pull tension between the self and the media that we produce and consume. We all have multiple personalities now; we are performing constantly. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s making us manic. It’s making us depressed, and never more so than during this past year, when many of us were isolated, our faces pressed up against our laptops like homesick sailors peering through portholes.
One of the leading auteurs of the mediated mind, the thirty-year-old comedian Bo Burnham, has a new Netflix special, “Inside,” that captures, with a frenzied and dextrous clarity, the unmoored, wired, euphoric, listless feeling of being very online during the pandemic. The ninety-minute show, which Burnham wrote and directed, is in no way a traditional comedy special, in which a person tells jokes while standing in front of an audience. It contains barely any spoken punch lines at all outside of a few canned, tinny segments, in which the “bits” feel deliberately hackneyed and out-of-date. (Why don’t pirates laminate their treasure maps, eh?) Instead, “Inside” is a virtuosic one-man musical extravaganza, and also an experimental film about cracking up via Wi-Fi connection while trying to make said one-man musical extravaganza—although, in the mediated age, when genres are twisted and mashed together, characterizing it feels almost beyond the point.
At its core, “Inside” is an exploration of what it means to be a performer when you are stuck to a screen but also stuck inside your head. Burnham never explicitly mentions the pandemic, a purposeful omission that allows the special’s title to accrue multiple meanings. Technically, yes, “Inside” is a variety show about the isolation of life under quarantine. It is also about Burnham’s very particular interior unease. He craves being seen but resents his gnawing, 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 do it.”) Burnham leaps among visual and musical references with a swaggering fluency. In one segment, he meticulously recreates the slick, manicured aesthetic of a “white woman’s Instagram.” In another, he jumps into the character of a blasé Twitch streamer testing out a new video game, also called “Inside,” in which he controls a Bo Burnham avatar who can do only a few things: cry, pace, sit. This sight gag underscores the essential claustrophobia of Burnham’s project, and of the past year, in general—but it also evokes the self-punishing aspects of being a performer. Much of the special tries to pinpoint the feeling of living internally and externally in the same instant, and the defensive mentality that it can inspire. “The backlash to the backlash to the thing that’s just begun,” Burnham sings in one number.
Burnham is no stranger to sitting alone in a room recording himself. He became famous, as a teen-ager, for the viral YouTube videos that he made in the bedroom of his home, in eastern Massachusetts. Heralded as a comedic wunderkind and a sort of millennial soothsayer, he was living through the comments section from a young age, painfully attuned to what others thought of him and his work. “The reason people give me shit is because I came out of the Internet and I wasn’t getting enough criticism in the clubs,” he said during a roundtable discussion when he was twenty. “But, the truth is, for the older comics who say that, I want them to read ten thousand Internet comments and see if they don’t feel fully criticized.” Burnham had filmed three live specials by the time he was twenty-six, and he found himself torn apart by a decade of churning out “content” (a word that he uses in “Inside” with pointed frequency). As my colleague Michael Schulman reported in a Profile, in 2018, Burnham gave up live performance after suffering regular panic attacks before going on stage. He focussed his efforts instead on behind-the-camera work, directing specials by Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael, and making “Eighth Grade,” a film in which he attempted to “take inventory emotionally” of how it feels to be perpetually plugged in at a tender age. (He also turned to acting, appearing in Emerald Fennell’s “Promising Young Woman” as the love interest whose true nature is revealed by a resurfaced bit of old video footage.) In “Inside,” Burnham explains that he had finally gotten his anxiety under control and was planning to get out from behind his laptop and return to the stage sometime in 2020. “I thought, You know what? I should start performing again,” he says. “I’ve been hiding from the world, and I need to reënter. And then . . . the funniest thing happened.”
“Inside” unfolds in two acts, with a brief “intermission,” during which Burnham slowly wipes down his camera lens with a squeegee—one of the special’s many meta-references to its own painstaking creation. We also see wires tangled across the floor, shots of Burnham editing the shots we’ve just watched, a montage of him putting on a costume and setting up cardboard backdrops, a scene in which he re-records himself singing because he breathed at the wrong moment, and monologues on the film’s progress that he shoots while staring at his own reflection in the mirror. These glimpses behind the curtain give the work a veneer of authenticity, but Burnham is quick to tell us that we shouldn’t necessarily trust them. About a half hour into the special, he sings a jazzy song about unpaid interns and exploitative labor (one of several short, unhinged riffs about life under late capitalism), then films a “reaction video,” showing himself praising his own performance. He then films a reaction video to that reaction video, and so on, until he is so many layers deep that his reactions cease to ring true at all.
As the special goes on, it gets sadder and stranger. Burnham’s hair and beard grow longer, and he looks more and more stranded at sea. Sometime during filming, he turned thirty, and he celebrates by watching a clock tick to midnight and then performing a pop song about existential panic, in his underwear. He frets about finishing work on the special, telling the camera, “That means I have to not work on it anymore, and that means I have to just live my life.” At one point, he starts to cry and knocks over his lighting equipment. Meanwhile, the Web is always there, taunting him. In one of his best numbers, “Welcome to the Internet,” he wears round, carnival barker-esque spectacles and performs in front of a planetarium projection. “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?” he sings.
In the early days of the pandemic, there was a lot of chatter on Twitter about the fact that Shakespeare had written “King Lear” during the plague; would isolation give all of us the time to complete our own masterpieces? Then again, wasn’t it hard enough to stay sane during such a fearful, overwhelming time without expecting great things of ourselves? “Inside” is about feeling wayward and alone, but it’s also a record of a pandemic year spent putting extreme, electrifying effort into making something. Burnham constructs tableaus for each shot, using creative lighting techniques born of isolated necessity: a disco ball illuminated with a headlamp flashlight, a phone screen used as a follow spot, a white wall cleverly transformed into a green screen. But my favorite scene is a quieter one toward the end, in which Burnham performs an acoustic song in front of a projection of aspen trees, lit only by candlelight (a nod to TikTok’s “cottagecore” aesthetic, another visual joke). He spouts a list of terms—“ ‘Carpool Karaoke,’ Steve Aoki, Logan Paul / A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall”—that don’t make sense together, except that they do, when you have online brain. “There it is again, that funny feeling,” he croons. At the end of the special, he briefly finds a way out of his room and into the sunshine—but the freedom, too, proves to be a ruse. As we emerge from a long year of solitude, many of us are negotiating a version of the same internal conflict that torments Burnham. Is it scarier to “never go outside again,” as he sings in his final song, or to give up our mediated inside lives for a riskier kind of exposure?
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