A Venn diagram of tragedy, trauma, and Bo Burnham's new special
THIS ESSAY WAS ORIGINALLY SHARED ON JUNE 10, 2021
I've wanted to write about Inside, but I assume everyone is tired of hearing hot takes about Bo Burnham's latest special. The YouTube sensation turned legitimate comedian and actor recently shared his latest special after a five-year hiatus from stand-up comedy. The Netflix exclusive, which Burnham wrote and made himself in a single room, finds the now 30-year-old comic mining the chaos and isolation of the last year for comedy gold. He also dabbles in commentary about our relationship with technology and the lessons learned with age, but it all falls under the umbrella of life as we’ve known it since March 2020. He’s observing his (our) coping mechanisms and pulling them apart, uncovering all the uncomfortable truth about living the lie that everything is fine.
I don't need to tell you to watch the special. The fact I'm writing about it should accomplish that. I hope that you've already seen it, and if not, that you will save the rest of this email until afterward. I have no plans to spoil the contents per se, but I want to discuss why it seems to resonate so well with so many people, especially those thirty-five and younger.
The beauty of art is how it taps into something almost indescribable yet profoundly meaningful that exists within us. I believe the best art is anything that comes from a distinctly original place. It's when someone utilizes their life experience and shares their unique journey through this world in their craft. When they say or do or show something to us that instantly becomes part of our global culture. You may not know the person who made it or where they come from, but something in their expression of self knows or recognizes something within you. Most of us go through life feeling like we are separate from the whole, but then we encounter something someone else made that seems to capture some element of our story, and we latch onto it with every ounce of strength we can muster. In that instant, we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and we feel that connection on a spiritual level.
But there's a problem. Maybe you wouldn't call it a problem, but I don't have a better word for it right now. The problem is that every individual worldwide has a journey through this life that is unlike any other. The fact that any element of any one thing that one of us creates may share something in common with the journey of any single other person is a miracle. That certain individuals can make art that resonates with thousands or even millions of people is almost unbelievable. The likelihood of such a connection happening is impossible to calculate, but it seems similar to being struck by lightning. Twice.
The only exception to this phenomenon comes from world-shifting moments in history. Whenever a tragic event happens, there is always a piece of art that the survivors view as a perfect companion to the trauma they've experienced. Elton John's 1997 rendition of "Candle In The Wind, "for example, conveys is the exact emotion the world needed to see recognized in the wake of Princess Diana's death. It's a mournful ballad that seeks silver linings that can bring some semblance of joy in the darkest times. Not everyone got it, but millions of people processing the grief of such a tragic and sudden loss did. To them, Elton John got "it," and because of that, their pain felt less isolating than before.
I lived in Boston when the marathon bombing occurred. If I close my eyes, I can still recall sitting at work and learning about the initial explosion from a Vine clip circulating on Twitter. We passed it around the office in shock and disbelief, waiting for official word from the city or government account. I sent it to my partner, who was working less than half a mile from the finish line, and she had no idea what was unfolding. Before long, everyone rushed home, which made the already terrible traffic worse, and we all sat locked in our homes until the terror came to an end.
Minutes passed like hours during that time. There was nothing to do except sit and wait for news. People clung to any piece of insight or evidence made available. Others flooded internet chatrooms and forums with ludicrous conspiracy theories. Everyone was in shock, and nobody wanted to discuss it. We wanted answers and justice as if either would fix what seeing those events broke within us.
Nobody can tell you when it happened, but sometime in the days and weeks that followed, the city of Boston found an anthem. You might expect it to be something from an early Dropkick Murphys record or NKOTB's "Step By Step," but it was a current track from an artist that was, at the time, relatively unknown. Bastille's breakout hit "Pompeii" captured the confusion and panic of a life-altering moment that brought a city to its knees. The pre-chorus literally describes Pompeii falling as fire rages. Then the chorus hits, and frontman Dan Smith's angelic voice reminds us what matters most without losing sight of the work ahead.
But if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like nothing changed at all?
And if you close your eyes
Does it almost feel like you've been here before?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
How am I gonna be an optimist about this?
On "Pompeii," Bastille conveys what those who experience moments of trauma and great loss ultimately learn in time, which is that nothing matters more than our connection to one another. Cities rise and fall, tragedy strikes, and no one can promise us a better tomorrow. We are all together in this thing called life. When the fires go out and the smoke finally clears, that fact remains. We are the most precious thing on this planet, and we must learn to lean on one another when things once thought to be impossible happen.
For months, You could go anywhere in the city without hearing "Pompeii" or another track of Bastille's Bad Blood record at maximum volume. The group saw our pain even if they didn't know us. They wrote about a disaster from nearly 2,000 years ago, yet the message was the exact thing that millions needed to hear. "Pompeii" got it. "Pompeii" got us.
Of course, art being a business and all, people often try to cash in on our trauma during our most trying times. Many of these attempts lack the tact or artistic talent needed to hide their desperate times to benefit from tragedy. Others get treated like meaningful cultural events, such as the woefully misguided 2020 film Songbird and blink-182's instantly forgettable quarantine song, but ultimately prove too rushed to understand the nuanced energy of the moment.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is the first worldwide disaster of our lifetime. The disease forced billions of people out of their everyday lives and into isolation for more than a year. At the same time, the endlessly churning cogs of society demanded we carry on with work, school, and other commitments as if life as we knew it didn't come to a sudden halt. We're barely beginning to leave a mass causality traumatic event that has irrevocably changed countless lives and continues to threaten any chance for a proper return to the world we once knew. People are suffering, and many have yet to attempt processing everything that has happened. The work in front of us — all of us — both emotionally and interpersonally, is indescribable.
Bo Burnham's Inside, much like "Pompeii" or "Candle in the Wind" before it, is the definitive articulation of where we are as human beings in 2021. It's the grand finale of an eighteen-month campaign that is far from over but finally starting to shift. Burnham sees us and asks that we see him too. He takes his deconstructionist approach to comedy and applies it to a year nobody will forget. Bo says what we've all been thinking or feeling, mainly the tough stuff you either bury or share with a professional, and brings it to center stage. He knows we need to recognize our pain and that we need to begin the work of understanding what it has done to us. He can't force his audience to take action, but he still uses the humor of Inside as a trojan horse to present this urgent message to the masses.
A comedy special being the best creative medium to encapsulate this crucial point in culture is befitting our times. Anyone 35 and younger struggles to remember a time in life when they didn't use humor to deflect from pain of some kind. Nothing happens in our culture today without someone finding a way to make a joke. Better yet, we take critical cultural moments and transform them into meme formats that can identify existential problems and dread that millions experience daily. We joke about our lack of control because we have yet to accept it. We laugh about going broke and never owning a home and living with our parents until we die because we don't feel any other option exists other than pure unbridled rage, which we were raised to avoid. We make jokes about our mental health while refusing to seek out help for mental health. Those who do seek assistance make jokes because the stigma around discussing these problems with anyone else persists.
But it has never been more clear that we are all in this together. This thing called life, whatever it happens to be, connects us all. If something happens where you live, then it can happen here too. Our actions have consequences, and they are far-reaching. Our good acts need to be truly good, not just for us but for everyone. Otherwise, they're not really good for anyone. The pandemic took so much from us, but it has reinforced our inner connectivity in a way like no other event in our lifetime. We are in the midst of a global pivot point in history, and we barely discuss it without a punchline.
Inside has plenty of jokes. It also has many moments where Burnham chooses biting honesty and allows his statements to linger in the empty space surrounding him. It's a fourth wall shattering moment where he lets us know that he's watching us watching him, and he knows what we're both trying to avoid. But we can't avoid it. Inside is all about getting out. Bo urges you to get out of your head, get off the Internet, and get out of whatever situation or relationship is causing you pain. We all survived a moment in time when our lives were very of our control, so now we must do everything in our power to do the work in front of us. We owe it to ourselves to get better. We need to get better. We need to do better. We need to be better.
Great comedy looks effortless. Any comedian worth their guarantee can make a performance look like it comes off the top of their head. Burnham's talent, and ultimately what forges the connection with his audience, is that his approach to comedy is actively working against that skill set. He's working somewhere between observational, absurdist, and meta-humor. He's a magician performing a trick while explaining how the trick works who still manages to make you a believer.
Inside is yet another look behind the curtain. Here he is, the YouTube kid, turning 30 and dancing in his underwear alone in front of a camera. He's the stereotypical bright young mind turned self-loathing burnout, or at least, he feels that way. He struggles to create in quarantine like anyone else. The only difference is, he is doing the work. You see the theme here?
I think it's the ending that makes Inside so great. As the light fills the room, Burnham steps outside only to turn back once more. The door is now closed, but he still clings to it as the light fades. We can't act like the last year didn't happen, but we also can't live in the past. It's OK not to be OK right now. Anyone who tells you they are doing fine is lying or trying to save you from a long conversation they know you don't need to hear. Burnham has no answers, but he's here too. He's going through it, just like us, and he will continue doing the work. Will you? Will I?
I've seen many people saying they don't know how to feel about or process their experience with Inside. That is a fair question, but it is not the most pertinent. How are you doing after the last year? How are you doing after the previous month? What are you avoiding, and why are you avoiding it? What work do you need to do, and who can you talk to about the things you don't talk about?
As for me, I'm doing OK. My father always says that life is a series of seasons and that each season eventually ends. My current season is transitional. Life is somehow going 100 mph and crawling at the same time. Grappling with the last year is something I continue to work on daily. My emotions oscillate between splurging on tickets to things I was denied in 2020 and feeling a hefty weight pressing down on my very being. This morning I woke up sad. I'll try again tomorrow.