An Open Letter to Bo Burnham
Dear Mr. Burnham,
Bo? Robert? I’m not sure what to call you. Let’s stick with Mr. Burnham, that feels most appropriate. Hi. I saw you at the train station in June. You probably don’t remember me. I was one of the last remaining mask-wearers, the one pacing back and forth wearing a long dress. I was looking around for someone to give me directions to the bus terminal and you caught my eye. I thought “hmm, that man is pretty tall — WAIT A SECOND.”
I didn’t say anything for many reasons. First, I was on the brink of a full-blown panic attack and so late for my bus that I just didn’t have the time. Second, I’m not partial to your comedy. It’s not your fault; it’s my brain’s fault. As an audience member I’m not able to properly digest comedy when it’s delivered through song, and therefore can’t appreciate the jokes or the composition. So because I can’t really call myself a fan, it felt like it would have been weird to casually stroll over and say “hey dude, I don’t like your work all that much but I respect your talent and I loved you in Promising Young Woman.” Third, I hadn’t seen Inside yet, but based on hearsay and the bits floating around on TikTok, initiating random social interaction in a public place seemed like the wrong move. I decided to leave things unsaid and be content with the knowledge that I’d seen you, and that I knew it was you.
Now I have seen Inside. And I have a few things to say.
As previously mentioned, musical comedy is not my cup of tea. This Netflix special was different though, in part because I would not call it a comedy, but mostly because it has much more of a narrative than any of your other specials. There’s an actual story to follow here about your past, your experiences in quarantine, and how the last year made you see the world differently. So we were already off to a stronger start than we were back in 2015 when I was pretending to laugh along with my classmates and downloading the songs from what onto my iPod out of peer pressure. That said, whenever I told people I’d finally watched Inside and they asked me “are you emotionally destroyed,” I told them no. There’s not really anything devastating about looking in a mirror. The special is unique to your body of work, but it’s still about that thing you poked fun at years ago. You know the one.
As for the content, Inside doesn’t bring anything new to the table so much as it collects the universal anger, anxiety, fear, irony, and sorrow of the 2020 experience and parrots it back at its audience. It is not a revelation — it is a reflection. That, I think, is where its power lies. There are certainly a few duds to be found among the songs (let’s be honest, we all know I’m talking about “White Woman’s Instagram,”) but I have difficulty calling any of the tracks bad. They’re all catchy and whimsical in the most cynical of ways, and they’re finely constructed and extremely intelligent. “Look Who’s Inside Again” and “That Funny Feeling” are standouts. “Look Who’s Inside Again” is striking for obvious reasons. Everyone who’s listened to it has thought “oh my gosh, I was a kid who was stuck in their room too! He put it in words!” But really, it’s the delivery that’s so genius. As beautiful as complex metaphor and allegory is, sometimes the most powerful thing one can do is strip things down and lay them out in the clearest and most succinct way possible. I appreciate that you didn’t make that song any more complex than it needed to be and allowed its rawness to speak for itself. “That Funny Feeling” is similar. It’s a song that describes the quiet contradiction of living through the apocalypse on a casual Friday. These feelings can be devastating one day and fleeting the next. Sometimes they’re constant, sometimes they come up randomly, but they’re always there, especially for Gen Z folks like me who don’t know a life outside the unprecedented. “That Funny Feeling” is the modern equivalent of the famous second motto from Bertolt Brecht’s Svendborg Poems:
“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes. There will also be singing
About the dark times.”
The cinematography is what really blew me away, and is the thing which I think makes the special really…well, special. Inside demonstrates a creative verve A24 would kill for. With minimal tools, it cultivates a distinct aesthetic around itself, one which is vibrant, hypnotic, and terrifying — the closest thing to a cinematic optical illusion I’ve come across. However, as immersive as the production is, it also demands that the effects be perceived as just that: effects. It’s all projections and blank walls and simple light tricks which are so fragile that the slightest disruption can destroy it all. We see you clicking buttons and remotes to make colors move. We see your shadow in the neon behind you. We see the camera. We see the fourth wall. In another similarity to optical illusions, the special forces us to be aware that it’s all artful deception. With one look, we are consumed. With another, we are disenchanted.
Well, now that’s all out of the way. I suppose it’s time to get to the real reason I’m writing this.
People think being an artist is as simple as just painting, or just sculpting, or just singing. They don’t consider the physical labor, or the strategy, and they certainly don’t consider the mental toll. As an artist, baring your soul and sharing the most personal parts of your life comes with the territory. It’s almost required. And much of the time, we do it gladly. We spill our guts onto canvases and stages until we are nothing, and then we build ourselves back up so we can do it all over again, and we love it. But as an artist, there is also a piece of your being — a piece so intimate it goes beyond the word “intimacy — ” that can never belong to anything else but your art. 90% of you is up for grabs, but 10% refuses to be given. I went into Inside expecting yet another Bo Burnham special that I would appreciate, but not particularly enjoy. Instead, I saw a man whose 10% had been taken from him. I saw a man searching for…something. Maybe it’s purpose, maybe it’s escape, maybe it’s just searching for the sake of searching. I don’t think either of us know. Knowing anything in a world like this is nigh impossible. That “spark” that gets discussed so often in regards to creativity, I saw it here. Not as a spark, but as what it really is — a quiet and wavering flame that burns because the only other choice is to die.
I saw something no one ever wants to talk about: the continuous cycle of self-inflicted emotional abuse that so often defines what it is to be an artist.
You are not my friend. You owe me nothing. I don’t know you because I’ve seen Inside, or because we shared a fleeting moment of eye contact that may well have been imaginary. I will never know you, and I don’t want to. But I do now understand you. A part of you. The 90% that never really clicked before. The 10%…well, that’s not mine to have. I still cannot say “I am a Bo Burnham fan,” but I can say “as an artist, I appreciate Bo Burnham. I’m glad he’s in the world. And I hope he’s doing okay.”
And I know you’ll never read this, but in some parallel universe where you do…thanks.