Bo Burnham’s INSIDE Special: An Intimate Look into Mental Health and the Pandemic Quarantine Experience

[Trigger Warning: mental illness, suicidal ideation]

Now that the U.S. government and general American population has collectively decided that the COVID-19 pandemic is over, multiple articles and news outlets are buzzing about what activities people are most looking forward to doing again. Forget about the fact that much of the rest of the world is still suffering from continuously high numbers of COVID infections and deaths; no, we Americans are ready to move on from all of that now. After all, hasn’t it been long enough? We deserve a break—nightclubs, going out for drinks, pool parties, barbecues, taking trips to Disneyland—and we need it now. Let the masks come off!

With this selfish and ignorant mentality driving the American public’s attention further and further toward opening up our social lives once again, the beginning stages of quarantine feel like they happened eons ago. Remember when the highways were completely empty, and gas was $1 per gallon? Or when Zoom first emerged as the “new normal” environment for the classroom and workplace? When Gal Gadot’s awful, incredibly tone deaf “Imagine” celebrity singing compilation was posted on the Internet? It all feels like a distant, bad memory now.

Well, Bo Burnham is back to help you relive all of those bad feelings, but from his own intimately private perspective. Set in a claustrophobically small studio apartment (which in reality serves as a guest house at Burnham’s Los Angeles home), the special follows Burnham over the course of one year as he is stuck inside, alone, during the pandemic. Modeled slightly after the structure of a stand-up comedy special, the film fluctuates between periods of loneliness-induced mania, not-so-subtle political and social commentary, and deeply bleak depression. Oh, and did I mention this is a musical?

Burnham, who directed, wrote, edited, and starred in the bewildering special mostly on his own, also wrote several original songs that perfectly accompany the overall message that the piece carries. From the humorously sarcastic “Bezos I & II” to the hauntingly unforgettable “All Eyes On Me”, the soundtrack’s 20 songs frame the protagonist’s journey as he transitions from a cheery, fresh-faced comedian to a sad, lonely man who has visibly not shaved or cut his hair during the entirety of the production process. At the end of the special, Burnham’s sunken stare and unkempt hair make him look like he has aged ten years, over the course of one. This image, as well as the special as a whole, is an honest reflection of what being stuck inside during a global pandemic is like, and the effect it can have on a person’s mental well-being and sanity.

One theme in the special that I’d like to highlight is social media, and the lasting, damaging effects it can have on a person. With the outside world closed down and nothing to do, most of us undoubtedly turned to the wonderful, glorious Internet to find a way to entertain ourselves. From streaming movies to listening to new albums to scrolling through Instagram and Twitter for hours on end, it’s easy to get sucked into a pattern of dedicating too much of your time to the Internet (even when there isn’t a pandemic going on). Burnham expertly highlights this addiction in the songs “White Woman’s Instagram” and “Welcome to the Internet,” which have both already achieved mass popularity for their clever lyrics, message, and creative visuals.

“White Woman’s Instagram,” for the most part, is meant to be a goofy and carefree song that pokes fun at the one-dimensional visuals that we are accustomed to seeing on, well, white women’s Instagrams. From “latte foam art, tiny pumpkins” to “a bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” the images described in the lyrics are an innocent mockery of the silly little things that frequent our social media feeds. During the song itself, Burnham adjusts the screen’s aspect ratio to make the audience feel like they are actually scrolling through an Instagram feed, with its perfect little squares of perfect little visuals.

While the song is meant to be frivolous (and may ruffle the feathers of white women that take offense to the lyrics), there are several deep interpretations that can come out of it. For example, one could argue that Instagram posts are a barrier that we put up to show how magical and wonderful our lives are, when in fact things are going horribly. In a pandemic context, my feed was still frequented with people going out to brunch and vacationing on the beach, despite lockdown restrictions and rising death tolls. Social media is the perfect front for lying to everyone (and yourself) that everything is fine.

I think Burnham’s intent behind the song was to express how everyone who uses social media (particularly the photography-focused Instagram app) pretends that their lives are perfect, as implied by the lyric “is this Heaven? Or is it just a white woman’s Instagram?”. The generic photos described in the song may be aesthetically pleasing and comforting to look at, but what truly lies behind the person posting them is a mystery. You might post a picture of “a goat cheese salad” while your mental health is simultaneously at an all-time low, but your Instagram followers would be none the wiser.

Maybe I’m reading too deep into the lyrics; maybe Burnham just wanted to make fun of the “basic white girl” aesthetic. But Burnham also includes a bridge that describes a girl posting about her mother who passed away, and it serves as a deeply humanizing and emotional moment in the song. You can make fun of basic girls and their Instagram posts all day long, but at the end of the day, they are still humans with emotions and empathy—just hidden behind a digital screen.

While “White Woman’s Instagram” is, at its core, a fun and upbeat song about simple social media pleasures, “Welcome to the Internet” is its much more sinister counterpart. Sounding like a cross between a fast-paced polka and a Looney Tunes soundtrack, “Welcome to the Internet” starts off with a cheery tone, but as the tempo rapidly speeds up, it gives you the unusual feeling that something is terribly wrong. Burnham creepily smiles at the camera throughout his performance, his look completed with sunglasses in a dark-lit room. Observe the following lyrics:

“Could I interest you in everything all of the time

A bit of everything all of the time

Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime

Anything and everything all of the time”

Accentuated with Burnham’s disturbing evil villain laugh, the song hits you hard in a place you didn’t know existed. The quickening tempo grows more and more unsettling throughout, and the lyrics target the underlying guilt that anyone who uses the Internet may have about their constant online consumption. This song really makes you realize the power of music; I never thought a silly song in a “comedy” special could make me feel so troubled. The lyrics are a brutally honest expression of how modern society has been swallowed up by the power of the Internet. From targeted advertisements to listening devices that we set up in our homes, there’s no denying that the Internet (and the people who run it) have us in the palm of their hands—and unless you go completely off the grid, there’s no escaping it.

“Welcome to the Internet” is one of the best musical highlights of Inside. Burnham’s ability to create a truly distressing piece of music is astounding, and he expertly acknowledges our obsession with finding “anything and everything” at the touch of a button (or rather, the swipe of a touch screen). Although he doesn’t sing it explicitly, the lyrics could be a nod to the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement and the many social issues that we tried to bring awareness to through social media (the Israel-Palestine conflict, global warming, etc.)—if you have all of these resources at your fingertips, then what excuse do you have to not educate yourself? In the framework of the pandemic and all of the other bullshit that happened in 2020, the aforementioned songs cleverly portray our society’s fixation with social media and the Internet in an uncomfortably personal context.

Finally, the last song I’d like to analyze is “All Eyes On Me”, which also stands as my favorite song from the Inside soundtrack. Burnham utilizes autotune to lower the pitch and tone of his voice, and also slows down the song considerably, making the listening experience feel like you are talking to God himself (à la Moses speaking with the burning bush/God in the Bible). The lyrics of this song beautifully tie together what the rest of the special is trying to say about Burnham’s own personal experience in quarantine. He is lonely, sad, scared, angry—or, as he simply puts it, “I… am not doing well” (cue the scene where he has a complete mental breakdown and starts crying in front of the camera).

The titular “eyes” on Burnham are his audience, whether that be the physical audience that used to attend his live stand-up shows or the virtual audience that watch and listen to his online content. It’s evident that Burnham, who has long been an advocate for mental health awareness, was/is having a tough time during the pandemic. One of the final shots in the special shows him emerging from his tiny home, but the door locks behind him as a huge spotlight is projected onto his body. As he desperately tries to claw his way back inside the house, a laugh track plays, sounding more and more menacing as he collapses to the ground in despair.

While this particular scene was artistically staged for the special, Burnham’s message couldn’t be any clearer. As a content creator, comedian, and popular celebrity, there’s no denying that he is constantly bombarded with the public’s attention. While I obviously have no direct knowledge of what a celebrity’s life might be like, “All Eyes On Me” is an honest representation of how mentally difficult it is to constantly be placed in the spotlight, in the face of both boundless praise and harsh criticism. Consider the contrast between the following lyrics:

“Come on, get your fuckin’ hands up

Get on out of your seat

All eyes on me, all eyes on me”

“Heads down, pray for me

Heads down now, pray for me”

Burnham’s lyrics express how he, as a performer, feels the need to thrive off of having an audience who will listen to him, but he also includes a direct cry for help. Being stuck inside during a global pandemic is enough to challenge anyone’s mental health, so I can’t imagine being saddled with a Netflix project on top of everything that is happening. “All Eyes On Me” has a beautiful but haunting melody, and if you listen to the song alone, you may feel like you are slowly sinking underwater and powerless to stop it.

Calling Inside a “comedy” is probably the most misleading title ever. While the special does include a few laughs (mostly sarcastic or self-deprecating ones), it will leave you feeling empty, depressed, and/or sympathetic for Burnham—take your pick. The brief laughs are overshadowed by much darker themes, and Burnham’s lyrics will make you question everything about your own existence. Take, for example, the scene where he talks about why you shouldn’t kill yourself. As a pre-pandemic Burnham cheerfully explains why life is worth living for everyone, the camera zooms out, showing the pre-recorded video projected on a present-day Burnham’s white t-shirt as he sits in a dark room, without so much as a hint of a smile on his face. It’s little moments like these that force you to dive into your own existentialism, as well as ponder how much of Burnham’s performance is authentic to his mental health experiences.

To conclude, Inside does not reflect a truly universally shared pandemic experience. Millions died of COVID-19, and people lost their jobs, their homes, their loved ones. Some argue that Burnham, in the meantime, continued to live a cushy life in his Los Angeles home—why should he complain about how hard quarantine was for him? How much of his mental breakdowns in the special are just exaggerated acting?

And to those people, I say this: much like how Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland was not created for the sole purpose of bashing Amazon’s working conditions, Inside was not created to cater to every person’s individual quarantine experience. The special reflects Burnham and Burnham alone, and if you as a viewer can empathize with what he’s going through, great. If not, find something else to watch that may inspire you in a different way. While declining mental health is undoubtedly a common phenomenon for people throughout the pandemic, Inside gives us a private look into Burnham’s own experience, and his content may help you discover new things about yourself. At the very least, listen to the soundtrack; “Bezos I & II” is guaranteed to give you a laugh.

Published by The Second Stylus

The Editor

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