Bo Burnham’s Inside has wormed its way into my head to the extent that it’s resurrected my dormant blog.
Coming into it without being a huge fan of the previous Bo Burnham skits that I’d seen, it only took a few minutes until I felt gripped. Then it only took a few days until a good half of the songs were stuck in my head, where they’ve by and large stayed for the past two weeks. Amongst his (apparently limitless) talents, Bo has an impressive ability for catchy songs. Each of the first five or six is upbeat, repetitive and melodic enough to get you humming it while you make breakfast the next morning.
And it’s this cheery, catchy, upbeat sense which forms the first half of the jarring juxtaposition which Inside presents: that things are actually not going well, on either a personal or a societal level. As you’ve no doubt read a million times now, Inside is only nominally about the pandemic. I don’t think I fully understood the full implications of what is a broad-reaching project (I was a bit nonplussed by the ending) but we’re clearly talking about individual and collective anxiety here, as well as the spectres of depression, agoraphobia and disassociation.
This is all wrapped up in a miasma of reflexive self-awareness, which comes into play before we’ve even begun, with song number 2, Comedy, satirising Bo’s own need to perform and be loved despite his position of privilege and the eminent collapse of society, and also the rich world’s wider need to be the centre of attention even in times of social change. An amazing quote from the later How the World Works sums this up: “Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every sociopolitical conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualisation? This isn’t about you! So either get with it, or get out of the fucking way!” I instantly loved this. One of those moments where you hear something you’d struggled to express, expressed perfectly.
So, once Bo has explained the multiple reasons why he probably didn’t need to make Inside in the first place, he goes on to deliver one of the most unique, unnerving and truthful portraits of our modern time. And of course, the fact that he quite literally did it all himself is just mind-blowing, coming from someone who has tried and failed to (a) write songs, (b) edit movies, and (c) maintain an intelligent, engaging creative output during tough times.
I could rhapsodise for paragraphs about why it’s good and how it’s good. Really, I could. But this has been done in much greater analytical depth than I ever could a hundred times over already, in a hundred youtube videos of roughly 20 minutes with titles like “REVEALED: Why Bo Burnham’s Inside is GENIUS!”
But let’s go here instead: I have this pet peeve. It’s become common, and maybe even fashionable, for our generation to talk about mental illness in an ironic, humorous way. You see it in the gif which reads “I have crippling depression” in sparkly rainbow writing. You see it in the youtube vine compilations which have titles like Memes which keep me from suicide. You see it when people say, “Just spent the last two weeks without leaving my bedroom,” complete with the ironic photo-ready peace sign.
I keep this pet peeve quiet when I see it because I think explaining it comes across as snobbish or pompous. Like, I’d never do that. And maybe it is. But the peeve is there, and it’s growing.
I think the source of my discomfort is that, obviously, I hate the idea that such a huge chunk of my friends and family are struggling mentally, such a huge chunk of the time. But on a more rational level, I think our culture’s newfound openness about mental illness has just developed an alternative way of sweeping it under the rug: deflection using humour. Someone says something like this, we all laugh, we all #relate, then we move on without confronting it whatsoever.
So I’m watching Inside and loving it, but there was this niggling feeling in the back of my mind that the dichotomy between catchy tunes and severe mental distress was staying just that: we were watching a man fall apart on screen, and laughing along, without ever really confronting it. The “bag of shit” song mocks the club banality “How you all feeling out there tonight?”, followed by “I am not good,” then continues in that vein, without going any further. Similarly, at the end of the song Thirty, Bo says, “In 2030 I’ll be forty, I’ll kill myself then.”
And then the song ends.
It’s a bit of a shock-value moment, and does it actually address the long-term suicidal ideation impulse in any depth? Well, not entirely. On a personal level, I empathise with this long-term ideation much more than I’ve ever experienced an “I want to die now” feeling. The distant tidal waves of global warming, resource wars and societal collapse feel utterly overwhelming, and yet still distant. The idea of opting out of witnessing it all, at some vague undefined point in the future, is appealing.
This concern is best expressed in the standout song of the film, That Funny Feeling, which manages to tie so many of the ideas bouncing around into a beautifully mournful song. This is only my personal interpretation, and it may be influenced by confirmation bias, but I think the titular funny feeling is the bizarre sense of numbness which comes from living in the pinnacle of human achievement, a consumer paradise where almost anything is possible, and yet still feeling cold and empty, and still feeling dread at the horror around us, both the immediate horror of mass shootings and inequality, and the long-term horror of the upheaval to come. The quote I’ve titled this blog with comes from here, and I think Bo is talking about this sense of oncoming disaster, and the feeling that it really might mean the end of things as we’ve known them for thousands of years; the end of culture, and perhaps the end of us.
By this point in the film, I think Bo has transcended the #depressioooooon impulse: I think he is reckoning with why so many of us feel this way, if not how we can change. And that’s probably because there’s not much of a way that we can change — we’re sort of fucked. Another reason why I have this pet peeve is a sense of futility; my friends are depressed, and there’s nothing I can really do about it. I suppose it’s better to express distress in ironic humour than it is to repress it?
And in terms of how best to channel anxiety, depression and disassociation, making a sublime comedy special to make life just a little brighter for millions of people doesn’t seem a bad option.
I hope you didn’t come here looking for answers.