Saturday 5 June 2021

Inside Out

Between 2016 and 2019 I applied for some residencies with the idea that I would use the available spaces to rehearse and develop a short comedy routine. It was my plan to document these trials of jokes that were performed to an empty room, making it impossible for me to gauge their funniness. The working title of this project was 'Stagefreight: A comedy routine without any laughter' and after a year or two I would say I had about a minute or two of decent jokes. Although in the absence of laughter I of course did not know this for certain.
All the residency applications got rejected and I didn't have the resources to create a full 5-10 minute video on my own in the way I had envisioned it, so all that is left today is a notebook full of jokes and some early screen tests that were used in the proposals. 
My aim with the project was not so much to make a comedic video, but rather a short film that exposes a little bit of the magic behind the curtain. I wanted to show that a performance on stage is very much the end of a long and hidden process, which is inevitably riddled with failure.
It is now June 2021 and comedian Bo Burnham has just released his latest comedy special. Aptly titled Inside, this special was 'written, edited, shot and directed' by Burnham himself at his house during the 2020 Covid-19 outbreak. 
This is the first time that I've seen anybody else attempt such an endeavour and because of this it immediately grabbed my interest. In this post I will talk a little bit about some things I've noticed while watching this special, but ultimately I don't have a specific point to make about it.
Inside is roughly divided into three sections. First there is a short introduction to the format of the special, which takes about eleven minutes. There are two songs that are very reminiscent of Burnham's earlier work on stage, as well as some shots of him fiddling with various technical equipment and a short speech that formally introduces the nature of the special: 'Welcome to whatever this is. I've been working for the last couple of months testing this camera and testing these lights and writing, and I've decided to try and make a new special for real. It's not going to be a normal special, because there is no audience and there is no crew. It's just me and my camera, and you and your screen! The way that our lord intended. The whole special will be filmed in this room. And instead of being filmed in a single night, it will be filmed in however long it takes to finish.'
This introduction is followed by about 30 minutes worth of songs and sketches that focus on various aspects of social media. Burnham covers Face-Timing with his mom, Instagram pages of white women, reaction videos, sexting and 'Jeffrey Bezos', amongst other topics.
That section is followed by a short transitional song, marking the beginning of the last 50 minutes of the special. This second half is more introspective and has Burnham focus increasingly on the decline of his own mental health brought on by the inability to socialise and excessive exposure to the internet.
On occasion this general structure is also broken up with short vignettes.

While the bulk of the special is made up of commentary on contemporary society and Burnham's personal issues, I myself have been mostly interested in formal aspects of the special and the solutions that Burnham has found for some of the problems one encounters while creating such a project.
For example, there is the matter of chronology.
'Sorry that I look like mess, I booked a haircut but it got rescheduled', sings Burnham in the first song. Presumably he hasn't had a haircut since, as his beard grows longer over the course of the special. 
While this provides the special with a subliminal sense of cohesion and progression, it does raise some questions about how it was written and produced.
There is a sketch in the middle where Burnham explicitly references his facial hair, pointing out that his beard is shorter in another video because he 'filmed it a couple weeks ago'. This seems to imply that Burnham records the footage seen in the special as soon as he has written it and it is presented to the viewer in (mostly) chronological order. 
Yet this notion is explicitly contradicted by last song that Burnham performs. That song is introduced by a Burnham who is only sporting a minor beard in a blandly lit room as the 'possible ending song, that is not finished yet, test, take; one', before fading into a fully bearded Burnham performing the same song in a much more elaborately lit setting.
There is certainly an appeal in portraying the comedian as a single person sitting in a room by himself, giving off the cuff performances of whatever comes into their mind at the time. 'Trying to be funny and stuck in a room. There isn't much more to say about it. Can one be funny when stuck in a room? Being in, trying to get something out of it. Try making faces, try telling jokes, making little sounds', Burnham himself sings in one of the songs.
Yet this image is somewhat of a falsehood. While this set-up allows for much quicker and less elaborate methods than a regular performance of this sort, it still requires planning, iterations and rehearsal to get right. 
One of the vignettes ends with Burnham moving a monitor that is attached to the camera. He thereby inadvertently knocks over the tripod the camera is standing on, catching it right before it hits the ground.

While I certainly believe that this was at least in part inspired by a real accident, the exact execution that ended up in the film seems pre-arranged to me. It appears somewhat unnatural that when Burnham yanks on the cable, he briefly looks over to the falling camera, before looking back to the monitor and reacting surprised that the camera is falling. It's of course possible that in his preoccupation he didn't register the camera falling, but something seems off to me.
I likewise have some considerations about a number of the confessional speeches in the second half of the film. It takes time and mental effort to set up a camera, create a halfway decent composition and light a scene. So even if one was genuinely upset while starting to create such a set-up, some of the emotion must have subsided from the mental effort that has been exerted elsewhere to focus on these technical aspects. What we are thus seeing is always somewhat of an re-enactment. This doesn't make it any less truthful, but within the meta-narrative of such a comedy special, it does raise questions about what is and isn't meant to be a 'joke'.

In fact, the general idea that this special could've been made by anyone with a recording device in their attic is a bit of subterfuge. Inside doesn't rely on the presentation of Burnham as an everyman, but it certainly helps to sell the show. 'A new comedy special shot and performed by Bo Burnham, alone, over the course of the past year' is how Inside is described by its distributor. This conveniently ignores the fact that there are at least 14 people credited for work on the special and that the tools available to Burnham are a far cry from your average home video. The cost of the various cameras, lenses, lights, microphones, musical instruments, laptops, monitors, headsets, tripods and projectors I've seen in the film add up to at least €20.000. 
Admittedly, these numbers are extremely small for an international production with this kind of scope and reach, but it's nevertheless quite a lot to come up with for any individual who simply wishes to recreate such an undertaking.
It's no mean feat to transform the idea of someone 'trying to be funny while stuck in a room' into a watchable special that's engaging for an hour and a half and you unquestionably need to do more than merely pointing a camera at someone who 'tries making faces and tries telling jokes'. 
One method by which Burnham achieves this is the elaborate lighting effects that are obviously influenced by his previous experience from performing in theatres.

While not all of these effects are highly original, every single one of them is effective and adds to the specific mood that is set during each song. The first of such effects, with Burnham turning on a bright, narrow head mounted lamp before tilting his head towards a spinning disco ball on the ceiling masterfully illustrates the lyrics to the song he's singing: 'I'm sorry I was gone, but look, I made you some content'. He's literally distracting us with something shiny under the guise of giving us 'content', before ending the song 14 seconds later.
More generally it's also worth noting that only two songs shown in the first quarter of the film are lit by natural light coming in through a window. For the rest of the film these fragments of daylight are only reserved for speeches. All other songs are lit using studio lighting, which further heightens the artifice of their performance and this in turn creates a sharper distinction between the Bo Burnham who talks and reflects and the Bo Burnham who performs songs as his creative work.

There is also the simple fact to consider that this kind of special requires a certain kind of comedy. To perform a 90 minute continuous monologue to an empty room is perhaps a bit too strange and no amount of clever lighting could overcome that. Writing and playing songs is however a perfectly legitimate thing to do on your own. 
Furthermore, a song is something that can easily be carried along by an audience in the performer's absence. Getting the precise comedic timing right when retelling a joke is not an easy feat, but singing along to a song that's stuck in your head is something we all can relate to. The subjects Burnham chose to discuss are also likely relatable to a large part of his audience. Songs about the perils of FaceTiming with family members or how his 'stupid friends are having stupid children' will resonate with his audience in a way that will make them spread his work and their ideas on their own accord.

While this will give Inside an importance outside of the little room it was recorded in, I also believe its subject matter is ultimately its weakest point. Despite much of the raving critical response focusing on the poignancy of Burnham's commentary, it is actually this accurate assessment of the zeitgeist that almost guarantees that Inside will be irrelevant in a number of years. When George Carlin makes a joke in 1965 about protest signs that read 'Let's get out of Vietnam! Let's get out of the UN! Let's get out of traffic!', the punchline still works today because what the first two signs are protesting isn't relevant to the joke. 
Burnham in contrast parodies many ideas present in society and himself that are extremely relatable today, but as many of the ideas directly relate to present-day technology and an unprecedented pandemic, that will never be able to stand the test of time. Which is regrettable, because the form he has found to make these statements is sufficiently crisp and unique to fool a lot of critics into thinking that the content is as well.

Overall I thus have to say that Inside is an interesting experiment that is a clear break with the norm of what a comedy special is supposed to be. It's also a very successful experiment and I genuinely hope it allows for more of such investigations into the methods by which one can make jokes. 
However, it will undoubtedly be curious to look back on it in a number of years and experience how it appears to us with the benefit of hindsight. Whatever we might think of Inside then, it won't be what we think of it today.