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Bo Burnham may be this secular generation’s closest approximation to the Preacher from Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes 2, the Preacher searches high and low to find lasting meaning apart from God: in pleasure (v. 1), comedy (v. 2), alcohol (v. 3), sex (v. 8), wisdom (vv. 12–27), and work (vv. 18–23). This wide-reaching search yields no lasting benefit or purpose, only despair (v. 20). Everything under the sun is vanity, a vapor.
In his Netflix comedy special, Inside, Bo Burnham’s task is the same. Written, directed, and filmed by Burnham during the course of a year in a single room—quarantine style—the special is a comprehensive search for meaning in the modern mediated world.
No other comedian or cultural commentator has demonstrated the vanity of the world—specifically the world the internet has wrought—more successfully than Burnham in this special. And no other work of art has so closely followed the pattern of exploration and despair of Ecclesiastes 2.
With Inside, Burnham’s “under the sun” search spans the many landscapes of the internet, which he likens to a cosmic villain who tempts us with all manner of distraction: Could I interest you in everything / All of the time?
Burnham’s been searching for a while. The digital native made a name for himself uploading crass songs onto YouTube. His early videos propelled him to fame and led to five comedy tours by the time he was 25. Each early tour, while featuring moments of both hilarity and prescient insight, could also be unbearably crude and smug.
Inside is different. Burnham has matured as a comedian, but he’s also developed as a person. His pride has been replaced by, frankly, pain. Watching Inside, the viewer alternates between laughter and wincing as the auteur’s genius and misery intertwine into an ever-tightening spiral as the 90-minute special unfolds.
Money, Relationships, Sex, Health
The special is full of musically catchy, lyrically smart songs and sketches that explore various ways people find meaning in the modern, internet-shaped world.
“Bo Burnham, Brand Consultant” satirizes “woke capitalism” and the way corporations recast consumerism as a socially conscious, meaningful activity. In one funny line, he says: “The question is no longer, ‘Do you want to buy Wheat Thins?,’ for example. The question is now, ‘Will you support Wheat Thins in the fight against Lyme disease?’”
In “White Woman’s Instagram,” the aspect ratio of the screen changes to form a square so that Burnham can recreate every stereotypical Instagram post you’ve ever seen from the fairer sex while musically narrating what one can expect:
A goat cheese salad
A backlit hammock
A simple glass of wine
Incredibly derivative political street art
A dreamcatcher bought from Urban Outfitters
A vintage neon sign
But the song isn’t solely frivolous. Near the middle, the aspect ratio broadens briefly to reveal captions from an Instagrammer who’s apparently lost both her parents, misses them like crazy, and is attempting to use social media for genuine emotional expression and real connection. But the medium is limited, and genuine empathy is difficult. Anyone who stumbles across real pain can just scroll past it for another photo of a “golden retriever in a flower crown.”
The song “Sexting” communicates a similar message. Instead of finding genuine connection through explicit pictures sent between the two parties (and AT&T), sexting leaves the man who has been sending pictures alone and pathetic.
“Problematic”—a commentary on cancel culture—begins as a sexualized workout video, but the imagery becomes increasingly religious, crescendoing with Bo stretched upon perpendicular rays of light, depicting himself as “crucified” (presumably for his problematic statements and behavior in his past). The first two verses repent of former “problematic” behavior; the third repents of not being sufficiently repentant in the first two verses.
Meaning, and atonement, are sought everywhere but found nowhere in our secular age.
The takeaway is that meaning, and atonement, are sought everywhere but found nowhere in our secular age. Whether socially conscious consumerism, Instagram likes, digitally mediated sex, or perpetual repentance for problematic behavior from our digital past, meandering searches for purpose in the internet age are equal parts silly and sad.
Everything Is Meaningless
As the special nears its zenith, Burnham descends into deeper and deeper depression. He directly addresses the camera, confessing his mental health is at an all-time low. “I’m not well,” he says, weeping as the climactic song begins to play.
In this song, “All Eyes on Me,” Burnham demonstrates how the internet makes each person both a veritable god (through algorithms that curate the entire experience of “everything, all of the time” to your desires) and perpetually vulnerable and in need of saving. He sings, as Alan Jacobs notes, a praise song to himself:
Get your—hands up
Get on out of your seats
All eyes on me
All eyes on me
And then, exactly the opposite:
Pray for me
Pray for me
As the special ends, Burnham’s door cracks open. Light pours in from outside. After more than a year suffering from the claustrophobia of “inside”—inside a house, inside his head, inside the internet’s content-creating machine—he steps out into the world, into the light, and seemingly into hope.
But then the camera shifts and reveals that this “outside” is simply another stage, and the light is a spotlight. Canned audience laughter greets Burnham. He panics and pounds on the door he’s just exited. There’s no hope to be had.
“So I hated life,” writes the Preacher. “All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 2:17).
Vanity of Vanities
Burnham deftly critiques the various “pursuits of meaning” on offer today. There are ample amusements and a never-ending buffet of novelties, but little that satisfies ultimately.
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity, says the comedian.
On the internet there are ample amusements and a never-ending buffet of novelties. But little that satisfies ultimately.
Even as he points out the vanity of the internet, Burnham is keenly aware that he’s biting the hand that feeds him. Creating amusing content for the internet, after all, is his livelihood—his grasping for existential purpose. So one way he deals with his part in the problematic online world is by acting self-aware and meta.
Whether in a reaction to the reaction to the video sketch, or one in which he plays a Twitch streamer commenting on a “video game” version of himself, Burnham frequently winks at the audience—making sure we know that he knows he’s part of the problem. Perhaps this is Burnham’s attempt to find meaning amid the vanity—pointing out the toxic effects of the internet and making others think about it. But even this doesn’t seem to resolve his angst.
And yet Burnham, perhaps inadvertently, also has a line on the way to real hope. “Heads bowed. Pray for me.” To the extent he sings these words sincerely, he’s one step closer to escaping the narcissistic prison of self-referential, self-justifying internet existence: admit you need help from outside of yourself.
Whenever anyone asks me, as a Christian and minister, for prayer, the answer is always yes. So I’m praying daily for Bo Burnham, along with those who have watched Inside and felt its hopelessness in their lives. I’m praying that Jesus would make clear to Burnham and his fans some of what he seems to understand already—that hope and enduring meaning cannot be found under the sun, but only beyond it.
I’m praying God might save Bo Burnham: from pain, from anxiety and sorrow, from sin, from death, from everything, all of the time.