Bo Burnham's 'Inside' Mixes Comedy with Anxiety – PopMatters
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Bo Burnham creates a warm and inviting mood and ironic comfort when he sings “That Funny Feeling” in his comedy special, ‘Inside’.
In May of 2021, comedian Bo Burnham released Inside, a comedy special written, directed, edited by, and starring himself. Filmed from his Los Angeles home amidst the chaos of the Covid-19 quarantine, the special garnered attention for the originality of its composition and the popularity of its soundtrack, with one song (“All Eyes On Me”) becoming the first comedy song to chart on the Billboard Global 200 (Frankenberg). Because it was released on Netflix, watchers got access to this special directly from their homes, which took advantage of the exigency of the pandemic and allowed for intimate viewing.
There’s a specific song from the special whose tone and style provide a notable juxtaposition from the rest of the soundtrack. “That Funny Feeling” is the only song performed on acoustic guitar, which is important because the rest of Burnham’s songs include heavy electronic influences and faster BPMs. Another consideration for “That Funny Feeling” is that it is the only song that already has a popular cover, performed by Phoebe Bridgers. Bridgers dedicated profits from her cover to Texas abortion funds following recent anti-abortion legislation (Rettig).
This already points to the unique purpose the song serves; comedy is connected to a serious real-world atmosphere in a way that garners immense public attention. Bridgers and Burnham use their pop-culture platforms to increase awareness on issues like abortion, global warming, capitalist exploitation, and more. This attention could promote positive change and solidarity in an uncertain time. As a song, “That Funny Feeling” serves as a symbol of the loss and pessimism following the pandemic, but it also provides hope for recognition of threats to humanity and action following that attention.
Burnham’s Inside and his style of comedy in consistently employs tactics related to a specific theory of humor: incongruity theory. According to Noel Carroll in Humour: A Very Short Introduction, “a deviation from some presupposed norm” is what is “key to comic amusement” in this type of humor. “That Funny Feeling” follows this because it is the only song played entirely on acoustic guitar by Burnham himself, with surprisingly simple cinematography compared to the rest of the songs. While an audience member may expect another harsh exaggeration of world issues as in “Bezos I” and “Welcome to the Internet”, they are instead faced with a gentle, soft take on these issues. Therefore, incongruity stems from expectations for the tone and energy of the song versus Burnham’s toned-down reality.
The camera remains planted and only zooms in and out slightly during the song. The lighting is warm and comforting, as though mimicking a campfire, which is also implied by a projection of a forest in the background. The imagery accompanying this song is drastically different from the rest of the set, which relies on wild camera pans, sudden changes in perspective and positionings, and colorful, ever-changing lighting. Additionally, Burnham’s iconic keyboard is eliminated, which often forms the foundation of his songs and is accompanied by various effects and electronic beats.
The shift to “That Funny Feeling” is jarring, even though it is arguably the most intentionally “comforting” scene-setting of the entire special. Burnham creates a warm and inviting mood but sings of depressing realities. This ironic comfort is further emphasized by the juxtaposition of the simple and pleasing rhyme scheme of the song with the analyzed meaning of the lyrics, which come across as silly yet hold subtle references to negative global occurrences like climate change and politics. Ironically, the background image is a forest. A motif in the special revolves around the “real” versus the “artificial” and how the pandemic has forced us to create our limited recreations of everyday life to maintain normalcy. This relates to the physical isolation of the Covid quarantine and the mental isolation created by internal struggles, and the inability to fully experience the world in the same way as before.
Incongruity theory is often critiqued because there isn’t an explanation about why certain incongruities do not elicit a humorous response (Cundall 203). In these cases, humor is often viewed as a joke transaction where a comedian subverts expectations, and an audience interprets it as something funny. However, Burnham seems to form his jokes relying on deeper themes rather than individual meanings. While many of his uses of irony are recognizable and impactful, in “That Funny Feeling”, it is used to fit into the special rather than to elicit physical laughter. Therefore, the biggest incongruity is the song itself in the context of the special rather than its phrases or actions. It stands out as a song that consolidates messages built throughout the special and communicates why those issues matter instead of being classically humorous.
This purpose perhaps also demonstrates the urgency of his messages because of emphasized crises occurring and affecting this generation. It is important to recognize the shift in Burnham’s work in terms of format and content because it also points to an expanded field of analysis for incongruity theory as a whole. Instead of simply satirizing or mocking, it adds a deeply personal layer that draws in concern for world affairs and social change. Some scholars recognize the role that humor can play “as [a] social coping mechanism” (Lili 94). Although researchers seem to address this on a smaller scale limited to personal interaction, this can also apply to works of media like the one analyzed here, in which comedians utilize incongruency theory to draw attention to political issues and relate to viewers in response to these issues. This humor lends itself to discussing and normalizing darker topics while breaking facades about abstract social ideals. Social commentary can therefore be given a popularized platform to gain support for positive action from a community united by common experiences and goals.
Audiences know Burnham’s comedy for mocking societal flaws via ironic exaggeration of himself and the issues he mocks. While Inside uses incongruity theory to create humor, it is also important to note how it differs from Burnham’s previous work. In Prerana Patil’s analysis of his 2016 Netflix special, Make Happy, she proposed that this exaggeration “manifest[s] in the form of a comic persona”, which is vastly different from his genuine personality and tends to use brash insults to the audience. However, Inside is distinctly different because Burnham doesn’t rely on this technique, both because there is no physical audience and because there is a bigger focus on his mental state that prioritizes acting the part of a stereotypical exaggerated comedian.
In a January 2021 interview for the podcast Happy Sad Confused, Burnham stated about his anxiety, “I mean it’s hard for everybody…we’re kind of all maybe just united by the fact that we’re all going through our own thing”. This makes Inside a specific evolution in Burnham’s work because he doesn’t adopt his usual stage persona; instead, he opts to showcase a realer self to an audience that knows what it’s like to be anxious about the state of the world.
Although fitted into exaggerated comedic scenes, “That Funny Feeling” is one of the most open and direct songs about mourning the current state of the world. With a combination of subtle ironic critiques and direct lamentation of crushed hopes for the future, the song seems to focus on a distinct set of political issues: societal obsession with technology and the dangers that have risen from social media, the climate crisis, capitalist domination and exploitation, and a critique of pop-culture normalized by absurdity. Incongruity and irony can serve as a framework to understand how these messages impact audiences by unexpectedly creating a connection through a shared feeling of loss after a traumatic period. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Inside is how Burnham uses a platform based on comedy and surface humor to dig at the deepest issues physically and internally.
A major issue Burnham critiques is the consequence of mass evolution in technology. This leads to a focus on “stunning 8-k resolution” disregarding the simplicity in life that is necessary for grounding. With social media’s push for backlash about the smallest issues like a KFC (Kentucky Fried Chicken) advertisement, we live in a world where arguments are created over seemingly every piece of news we receive. A deep dive into technology has caused people to lose track of themselves and the natural world around them, which identifies what it means to be a part of humanity. Even attempts to remedy this are “hand delivered by a drone”, an ironic message highlighting our inability to see the issues we’ve created. While technology can benefit societal advancement, Burnham clearly points out the detrimental effects we’ve seen arise from relying too much on tech, primarily relying on irony.
One of the most obvious issues that Burnham centers on is the threat of climate change and global warming. He emphasizes that we have “seven years” to get our act together and that we have been intentionally ignoring environmental issues to the detriment of the entire world. This is where most of the deepest anxiety is focused; other issues can have attempts at reform at least, but climate change is already constantly looming. This issue leads to Burnham’s most depressing lines, like the “quiet comprehending of the ending of it all” he feels. This issue is framed mostly by his pessimistic and depressing tone surrounding the lack of concern and actions toward environmental protection.
Burnham also comments on the consequences of late-stage capitalism by satirizing the tendency for brands to release their “takes” on controversial issues for the sake of marketing rather than furthering awareness for issues or orchestrating positive change, like when a chip brand is expected to comment on racial tensions regardless of whether it is necessary to do so. General services, like healthcare, are restricted because there is always more of a focus on monetary gain. Additionally, political stances like gun regulations are capitalized on, which exasperates issues and causes further social division. In all, Burnham is critiquing the tendency for powerful corporations and organizations to prioritize capital gains over social progress and care for individuals. This critique primarily relies on negatively toned satire.
Additionally, beyond political commentary, “That Funny Feeling” contributes to the rest of the special in how it draws on individual turbulences during a time when most people were forced to isolate themselves for long periods. Burnham represents this loss of contact as a source of confusion and depression regarding identity. Burnham’s cinematography and production is also linked to identity in how he breaks away from traditional filming methods and creates a piece entirely on his own while isolated in a cramped space, altering from the comedic special genre and connecting more deeply with the audience.
A theme from “That Funny Feeling” can be how isolation can lead to overthinking and hyper-focusing on the negatives in society and oneself, leading to a feeling of hopelessness and chaotic displacement from the natural world. Communications graduate student Darren Valenta claims that this strategy in humor (often used by Burnham previously) provides an opportunity to bridge the gap between the comedian and the average person, “fostering a sense of community while challenging stigma” related to mental health. Therefore, Burnham’s focus on these worrying political issues also provides insight into how living in the current social order affects mental health and perceptions of relational identity to society.
Although it may seem like an amalgamation of random phrases and references, “That Funny Feeling” holds complex meaning and important commentary. Considering the unique existence of “That Funny Feeling” in the context of a comedy special taking place amidst a global pandemic, it is important to consider both uses of humor and real-world relations to understand its impact. The song provides an example of the evolution of comedy itself, with changes in technology allowing for different mediums in both filmmaking and special effects. Additionally, Burnham adds to discussions surrounding world affairs by relating to audiences and connecting personal experience to national issues. These factors point to the special role that Inside has come to play as a new way to satirize current political affairs in the United States.
Another important aspect of “That Funny Feeling” is how it presents the deterioration of mental states to an audience of young Americans who may feel lost as well. Burnham identifies himself, a celebrity expected to be constantly funny, as struggling with the same mental issues that thousands of people experience every day. Instead of presenting feelings of depression as insurmountable, he utilizes these obstacles to create a platform for recognizing issues and advocating for change, all while appealing to those who need it most.
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Rettig, James. “Phoebe Bridgers – ‘That Funny Feeling’ (Bo Burnham Cover).” Stereogum, 1 October 2021.
Valenta, Darren J. “Comedy makes me cry: Seeing myself in mediated disclosures of mental illness”. Kaleidoscope: A Graduate Journal of Qualitative Communication Research 17.1 (2018): 2.
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