The Prophetic Performance Art of Bo Burnham: Inside

Joel Mayward

In the first full song on Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special, Bo Burnham: Inside, the comedian openly questions the very purpose of comedy in our present, pandemic-ridden era. The world is, as he says, f***ed up; should we really be joking at a time like this? Suddenly, the shaggy and disheveled Burnham is bathed in a glorious light coming from outside the camera frame, as heavenly auto-tuned voices exhort him to “heal the world through comedy.” The world needs direction (“from a white guy like me!”) and Burnham is ready to make a literal difference (metaphorically speaking).

This moment from Inside resembles a prophet receiving a divine calling. Burnham is positioning himself as a seer with a heavenly vocation: to bring healing into our world through his comedy act. Of course, all of this is very self-aware and tongue-in-cheek, as evident in his lyrics: “If you wake up in a house that’s full of smoke, don’t panic / call me and I’ll tell you a joke / If you see white men dressed in white cloaks, don’t panic / call me and I’ll tell you a joke.”

Written, edited, shot, and directed entirely by Burnham over a year during the COVID-19 pandemic, Inside is a symphony of satire, a 90-minute music video/concept album which offers a meta-critique of the very Internet culture that both launched Burnham’s career and is the primary means for distributing his comedy special. The entirety of Inside is performed inside a single room adjacent to Burnham’s property. A self-proclaimed mashup of Malcolm X and Weird Al, Burnham presents himself in Inside as a maudlin prophetic voice for the digital age. His woeful message is not entirely doom and gloom, but a self-aware evisceration of the underlying ideologies which pervade our society—as well as Burnham’s own role in profiting on those ideologies.

In her book Prophets as Performers, biblical scholar Jeanette Mathews suggests that prophets such as Ezekiel, Habakkuk, and Jonah can be considered performance artists. Ezekiel’s performances recorded in the Bible were a series of individual acts presented before an audience of fellow exiles living in Babylon. In one God-directed performance, Ezekiel is to remain silent while the people tie him up with cords. In another, he draws a picture of Jerusalem on a block of clay, builds a tiny model siege ramp, then lies prostrate on one side of his body for 390 days, finally turning to the other side for another 40 days. He makes food from strange ingredients and cooks it by disgusting means. He cuts off his own beard and hair with a sword and lights it on fire. He twice digs through walls with his hands. He refuses to mourn or weep after his wife tragically dies.

This latter performance—Ezekiel’s public refusal to acknowledge his own wife’s death—prompts a question from his audience that could also apply to Bo Burnham: “Won’t you tell us what these things have to do with us? Why are you acting like this?” To put it crassly, Ezekiel is acting really weird. Based on the strange self-loathing evident in these actions, some commentators conclude that the prophet suffered from mental illness. Watching an unkempt Burnham discuss feelings of suicide, lament the injustices of modern society, or weep while in a fetal position on the floor, we may draw similar conclusions about his emotional state.

Burnham presents himself as a maudlin prophetic voice for the digital age.

However, I wonder if both Ezekiel and Burnham are enacting something more purposeful than merely putting their own psychological distress on public display. I wonder if they are channeling their feelings of depression or despair into something generative and creative, a work of performance art that paradoxically confronts and comforts its audience.

Both Ezekiel and Burnham use their whole bodies in their performances, often in ways which feel extreme or unsettling. For Ezekiel, it’s lying on his side for a year; for Burnham, it’s remaining in his house for a year and singing songs about genocide with a sock puppet. It’s meant to shock us, shaking us out of our complacency about The Way Things Are. Yet these performances are also meant to be a public judgment of What’s Wrong With Everything revealed in exaggerated-yet-esoteric ways. As such, these acts promote justice and social change, even if they may ostensibly appear to simply be peculiar misfits putting on a show. It is simultaneously satire and censure, hilarious comic relief and condemnatory sociopolitical appraisal, artificial and authentic.

As we watch Burnham dance around in his underwear or stand in a cruciform posture as he apologizes for his problematic past, we’re meant to laugh and cry and think. This is similar to what the biblical prophets did: they were barometers for the cultural ethos, as well as microphones for channeling God’s messages of repentance and hope. Bo Burnham might not consciously be acting as a “biblical prophet,” but he’s certainly working within their tradition. That Burnham’s long hair and beard are evocative of classic cultural images of the blond, blue-eyed Jesus feels intentional.

As prophetic performance art, Inside is a well-crafted, expertly edited, perfectly lit personal cry for help and a powerful call for our society to be better. It’s perhaps pointing us to heaven, or maybe it’s just a white woman’s Instagram? Comedy can’t save the world, but something like Bo Burnham: Inside can wake us up to the many ways in which the world needs saving.

Topics: Movies