D. Sreeja H00MAENG20190207 Introduction to Semiotics Dr. Srinivas Lankala 12 June 2021 A Little Bit of Everything, All of the Time: A Semiotic Reading of Inside Bo Burnham’s latest musical comedy special, Inside, was released on Netflix on 30 May 2021 and quickly became the topic of the hour on the internet. The 87-minute show chronicles Burnham alone in a room, recorded over one year during the pandemic lockdown in 2020. The special is interspersed with musical sketches, stand-up pieces (with an imaginary audience), and Burnham directly talking to the camera and his imagined audience. The special departs from all prior work in the genre, both his and his contemporaries’. This essay will attempt a semiotic analysis of Inside in order to understand how such an evolution of the comedy special genre was achieved, its implications for how we understand comedy, especially under such circumstances as the last year has thrown at us. A semiotic analysis would also pay attention to how Burnham envisions himself, his audience, and their relationship. Each sketch in the special can be semiotically analysed in-depth, but this essay will try to look at it more broadly and attempt to take it as one text, in order to look at the larger message these parts could form. Burnham shot to internet fame in the early 2010s, with his comedy songs going viral on YouTube. He quickly entered the American stand-up scene, working with Comedy Central and going on to release his songs as albums, and having his own stand-up tours. Burnham suffered crippling stage fright, and had panic attacks while on stage, beginning in 2013. He took a break from live comedy for several years and took up other projects: directed a film called Eighth Grade (2018), acted in Emerald Fennel’s Promising Young Woman (2020). Inside is his return to comedy. Even prior to Inside, Burnham’s work has always revolved around a strong, sometime disturbing emphasis on his position as a performer, his relationship with the audience, and the state and evolution of comedy in contemporary times. These themes become central in Inside, and Burnham’s method of working through them is reflected not just in the matter of his work but also the form itself. Inside is claustrophobic in every sense of the word, and the room seems to constantly reflect Burnham’s state of mind. This reflection is not merely metaphorical. Burnham consistently draws the viewer’s attention to the how of his work. The emphasis on the process is an interesting element, especially from a point of view of semiotics. Ellen Seiter notes that “Semiotics first asks how meaning is created, rather than what the meaning is” (Seiter 23). The performer himself is drawing attention to the “how”, thereby drastically altering the experience of the viewer. Burnham achieves this in several ways. Firstly, as mentioned, the room plays a pivotal role. In all of the sketches, Burnham often leaves the ‘unstaged’ elements of the room in frame. The wires sprawled across the floor, the equipment, the tripod, the mic stand, the chest of drawers to the left- all of these rarely ever leave the frame. Burnham not only avoids the setting up of an illusion for each sketch, but he also actively avoids it, or creates it in part and leaves visible the tools required to do so. For instance, in Figure 1, which is from the opening shot of his first song, “Content”, we can see the light and its stand within the frame. He also wears a flashlight on his head, which he later uses to light up the disco ball hanging above him (see Figure 2). Fig.1: Burnham at the beginning of “Content”, still from Inside. (00:01:11) Fig.2: Still from Inside (00:02:10). The entire special seems to avoid any drastic post-production editing. All of the lighting is manually controlled by Burnham. There are no special effects, except for an overlay in one of the final songs, “All Eyes On Me” (01:12:50-01:17:32). There is also very little playback as he records most of the songs as he is performing them. This could be done to replicate the conditions of a conventional comedy special, which is recorded from one of the comedian’s live shows. However, Burnham’s move does more than that. Inside is not simply a comedy special shot indoors without an audience. Burnham takes creative license to create elaborate visuals, transforms the space into different sceneries consistently, but never fully. Such a conscious decision makes Inside a text that is self-reflexive, one that constantly draws attention to the creation of the spectacle. Guy Debord has worked extensively on the concept of the spectacle, stating that life itself becomes presented as an accumulation of spectacles, and these spectacles are not mere collections of images, he calls a spectacle “a social relation between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 10). Such a definition of spectacle allows further inspection into the how, leading us to question the conditions that produce spectacles. Debord’s warnings against the nature of the modern world and the spectacle seem to find their most concentrated manifestations in the past year. Burnham too recognises and attempts to present this crisis when it comes to his own work. By drawing attention to the process and never letting the images in the spectacle be complete, he works out his own understandings of the spectacle he can create as an entertainer. In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière, in his project to conceptualise the spectator in less restrictive terms, also notes that a conventional/constricted understanding of the spectator is that they lack knowledge. “Looking […] means standing before an appearance without knowing the conditions which produced that appearance or the reality that lies behind it” (Rancière 272). Rancière goes on to dismantle this notion. For the text at hand, this point is important in order to recognise that Burnham attempts to overcome this supposed disadvantage of spectatorship by showing the viewer the conditions that produced that appearance. Along with the equipment and the room being visible, there are also montage scenes in the special that show Burnham testing and setting up the lights, checking the camera angles, recording multiple takes of a song etc. Of course, it would be simplistic to conclude that such a move makes Inside free of any spectacle or its implications. The ‘real’ of the room is ultimately part of this text, and it can be argued that it is a part of the spectacle too, but Burnham’s treatment of the boundary between real and fiction, between performer and viewer, would prompt us to think otherwise. In order to understand how, it would be useful to look at the broad types of elements in Inside, and attempt to analyse them individually and as a whole. The categorisation is not strict or definite, but largely done along the lines of analysis. The first kind are skits, in which Burnham dons different personas or talks about specific topics, markedly different from his own self as a comedian. The second category are those in which Burnham is doing stand-up bits, and the third are the seemingly real footage or commentary by Burnham about himself or the process of making the special. Comedy Skits There are seven such skits: “FaceTime with my Mom”, “How the World Works”, “Inside”, “White Woman’s Instagram”, “Unpaid Intern” and the reaction to it, “Sexting”, “Welcome to the Internet”, “That Funny Feeling”. Interestingly, all of these pieces except the last two happen within the first half of the special. As it goes on, there are more introspective, first-person pieces that fall into the other two categories. In the skits, Burnham mostly employs one method of constructing the joke. In all of them he takes a convention and inverts it in both form and content. Speaking of television, Ellen Seiter notes that it functions upon the conventions of representation: “One of the characteristics of such representational codes is that we become so accustomed to them that we may not recognise their use; they become as “natural” to us as the symbolic signs of language, and we think of iconic signs as the most logicalsometimes as the only possible-way to signify aspects of our world.” (Seiter 27) Seiter notes that television images are made of iconic, indexical, and symbolic (using words) signs. With comedy and satire, we often see the symbolic being inverted. An easy example would be Indian comedy channel AIB’s Honest series. The characters in these skits fit perfectly into the world of conventional representation but say things that draw attention to the intent or the motivation behind such representation. To put it in other words, we could say that such a joke is premised upon stating the second-order meaning in the first-order of signification itself. Fiske and Hartley, also speaking about television, state that the second-order, which is beyond denotative meanings, have two levels. Firstly, they function as myth, which is validated in two ways: “first from the specificity and iconic accuracy of the first-order sign, and second from the extent to which the secondorder sign meets our cultural needs” (Fiske and Hartley, 26). The next level of second-order meaning is connotation. Working upon Barthes’ ideas from “The Rhetoric of the Image”, Fiske and Hartley state that connotation is a result of human intervention, it is related to the subjective experience of the recipient of a message. Modes of communication like television tend to make the connotative possibilities limited and conventional. Burnham explicitly states the possible connotations through not just the symbolic signs he uses, but also the iconic and indexical. As stated above, the constant visibility of the equipment, room etc. is how the iconic and indexical, i.e., the visual signs are constructed. The conventional representation is contested by the presence of disruptions. As for the symbolic signs, Burnham’s strategy remains the same, and is more perceptible. In “White Woman’s Instagram,” the lyrics are all phrases and words that describe typical posts one would expect to find on a white woman’s Instagram profile. The visuals too recreate some popular, easily recognisable photo formats. In the bridge of the song, the lyrics talk about a post made about this imagined white woman’s late mother, and this is where the frame, which was previously square to replicate the Instagram grid, expands, reveals the mess in the room, as if to say that this stereotypical caricature is also real in some way. Burnham employs the connotation we attach to zooming out, often as looking at the larger picture, and zooming back in as boxing in, to create this meaning. In another skit, Burnham acts as though is now a Brand Consultant, and the skit is a commentary on the nature of brand awareness and the current trend of expecting brands to express social awareness and take political stands. Here too, the joke is premised upon stating the connotation directly. The character says things like, “Consumers want to know: are you willing to use your brand awareness to create positive social change… which will create more brand awareness?”, and “The question isn’t “What are you selling?” or “What service are you providing?” The question is, “What do you stand for? Who are you, Bagel Bites?”” Such lines go one step beyond the convention, exaggerating to a point that the absurdity of the situation becomes explicit. The myth propagated by speaking of corporate social responsibility, or brand awareness is that such commercial enterprises have to declare their conscience and political leanings, as though such a customary move would arise out of any actual philanthropy or concern outside of business, as though such a thing would be possible at in a capitalist system. “How the World Works” functions similarly, with Socko the puppet going on a rant about how the world really works, and duly suffering the consequences of such resistance at the hands of his wearer. Burnham employs the metaphor of the puppet-puppet master to amplify the message of the song. Along with these skits, the pieces in a YouTube format also deserve mention in this section. The first of these would be Burnham’s rection video to his song, “Unpaid Intern” (00:26:50-00:29:12). He exaggerates the format of the YouTube reaction video by getting stuck in an endless loop of reacting, unable to constantly assess and criticise himself and remain under scrutiny. Similarly, in another bit, the character thanks subscribers and guarantees them “high-quality content” while pointing a knife at the camera (00:34:52-00:35:32). While we could infer that the first-order meaning of Inside in these skits is mocking the conventions of representation, in media, children’s programmes, YouTube etc., the second-order meaning could be a broad commentary on contemporary issues, especially those related to technology and the internet, specifically social media. These messages are also amplified as these skits are interspersed with other elements. Stand-Up Pieces It must be noted that there aren’t any stand-up pieces in Inside that take themselves seriously. Burnham notes the impossibility of such a situation without the condition that makes live comedy a possibility: a present audience. Consequently, all of these pieces seem to mock stand-up, but they also allow for creating messages and jokes that require such a set-up. The images of a mic, a stool, a spotlight, all of these are visible in these clips, and Burnham addresses an imaginary audience, or the delayed audience of the viewers. One piece has Burnham stating that the real world is replaced by the virtual, and the physical world is just a stage for us to record footage to put onto the virtual world (01:02:45-01:04:20). The comedian in the piece seems to be seriously talking about this and cracks a pirate joke at the end. Burnham makes it difficult to determine when the character is being sarcastic or when he as the creator is sarcastic. Burnham’s treatment of the stand-up format can be associated with his tumultuous relationship with the performance of it. Along with these stand-up pieces, we can see such an issue come through other elements of the special. In one of the first songs, “Comedy,” Burnham deals with the crisis of performing it in such times as ours. He also questions his position as a straight, rich, white man when it comes to taking the stage and the spotlight. His relationship with an audience is also dealt with in these pieces. Burnham conceives of the relationship in terms quite similar to those described by Debord in The Society of the Spectacle. As noted, there is an effort to show the viewer the conditions that produce the image. Moreover, there is also a preoccupation with knowing that his message comes across clearly, that he is perceived as intelligent (voiced in the reaction video skit). In “Don’t Wanna Know” Burnham is curious about whether the audience is enjoying the show, but simultaneously does not want to know either, because he cannot handle the negative possibilities. While it cannot be said that he envisions an emancipated spectator in the way that Rancière proposes, he does try constantly to break out of the conventional relationship between performer and spectator. The format of this comedy special enhances this possibility because he can address the audience at an individual level. This does skirt the possibility Rancière leans towards-looking at the audience not as a communal body but as made up of individuals. Conceptualised thus, the audience has the power of equal intelligences (Rancière 278). Moreover, the audience is a delayed one, not live. These conditions also allow for this special to be more than skits or stand-up pieces, for instance, the commentary and clips that Burnham includes that are not particularly comedic or performance. ‘Real’ Footage To define this category as just commentary or Burnham directly addressing the camera/audience would be insufficient. This real seems to come through even in some songs and other elements throughout. Broadly, we could consider the introduction monologue, the introduction and conclusion montages, the countdown to Burnham’s birthday, the supposed outtakes etc. as part of this category. They could be characterised by the lack of any obvious comedy. They are almost confessional in nature, and in two instances Burnham breaks down. These elements in the special are most interesting because they are unconventional and unexpected in any comedy special, even one that we would image adapted to new circumstances. We can conclude that this is a way of expanding the genre of the comedy special. Conversely, we can also argue that Burnham, by inserting these elements in a comedy special, is moving away from their conventional, otherwise isolated message. It becomes difficult to tell when Burnham is acting and when he is not. Some of the skits have him acting as himself, some non-comedic clips are heavily dramatized, the songs deal with both his commentary on the world and himself simultaneously. There is more to such a blurring than just being innovative. Rancière speaks of such a mixing of genres and notes that there are three ways to approach the phenomenon. According to him, the first of these is the revival of Gesamtkunstwerk, or the pinnacle of art as form of life. He argues that this often just devolves into the peak form of artistic egos or of a hyperactive consumerism. The second approach, to see it as hybridisation, would also lead to a kind of stultification since it looks at such crossing of borders as a means of innovation, of “increasing the power of the performance without questioning its grounds” (Rancière 280). The third way that he proposed, one that invalidates the opposition between activity and passivity, the idea of a communal audience etc. is what is most productive. It would perhaps be a bit preposterous to argue that Inside achieves this or takes this approach, but as spectators, it allows us, more readily than most, to take such an approach at the very least. The opposition between real and representation is also central to the grounds for stultification that Rancière talks about. This opposition is addressed by Debord, who argues that they are set up and propagated as a binary, thus making spectacle a bad condition that ultimately serves to isolate individuals and work in favour of the dominant ideology. This opposition is dealt with more directly and consciously in Inside. Burnham speaks about the modern condition in myriad ways, about the inversion and blurring of what is real and what is not. Inside is truly contemporary in this sense. The images and their messages all lead to this general and broad crisis faced at an individual, familial, communal and global level as a result of everything that is happening around us. Inside deals with these problems through their representations, their manifestations, by way of inverting, exaggerating, mocking them. As a text, Inside is a product of all that it comments upon. Its creator is a subject placed at the heart of the social media and internet boom, the rise of YouTube, the heightened rhetoric of social media activism. The setting of the special is one room, completely devoid of any ornament, any memorabilia, any sign to suggest other aspects of its inhabitant’s personality or psyche. The anti-aesthetic of the room itself is contrasted with the overt stylisation of the skits, the lighting, the outfits, and the personas that Burnham dons. At a larger level, as part of a communication network, Inside is a digitally released film, on Netflix, the largest OTT of our times. It is ironic that such a text would not find this much recognition outside a platform of this kind. It exists in contradictions, and instead of presenting a coherent, unified or highly mediated image, Inside attempts to draw attention to the contradictions, and diverge from the oppositions. Works Cited Burnham, Bo. Inside. Netflix, 2021. Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. Translated by Ken Knabb, Rebel Press, 2005. Fiske, John and John Hartley. “The Signs of Television.” Reading Television, 2nd ed., Routledge, 2003, pp. 22-48. Rancière, Jacques. “The Emancipated Spectator.” Artforum, March 2007, pp. 270-281. Seiter, Ellen. “Semiotics, Structuralism, and Television.” Channels of Discourse, Reassembled: Television and Contemporary Criticism, 3rd ed., edited by Robert C. Allen, The University of North Carolina Press, 1992, pp. 23-51.