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A Semiotic Analysis of Bo Burnham's Inside

D. Sreeja
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
‘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
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.