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Last summer, comedian Bo Burnham released a new special, Inside, which explored Burnham’s life during the pandemic and his deteriorating mental health through a series of sketches and songs.
The premise is that Burnham is all alone, creating and filming the special by himself during 2020 without the aid of any production or crew. Some of the songs and sketches are just silly — we get to laugh at Burnham’s take on white women’s Instagram accounts and his anthem about FaceTiming with his mom. But as he continues to create content for us, his audience, we are also witness to his slow decline.
Inevitably the songs take a more serious and poignant turn. Burnham touches on mental health, capitalism, climate change, the pandemic, technology and the internet, pointing out many of the absurdities and cruelties of our society.
One of the songs that has stuck with me comes near the end of the special, as we’ve watched Burnham’s slow deterioration. In “That Funny Feeling,” Burnham ruminates on the weird and even sick idiosyncrasies of our society.
In one verse, he observes:
The surgeon general’s pop-up shop, Robert Iger’s face
Discount Etsy agitprop, Bugles’ take on race
Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show
Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go
Carpool Karaoke, Steve Aoki, Logan Paul
A gift shop at the gun range, a mass shooting at the mall
And notes his own emotional reaction to what we’ve all witnessed:
There it is again, that funny feeling
I’ve had that funny feeling most recently watching the news out of Ukraine. It’s horrifying, disconcerting, and disorienting and yet my life goes on. I hop on TikTok to watch videos of cute cats but now they’re interspersed with videos from the frontlines of Ukraine. My Instagram is full of people trying to raise awareness about Ukraine while also posting about their latest brunch or plugging their latest promo.
On the one hand, it’s great that we have access to this level of information and that people are able to use these platforms to expose injustices that might previously have been ignored or unknown. On the other hand, there’s something distinctly dystopian about watching a war play out on social media in between cute cat videos and ads from major corporations. And it seems perhaps our brains weren’t made to handle this much content and information at once. Constantly confronted with the latest horrors of the world, it’s hard not to feel hopeless about where the world is heading. At one point in the song, Burnham calls that funny feeling “the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”
For me, it’s a song that speaks to some of the existential dread of our current moment — our disconnection from one another and from society, the realization of how bad things are and how bad they can get, and the anxiety of looking at the world around you and seeing how messed up it is. It’s watching the world shift under your feet in real time but being all too familiar with that feeling, knowing this is not the first world-shifting event you’ve witnessed and certainly won’t be the last. It echoes conversations I’ve had with friends and colleagues of my generation. It might be our student loan debts or nuclear war or civil war or climate change but it’s the feeling like we’re sitting here waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It’s watching the world shift under your feet in real time but being all too familiar with that feeling, knowing this is not the first world-shifting event you’ve witnessed and certainly won’t be the last.
Thanks for finding words for what so many of us are feeling. It is such a complex feeling, so many levels of despair but also/maybe a faint hope. Such a feeling can break us out of our isolation, our mindless pursuit of self-actualization through economic consumption, and reveal our connection and dependency on the larger world around us.
Thank you for this truth of feeling, especially for stating despair, and saying it directly without bailing us out with some desperate palliative.