John Betjeman’s life at Oxford was complicated. He wrote poems and made friends, he discovered beauty and rejoiced in it, but he struggled academically, in part because of an impossible relationship with his tutor, who thought him an “idle prig” and did nothing to disguise his hostility. The tutor complained about Betjeman’s silly aestheticism in his diary, but didn’t confine himself to private musings: He treated Betjeman with open contempt, and when Betjeman needed a supportive letter from him, he wrote a rather obviously unsupportive one––which was one reason among several that Betjeman never managed to graduate. What the tutor did not realize was that Betjeman’s frivolous manner was a kind of protective carapace, a way to shield himself from suffering and emotional upheaval.
The tutor’s name was C.S. Lewis, and before you are too hard on him, please remember that he had just begun teaching, and moreover was not yet a Christian. Later on he and Betjeman had a partial mending of their relationship, but Betjeman never really got over the sting of rejection. He dedicated a book of his poems to Lewis, “whose jolly personality and encouragement to the author in his youth have remained an unfading memory for the author’s declining years.” (Betjeman was 27 at the time.) Later on he wrote a long, anguished, half-apologetic and half-accusatory letter to Lewis, but probably never sent it.
Ultimately they had a lot in common, more and more as years went by and Betjeman drew deeper from the wells of Christian faith and practice. But he never lost the frivolous manner. As Andrew Motion says in his introduction to Betjeman’s Collected Poems, much of Betjeman’s work is merely comical, but some of the poems feature a powerful emotional undertow—for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Like certain other important writers, Betjeman used comic modes as a way to approach subjects that he took too seriously to speak of directly. Every Betjeman poem should be read with the awareness that it might not be, though it sometimes is, what it appears to be.
Which brings us to Bo Burnham.
I only make this peculiar connection because I was reading some of Betjeman’s poems a few hours before I sat down to watch Bo Burnham’s new Netflix special, and I couldn’t help noting the correspondence. For Burnham’s show is extremely funny and also potentially disturbing, and different viewers will receive it in different spirits.
Nominally, the special––filmed by Burnham, alone, in one room––is about the peculiarities and pains of lockdown life, but that’s just the presenting issue. What Burnham, who not long ago was no more than a childishly clever YouTuber, demonstrates in this show––demonstrates incisively, worryingly, crudely, and hilariously––is the varying ways that the lockdown simply revealed to us the condition we were already in: Atoms in the lonely crowd, engaged in the endless labor of online performative self-making.
The Internet is the clear antagonist of the show––it even gets its own supervillain song––but what Burnham’s kaleidoscope of tunes and skits reminds us, over and over again, is that we are vulnerable to all the false promises of the Internet simply because we crave meaningful connection with one another and don’t really know how to get it. He makes this vulnerability funny, but as in the poems of John Betjeman, sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.
This experience points us to the problem with the famous David Foster Wallace critique of irony, most fully articulated in his essay “E Unibas Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction”: We have recourse to irony for multiple reasons, and it matters whether our irony is directed toward others or toward ourselves. Wallace missed what Lewis missed in observing his pupil Betjeman: Irony is not always and everywhere snark; sometimes it’s a painful awareness of our own absurdity, an awareness painful enough that it’s best to deflect it through humor. This is what, I think, Burnham also does. Earlier in his career his smugness was close to unbearable; Inside is a very different thing than he has ever made before.
Even if we’re all engaged in performative self-making, this is even more intensely true for someone like Burnham, who is a professional performer. So for him the lockdown was a reminder of his dependence on the approval and affection and praise of his audience––an audience that has been replaced (ineptly) by the camera he used to film this special. The most powerful moment in the show comes when Burnham leads his imaginary audience in … well, it’s a praise song, is what it is––I’m sure that Christian youth-group leaders all over America are gnashing their teeth in envy of the melody. But what Burnham wants us to praise is him:
Get your fucking hands up
Get on out of your seats
All eyes on me, all eyes on me
All eyes on me. But we’re not there. There’s a cheering-audience soundtrack, but it’s fake, Burnham knows it’s fake, he’s the one who put it there. He doesn’t know whether we’re watching, whether our hands are up, whether all eyes are on him. So in anger he grabs the camera and lifts it high, he looks soulfully into its cyclopean eye and sings the chorus again, demanding our attention and our praise. He still wants our hands up. But every now and then he closes his eyes, and another message slips into the lyrics:
Heads down, pray for me
Heads down, now, pray for me