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Bo Burnham begs for our parasocial awareness

“I made you some content,” comedian Bo Burnham sings in the opening moments of his new Netflix special, Inside. “Daddy made you your favorite. Open wide.”

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The tension between creator and audience is a prominent theme in Burnham’s work, likely because he got his start on YouTube. Instead of working his muscles at open mics or in improv, Burnham uploaded joke songs to the platform in 2006. He was only 16.

Burnham’s online success — and an awareness of what kind of his audience’s perceived closeness — made the comedian key to one of the most prominent discussions in a creator- and influencer-driven era of media: the idea of parasocial relationships. Coined in 1956 by researchers Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, the term initially was used to analyze relationships between news anchors who spoke directly to the audience and that audience itself. Now, the term is applied to how viewers devote time, energy, and emotion to celebrities and “content creators” like YouTubers, podcasters, and Twitch streamers — people who do not know they exist.

The label of “parasocial relationship” is meant to be neutral, being as natural and normal — and, frankly, inescapable — as familial or platonic relationships. Parasocial relationships can be positive too, as outlined in culture critic Stitch’s essay “On Parasocial Relationships and the Boundaries of Celebrity” for Teen Vogue. But in recent years, there’s been enough awareness of online behavior to see how parasocial relationships can have negative impacts on both the creator and the audience if left uninterrogated by both parties. Burnham is especially aware as a creator constantly reflecting on his own life.

Long before the phrase “parasocial relationship” had entered the mainstream zeitgeist, Burnham’s work discussed the phenomenon. His 2014 song “Repeat Stuff” and its music video parodies how boy bands and other “corporately-owned pop stars” prey on young fans’ desire to feel loved by writing songs with lyrics vague enough anyone can feel like it was written specifically about them. The performer, along with the record label and brand deals, encourage a parasocial relationship for increased profits. The song made such a splash in its insight that it earned its own episode in Shannon Strucci’s seminal “Fake Friends” documentary series, which broke down what parasocial relationships are and how they work.

Burnham’s 2013 special, what., culminates in Burnham, the performer, reacting to pre-recorded versions of himself playing people from his life reacting to his work and fame, trying to capitalize on their tenuous relationship with him. The voices of the characters eventually blend together to tell the live Burnham on stage, “We think we know you.”

Likewise, the finale of Burnham’s next special, Make Happy (2016) closes in a song called “Handle This (Kanye Rant).” The song starts as him venting his hyperbolically small problems, until the tone shifts, and he starts directly addressing the audience, singing: “The truth is, my biggest problem is you / [. . .] A part of me loves you, part of me hates you / Part of me needs you, part of me fears you / [. . .] “Come and watch the skinny kid with a / Steadily declining mental health, and laugh as he attempts / To give you what he cannot give himself.” Like Strucci’s “Fake Friends” documentary, this song is highlighted in Anuska Dhar’s video essay, “Bo Burnham and the Trap of Parasocial Self-Awareness.” Burnham’s work consistently addresses his relationship with his audience, the ways he navigates those parasocial relationships, and how easy they can be to exploit.

Research and analysis of parasocial relationships usually revolves around genres of performers instead of individuals. Most sources discuss fictional characters, news anchors, children’s show hosts, or celebrity culture as a whole. Other than Fred Rogers, Bo Burnham is one of the most cited single individual creators when discussing parasocial relationships. Other artists have made works on the wavelength of “Repeat Stuff,” but few creators with a platform as large as Burnham’s return to the topic over and over, touching on it in almost all of their works.

In Inside, Burnham confronts parasocial relationships in his most direct way yet. Some of this comes through in how scenes are shot and framed: it’s common for the special to be filmed, projected onto Burnham’s wall (or, literally, himself), and then filmed again for the audience. Similarly, Burnham often speaks to the audience by filming himself speaking to himself in a mirror.

Burnham makes it textual, too. In “White Woman’s Instagram,” the comedian assumes the role of a white woman and sings a list of common white lady Instagram posts (“Latte foam art / Tiny pumpkins / Fuzzy, comfy socks”) while acting out even more cliched photos in the video with wild accuracy. Initially, this seems like a pretty standard takedown of the “basic bitch” stereotype co-opted from Black Twitter, until the aspect ratio widens and Burnham sings a shockingly personal, emotional caption from the same feed. Then, of course, the aspect ratio shrinks again as the white woman goes back to posting typical “content.” The song untangles the way we view people’s social media output as the complete vision of who they are, when really, we cannot know the full extent of someone’s inner world, especially not just through social media. But, of course, it tangles that right back up; this emotional post was, ultimately, still Content™.

In “Unpaid Intern,” Burnham sings about how deeply unethical the position is to the workers in a pastiche of other labor-focused blues. The clearest inspiration is Merle Travis’s “16 Tons,” a song about the unethical working conditions of coal miners — also used in weird Tom Hanks film Joe vs. The Volcano, which touched on labor rights.

Burnham quickly shifts from the song to a reaction video of the song itself in the style of a YouTuber or Twitch streamer. “I like this song,” Burnham says, before pointing out the the lack of modern songs about labor exploitation. Then, the video keeps going past the runtime of the song — and into that reaction itself. Burnham reacts to his reaction of the song, this time saying, “I’m being a little pretentious. It’s an instinct I have for all my work to have some deeper meaning or something. It’s a stupid song, and, uh, it doesn’t really mean anything.” The video continues. Burnham reacts to his reaction to his reaction: “I’m so afraid that this criticism will be levied against me that I levy it against myself before anyone else can.” The video keeps going. Burnham reacts to his reaction to his reaction to his reaction, focusing so intently on his body and image that he panics, stops the video—and then smiles at his audience, thanking them for watching.

It’s easy to see “Unpaid Intern” as one scene and the reaction videos as another, but in the lens of parasocial relationships, digital media, and workers’ rights, the song and the reactions work as an analysis for another sort of labor exploitation: content creation. Most creator-made content online is available for free, meaning creators usually have to rely on their fans for income via crowdfunding like Patreon. While platforms like Patreon mean creators can make their own works independently without studio influence, they also mean that the creator is directly beholden to their audience. This is especially true for Patreon campaigns that give fans direct access to creators on platforms like Discord.

The hustle to be a working artist usually means delivering an unending churn of content curated specifically for the demands of an audience that can tell you directly why they are upset with you because they did not actually like the content you gave them, and then they can take away some of your revenue for it. “Unpaid Intern” isn’t just about unpaid internships; when your livelihood as an artist depends on your perceived closeness with each individual fan, fetching a coffee becomes telling someone they’re valid when they vent to you like they would a friend (or a therapist). “Sitting in the meeting room, not making a sound” becomes the perceived 24/7 access fans have to DM you, reply to you, ask you questions. And like unpaid interns, most working artists “can’t afford a mortgage” (and yeah, probably “torrent a porn”).

Later in Inside, Burnham thanks the audience for their support while holding them at knifepoint. In another scene, Burnham gives a retroactive disclaimer to discussions of his suicidal ideation by telling the audience, “And if you’re out there and you’re struggling with suicidal thoughts and you want to kill yourself, I just wanna tell you… Don’t!” “Look Who’s Inside Again” is largely a song about being creative during quarantine, but ends with “Now come out with your hands up, we’ve got you surrounded,” a reflection on police violence but also being mobbed by his fans. In the song “Problematic,” Burnham sings about his past problematic behavior, asking the audience, “Isn’t anyone going to hold me accountable?” The special’s intermission looks like a clear view into Burnham’s room, until Burnham washes a window between himself and the viewer — an explicit, but invisible, boundary between creator and audience.

“All Eyes on Me” takes a different approach to rattling the viewer. The song begins with a fade in from back, the shot painfully close to Burnham’s face as he looks off to the side. The song is a pitched-down Charli XCX-styled banger of a ballad has minimal lyrics that are mostly just standard crowd instructions: put your hands up, get on your feet. Burnham’s eyes are sharply in focus; the rest of him faded out subtly, a detail you might not even notice with how striking his eyes are. The frame is intimate, and after such an intense special, something about that intimacy feels almost dangerous, like you should be preparing for some kind of emotional jump scare. The first comes when Burnham looks directly into the camera as he addresses the audience, singing, “Are you feeling nervous? / Are you having fun?” The crowd directions are no longer stock pop song lyrics; now, the audience understands them as direct orders to them from Burnham. He’s been addressing us the entire time. Still, it’s difficult not to be lulled back into, again, this absolute banger. And it’s easier to relax when the video focuses on a separate take of Burnham singing from farther away, the frame now showing the entire room.

The second emotional jump scare comes when Burnham monologues about how he stopped performing live because he started having panic attacks on stage, “which is not a great place to have them.” The monologue increases that sense of intimacy; Burnham is letting the audience in on the state of his mental health even before the global pandemic. For fans who struggle with panic attacks (myself included) it’s a comfort to see yourself represented in an artist whose work you respect.

Then comes the third emotional jump scare. After more sung repetitions of “get your fuckin’ hands up,” Burnham says, “Get up. I’m talking to you. Get the fuck up!” Burnham walks towards the camera and grabs it like he’s grabbing the viewer by the throat. He points it at himself as he sways, singing again: “Get your fuckin’ hands up / Get on out of your seat / All eyes on me, all eyes on me.”

While sifting through fan reactions to Inside, the YouTube algorithm suggested I watch a fan-made video that pitch corrects “All Eyes on Me” to Burnham’s actual voice. Most of the comments talk about how visceral it is to hear Burnham’s real voice singing the upsetting lyrics. And many of them discuss their personal connection to the show — and their analysis of how Burnham must have been thinking and feeling when he made it.

One comment stuck out to me: “There’s something really powerful and painful about, hearing his actual voice singing and breaking at certain points. I feel very close and intimate with him in this version. My heart hurts with and for him. This special spoke to me closer and clearer than I’ve ever felt with another person. I actually felt true mutual empathy with someone for the first time, and with someone I’ve never even met, it’s kinda funny.”

I can’t say how Burnham thinks or feels with any authority, but as text and form-driven comedy, Inside urges the audience to reflect on how they interact with creators. Even when confronted with works that criticize parasocial attachment, it’s difficult for fans not to feel emotionally connected to performers they admire. As someone who has devoted time, energy, and years of research into parasocial relationships, I felt almost like this song was made for me, that Burnham and I do have so much in common. And we might. That YouTube commenter might be understood by Burnham if they were to meet him. But in both of those cases, similarity and connection would come from the way the art itself connects people, not any actual tie between Burnham and myself, Burnham and the commenter.

Inside has been making waves for comedy fans, similar to the ways previous landmark comedy specials like Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette or Tig Notaro’s Live (aka “Hello, I Have Cancer”) have. And like those specials, Inside implores fans to think about deeper themes as well as how we think about “comedy” as a genre. Inside takes topics discussed academically, analytically, and delivers them to a new audience through the form of a comedy special by a widely beloved performer. Audiences who might not read a 1956 essay by researchers about news anchors still see much of the same discussion in Inside. Not putting a name on parasocial relationships makes the theme less didactic, more blurred while still being astute—such sharp focus on the eyes, you don’t notice the rest of the face fades into shades of blue. And notably, Burnham’s work focuses on parasocial relationships not from the perspective of the audience, but the perspective of the performer.Inside depicts how being a creator can feel: you are a cult leader, you are holding your audience hostage, your audience is holding you hostage, you are your audience, your audience can never be you, you need your audience, and you need to escape your audience.

Parasocial relationships are neutral, and how we interact with them is usually a mixed bag. Inside doesn’t give clear answers like “parasocial relationships good” or “parasocial relationships bad,” because those answers do not, and cannot, exist. They’re complicated. We’re complicated. But when reading songs like “Don’t Wanna Know” and “All Eyes On Me” between the lines, Inside can help audiences better identify that funny feeling when they start feeling like a creator is their friend.