I first discovered Bo Burnham years ago (I can’t remember when exactly, I forgot to write down when I saw his most recent special at the time) when he released Make Happy. In that special, he discusses the divide between his stage persona and who he wants to be, how that is eating him alive mentally, as well critiquing current sociological issues like white people complaining about their problems, modern music, love, and too many other things to list. At the conclusion of that special, he drops that persona and quit comedy for five years, during which he had a cameo in The Big Sick, directed Eighth Grade, and co-starred in last year’s Promising Young Woman.
With Inside, Bo Burnham writes, directs, films, and edited the special during the pandemic and gives the most insight into his mental health, how it deteriorates when he is forced to perform, as well as sociopolitical conflicts around the world, how social media corrupts our perception of our inner happiness and much more. I’ve watched the special nine times now, and it gets better every time I watch it.
Burnham has learned a lot from his time directing Eighth Grade. Without giving too much away, this is less of a comedy special and more of a half comedy special, half documentary. For much of Inside, Burnham speaks through various characters such as a pseudo-Sesame Street guest (which he’ll coincidentally be writing songs for), what I can only describe as a vampire putting on his charms to suck someone’s blood, and various R&B or pop stars. When Burnham uses these characters, Inside is more about channeling to talk about performativity and less about the characters on screen. Burnham clearly loves his ability to transform himself, even if that comes at the cost of his mental health.
To give the audience room to breathe, Burnham uses footage to illustrate how oppressive the room he’s recorded in is to him mentally. The room that was just flooded with crazy lighting effects is now naturally lit, with the aftermath of the previous segment’s equipment littered across the floor. Often, we see Burnham surrounded by this equipment, frustrated at what he just recorded. In these tiny moments, Burnham shows the audience what he does to capture even one ounce of the audience’s attention. At one point, we even see Burnham staring into a mirror, seemingly talking to the audience. But he isn’t talking to the audience. He’s talking to himself.
In the absence of an audience, Burnham dominates the background of Inside. Burnham is right back to where he started with the pandemic shutdown: inside a tiny room with a keyboard and a camera. Fundamentally, popping onto Netflix and watching the special is a different experience for both parties. Burnham doesn’t get the feedback he would from a live audience, and we don’t experience the same adjustments Burnham more than likely would have made if this were a recorded special with a crew behind him.
To compensate, Burnham adds laugh tracks to some of his songs, and much of his material is built around addressing the audience, asking them questions about the role of comedy in a world where comedy no longer makes sense. Burnham seems to have provided the answers: there will be an audience for comedy, live or otherwise, as long as the audience wants it.
At the same time, his attempts to conjure an audience out of thin air are nigh impossible. At the end of the day, Burnham is recording this alone in his guest house. So, Burnham shifts the narrative back onto himself, whose hair growth marks the passing of time no matter who he shapeshifts into during the performances. Sometimes this is literal, where he projects his performances onto his white t-shirt. Inside is all about the endless cycle of performance and consumption, worrying about the act of performativity and authenticity.
Inside’s writing positions Burnham as the main character stuck in one room, using the small space to explore his anxieties about identity and art. It’s about staying inside and being awed by how being inside makes you reflect on life, on art, of the internet, and not being sure when the door will open to outside. It’s an astonishing accomplishment, a testament to how gifted Burnham is at directing, writing, songwriting, and performing.
Bo Burnham: Inside is now available to stream on Netflix.
Until next time!