It’s been five years since Bo Burnham graced the stage in a stand-up capacity. Save for a couple of movie roles, as well as writing and directing his feature debut (the critically acclaimed Eighth Grade), the multi-talented US comedian has been on a self-imposed exile from public life since his last tour, 2016’s Make Happy, ended.
Burnham’s fans understood why. Suffering from onstage panic attacks, amid a downturn in his overall mental health, Burnham stepped away from the limelight and many people wondered if he’d perform live again.
As it happens, he would, but not in the manner we’d have expected. Inside is Burnham’s first comedy special for half a decade – and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.
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Healing the world with comedy
Filmed at home during the Covid-19 pandemic, Inside follows Burnham’s year-long journey – within the confines of a single room – as he creates, and ultimately fights to finish, his latest project.
Deprived of a crew due to lockdown restrictions, Burnham wrote, performed, directed, shot and edited the 90-minute comedy-drama – and it’s clear from the outset that every part of it exudes his multifaceted talents.
Burnham’s clever use of camera angles, scope of shot, edits, transitions and various lighting effects often makes Inside feel like a fever dream. Throw in continuous shifts between Burnham performing songs and stand-up material, and it’s like you’re simultaneously watching a documentary and stage act.
And, really, you are. In trademark style, Burnham meshes hilarious songs (‘White Woman’s Instagram’, ‘Sexting’ and ‘FaceTiming with my Mom’, in particular, are cleverly produced), with a docu-style presentation of his life in lockdown that provides a fly-on-the-wall glimpse into his world.
In that sense, Inside harkens back to Burnham’s humble beginnings as a YouTuber, albeit now one with the figurative weight of the world on his shoulders.
That world-weariness ironically shines through Inside’s multiple musical numbers. Fans will instantly recognize the signature synthpop and R’n’B inspired melodies that Burnham builds his songs around, but it’s his lyrical deconstruction of serious topics – including self-worth, elitism, living in the digital age, relationships, capitalism, mental health and suicide – that makes Burnham stand apart from his contemporaries.
As weighty as Inside’s subjects are, though, Burnham delivers each track in typically riotous and sometimes farcical fashion.
From the subversive Sesame Street-esque ‘That is how the World Works’ (complete with a sock puppet that has plenty to say about geopolitics) to ‘Welcome to the Internet’, a musically explosive exploration of how our lives are dictated by the internet, each song is a rollercoaster ride of emotions that’ll have you laughing one minute and experiencing an existential crisis the next.
It’s this frequent subversion of expectations that makes Inside much more than an audiovisual spectacle. Beneath the bright lights and upbeat tempo of Burnham’s songs, Inside is a pretty dark and bleak dive into the psyche of one of the past decade’s most popular artists.
Make no mistake, this isn’t an ordinary comedy special, and Burnham warns us as much at the start. Even so, Inside isn’t merely a continuation of Make Happy’s unexpected ending (where Burnham dissects the performer-audience relationship in such honest detail) – it’s an extension of it.
Whether by design (or as a stressful byproduct of his latest creation), Burnham becomes increasingly dishevelled – physically and mentally – as Inside progresses. Throughout, there’s a growing perception that a battle rages on inside as he struggles with his solitary confinement, and you feel increasingly anguished as Burnham gradually loses his grip on reality.
It makes for unnerving and ominous viewing, particularly during Inside’s final act, but, perhaps surprisingly, it’s a necessity to see Burnham in this state.
It’s the comedian at his most vulnerable, and it’s as if Inside is a physically thematic representation of Burnham’s own headspace. The single room he resides in symbolizes his mind, while the scattered instruments, clothes and recording equipment signify the cluttered, messy and overwhelming thoughts he has to deal with on a daily basis.
As much as Inside is an introspective examination on Burnham’s part, it’s also highly relatable. Collectively, we’ve wrestled with our own problems throughout the pandemic and its various national lockdowns so, while Burnham is the individual leading us through this at-times deeply personal piece of theater, it’s hard not to see yourself in Burnham’s place. It’s a cleverly subliminal bait and switch, and one you may not even notice is happening for much of Inside’s runtime.
That funny feeling
Inside is a dazzling and electric one-man show that’s both culturally relevant and thematically resonant. It’s hilarious, poignant and strangely uplifting in equal measure, and the sheer number of subtextual layers within means that repeat viewings (if you’re able to handle it) are necessary to dig into its minutiae.
Burnham’s amalgamation of different artforms isn’t novel, but the manner in which he structures Inside feels like a game changer. It feels unique in its approach, content and subjectivity, and it’ll leave you pondering many questions about your own life once the end credits roll.
“I’m being a little pretentious; it’s an instinct that I have where I need everything I write to have some deeper meaning,” Burnham muses at one point.
Maybe so, but there’s no denying that Inside is a powerfully poetic piece of art that you’ll be thinking about for days and weeks on end.
Bo Burnham: Inside is available to stream now on Netflix.
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