Bo Burnham always seems to have a way with words. Since the beginning of his impressively illustrious career, the 30-year-old YouTube star-slash-comedian-slash-filmmaker has made a name for himself as one of our century’s sharpest and wisest cultural observers, a linguistically talented and lovably awkward millennial who uses comedy, music, choreography, and social commentary to articulate the anxieties plaguing the modern world. His formidable body of work—from his 2010 breakout Words Words Words to his provocative poetry collection Egghead, 2016’s revelatory Make Happy to the inspired 2018 coming-of-age vehicle Eighth Grade—is a noteworthy archive containing withering and whimsical interrogations of the internet, celebrity culture, gender politics, and mental health. His brand of introspective and irreverent meta humor has garnered a strong following of young fans (as well as alienated a few cynical detractors). But for the most part, Burnham, with his commanding grasp of reality and its many specific difficulties, remains one of the few public figures who understands how wielding the power of creativity to both entertain and enlighten can provide meaning, truth, laughter, and guidance in our own lives during these messy times.
It’s why Inside, his newest comedy event and his first since his retirement from performing in 2015, feels particularly poignant, not just because it was filmed during the majority of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also because Burnham, once ostensibly self-assured and eager in his abilities to mine jokes from pertinent trends, seems to be at a loss. Throughout the special, he appears disheveled and withdrawn and, at one point, uncharacteristically angry. These emotions feel appropriate under the circumstances, if somewhat jarring considering we’ve come to expect a high-energy, playfully self-deprecating Burnham. Still, he endeavors to quell his feelings of dread and misery through a series of sardonic reflections that read as both refreshingly relatable and confrontational. Written, shot, scored, and directed by Burnham, Inside is a raw, challenging meditation on the painful limits of the creative process, capturing with vivid evocation something most if not every artist or writer has experienced at some moment in this devastating global health crisis.
Despite the sobering subject matter and Burnham’s deconstructed approach, Inside isn’t all doom and gloom. In fact, similar to his previous comedic outings, this 87-minute solo feature incorporates many classic Burnham trademarks: clever wordplay and misdirections, silver-tongued social critiques, disarmingly catchy and irony-laced songs, impeccable staging and lighting setups. The stripped-down execution also benefits from an intense intimacy that can sometimes feel as claustrophobic as the minimalist annex Burnham inhabits, but Burnham’s artful, obsessive commitment to his craft proves to be captivating enough. There are no guest stars or audience or crew members, just a bearded and shaggy-haired Burnham alone, recording, editing, tinkering with instruments, trying desperately not to break down from emotional and psychological burnout.
Opening seemingly in the same room Burnham last left us in Make Happy, Inside launches right into a brief electronic prologue in which the comedian apologizes for his absence and promises to deliver content—and deliver it he does. The first half of the special mostly consists of upbeat tunes and tongue-in-cheek asides that find Burnham continuing to plumb into the depths of his soul, searching for a kind of catharsis to combat the rage, turmoil, and uncertainty triggered by pandemic-induced confinement.
In “Comedy,” a sentimental-piano-ballad-turned-jaunty-pop-jingle, Burnham pokes fun at his privilege as a white male entertainer who knows his humor won’t engender massive social change but still feels compelled to generate something of substance anyway. He previously touched on this theme—the intertwining of his existential purpose with his vocation—in Make Happy, but his framing of it here suggests Burnham is wrestling with the obsolescence of his voice in a rapidly changing cultural discourse even more than before. “How The World Works” acts as a cutting adult send-up of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, with Burnham ventriloquizing a leftist sock puppet whose scathing, didactic politics potentially speaks to Burnham’s own anti-capitalist views and his resentment in suppressing them for the sake of making more digestible material. “White Woman’s Instagram,” a beguiling standout from Inside, is a strangely gorgeous earworm satirizing stereotypes of white women’s Instagram accounts like posting pictures of avocados and misattributing MLK quotes. In another male comedian’s hands, its pointedness could’ve come off as mean-spirited, misogynistic low-hanging fruit, but Burnham’s visual dexterity, brilliant harmonies, and sneaky earnesty renders the song a mesmerizingly silly spectacle.
With the exception of some brooding interludes about Silicon Valley corruption and the constant barrage of opinions online, it seems like Burnham could actually be having fun with these segments, or at least making an effort to have fun while holed up in a room for months on end. However, as Inside chugs along, we witness Burnham start to unravel, his bits becoming increasingly darker and more focused on the deterioration of his well-being.
This tonal shift is immediately apparent in “30,” during which Burnham waits for a nearby clock to strike midnight, quietly contemplating the melancholy of aging. When it hits 12:00, he bursts into an emotionally naked (and physically half-naked) performance, lamenting the passage of time and flirting with suicidal ideation. (In a courteous follow-up scene, Burnham makes it clear that he is not going to kill himself and urges others not to do so either.) This impressive balance of angst and levity continues to build in the delirious, polka-esque “Welcome to the Internet,” which not-so-subtly reveals Burnham’s cynicism about the digital world’s regression into a cannibalizing attention economy. Again, this point would feel threadbare were it delivered by another comic, but Burnham’s personal relationship to the internet, a place that once gave him a platform to express himself and set him on a course for success, coats the song with a layer of bracing honesty. The climactic “All Eyes on Me” shows a lower-pitched Burnham referencing the panic attacks he faced onstage that led him to quit performing and rehabilitate his mental health, only to consider a return in January 2020. This revelation is startling and almost tragic given the context, and as he warbles on, drenched in sea-blue lighting, Burnham encourages us to contend with the exhausting and exasperating social disconnect brought on by the pandemic that has left us tethered to our devices. He knows that Inside might not resonate with some people, that words and songs and art might not be enough to cure the madness and mayhem, and that accepting such a sentiment is the most impactful way to truly deal with the loss that COVID-19 has wrought onto our world. It’s his most serious number, and also one of his most truthful.
Regarding the idea of truth, it’s interesting how the lack of an audience makes Inside’s slick formal maneuvers feel artificial, even as Burnham knowingly drops in a laugh track during a couple of segments to simulate a “live” experience. Part of what made Burnham’s live specials so invigorating were the immersive, magic-trick quality of his performances and the feat of watching him pull off a well-orchestrated bit. Who could forget, for instance, the ingenious “prolonged eye contact” bit from 2013’s what.? The pandemic is obviously to blame for this, but it’s still worth noting how without that communal experience, we lose the sense of authenticity and illusion of spontaneity that defined Burnham’s spirit.
Admirable as his presentation is, Inside sometimes feels a little too neat and precise in its confessional design, a little too calculated in conveying the jaggedness of Burnham’s mental state. There’s no doubt that the feelings he expresses on screen are genuine, but some of the narrative choices he makes—like a scene late in the film when he struggles to get through a monologue and storms off in a fit of fury, followed by another brief moment when he says he’s not doing well and sobs—carry an unusual air of contrivance. The same goes for his careful selection and composition of the disarray of (very expensive) equipment that surrounds him. With these occasionally forced and self-conscious moments, though, Burnham acknowledges the pressure to produce, that creativity can be as liberating as it can be oppressive. The film’s signoff is indicative of this: Burnham emerges from his creative man cave and goes outside, only to be shut out. The camera pulls back to reveal his pounding on the door is now etched in a clip, being watched by Burnham himself, smirking in the darkness. It’s an existentially brutal, slightly on-the-nose note to end on, illustrating Burnham’s fear of losing control over the one thing that makes him who he is—but what else would you expect from someone whose whole ethos revolves around being brutally on-the-nose about existence?
As a piece of pandemic-era art, Inside is a thoughtful, diaristic text, one that, like Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Right Now and Dave Chappelle’s 8:46, intelligently and effectively communicates the volatile emotional landscape of this past year. In the grand scheme of Burnham’s oeuvre, it doubles as an artistic triumph and a mournful chapter in the comedian’s evolution, encompassing some of his strongest production and most soulful, mature writing to date. It’s one thing to produce a special during a disorienting time of collective suffering, but it’s another to channel those societal anxieties into something genuinely meaningful. If there’s anyone who has the vocabulary and ambition to take up that challenge, it’s Bo Burnham—and we’re all the luckier for it.
By Sam Rosenberg