If you told me, a person who has lost all sense of time over the course of the pandemic, that Bo Burnham’s Inside came out 6 weeks, 6 months, or 6 years ago, I would believe you. Monday, on Twitter, Burnham said it was a year ago. Okay then. He also said he spent 2 months prepping the release (on his YouTube channel) of The Inside Outtakes, an hour’s worth of new material (behind-the-scenes footage and outtakes) from the original lockdown sessions that resulted in the widely beloved Netflix special. This is exciting.
For the unfamiliar, Inside stands out as a document of our collective time spent inside during COVID with Burnham capturing himself during a long stretch filled with impossibly catchy songs and comedy bits that alternate between searing and silly. When it came out, I called it a “cross-section of comedy, anger, and stir craziness.”
Since its release, Inside has been nominated for a Peabody, won three Emmys and a Grammy, and seen its companion album top out at number 7 on the Billboard 200. Obviously, the special hit a very specific nerve at a time when a lot of people could relate to (and needed to laugh through) the side effects of isolation and boredom as we waited for a sign that it was safe to resume our normal lives. But that time is over now. No, seriously. I think masks got outlawed and the hesitant and high risk have been drawn out to center stage like Stephen King’s Carrie with everyone’s hot breath drenching them as the pandemic continues. Rub some dirt on your mental health problems, get out of your makeshift home office, crack your nest egg and smear the yolk on the gas pump, your landlord… this got gross. What I’m saying is: normality has returned, ready or not.
So, Burnham’s special is a period piece now, referencing a time deemed too depressing for revisitation by everyone else in pop culture. Think: when was the last time you can recall a major TV series with an arc that referenced masks or COVID? That’s the challenge of releasing this new material right now, but I’m sure Burnham had a look around at the landscape and did this anyway. Why? Is this companion content a statement about our “over it” attitudes toward the pandemic? A gift to his fans? A look into the arduous craft required to make Inside while reinforcing the idea that this is a classic that should be considered and reconsidered? Or is it just a useful distraction that was easier to commit himself to than some new thing that might spark anxiety for its need to equal or better Inside? Maybe it’s all of it, maybe it’s none of it. As with all things Inside, Burnham isn’t offering many additional clues.
A product of the internet and early days of YouTube, Burnham has reinvented himself (or, I suppose we could just say he’s grown) into a serious filmmaker (Eighth Grade) who occasionally teams with his peers to push the envelope on the visual spirit of comedy specials (Jerrod Carmichael’s Rothaniel is a great example). This version of Burnham doesn’t tweet much and he didn’t really say much about Inside when it came out. Instead, he let the work speak for itself. Something he’ll probably do again with Outtakes. It’s a novel approach: quiet in an era of self-promotional noise. It also leaves space to fill because people inevitably get curious about why art happens, especially when it seems so personal.
Left with only the work to define itself, we can report that The Inside Outtakes is great, funny, weird, clever, and closer to some of the less heavy moments from the original Netflix special. This is more “White Woman’s Instagram” (which is about privilege and mocking a parade of cliches on social media) than “Welcome To The Internet” (which is a jaunty number about how the internet has poisoned our brains while continuing to draw us deeper into its web). “Five Years” (which is about a couple bickering at the five-year mark in their relationship) and the “Jeans” fake ad are great examples of the tone here. I wonder why that is, though. Was this material from earlier in the filming process? Later? Mysteries, mysteries.
Oh, there’s another Jeff Bezos song! How many Jeff Bezos songs does Bo Burnham have in him? What about Elon? Is he taking requests? The “Joe Biden” song is great (and a bit of a bop), tapping into dissatisfaction with Biden as the pick to be the lesser of two evils in November 2020. Why didn’t that make it into the final cut of the original special? Maybe it felt more dated in May 2021 than it does in May 2022 when there’s less excitement over old Joe in these streets.
There are also several efforts to take the piss out of self-important comedians in the new material (as there was in the original, specifically with “Comedy”). The podcast bit here (that reads as a slam on Joe Rogan) and the repeated swipes at the significance of Inside with numerous faux ads all accomplish that seeming goal. But this may seem a little odd since Burnham has, himself, been elevated to comic philosopher/messiah status by critics (myself included) following Inside. Yet it’s fair to remember that he didn’t necessarily ask for that or supply anything toward our construction of the pedestal we have placed him on, save for his work, silence, and maybe his Christ-like look (I mean, it writes itself). Bo Burnham doesn’t have to be who we’re trying to make him.
There’s one more specific moment I want to call out that speaks to the new material and this stubborn question about why and what Burnham is trying to say. It’s a sweet song called “Chicken” and it’s about a bird plump with dreams who must find the courage to cross the road away from the mundanity of her life and how she freezes in the street as headlights approach. The metaphor here is not subtle to anyone who has tried to time their own adventure back out into the world and it’s a lovely thing that ends with a little optimism. It also stands out because I don’t know that a bunch of in-depth profiles and interviews with Burnham would have revealed more about his headspace than this song or “Look Who’s Inside Again,” “Problematic,” or “That Funny Feeling” from the original.
Exploring motives is an important part of trying to understand art. I don’t want to make it seem like there’s no value to be gained from asking questions. But the absence of that further context does not halt the reach of that art. That’s my point, specific to someone like Burnham who doesn’t seem to want to offer an explicit road map or much more than a few highly intimate snapshots of his mind from a time when few of our minds were ready for the flash of a camera. We always want more, but like Inside, that goddamn chicken song hit me right between the shoulders, and so, at the risk of putting too convenient and breathless a cap on this thing, the why doesn’t really matter that much. The enjoyment gained from that song (and this material) and the power of that is why art happens. And that’s just going to have to be a good enough answer.
‘Inside: The Outakes’ is available on YouTube