Comic-turned filmmaker and actor Bo Burnham’s Inside (which you can stream on Netflix) exists at the cross-section of comedy, anger, and stir craziness while wrapping moments of pathos and eviscerating social commentary with colorful kaleidoscopic projections and musical vivacity.
Epic in its emotional depth and scale (for a comedy special filmed within the space of one room during lockdown), this year-long voyeuristic voyage into Burnham’s fraying mind seems at once deeply personal and stunningly relatable to anyone who spent time isolated from the world and loved ones while listening to sirens and mainlining news reports (but, perhaps not, if you spent your year in a second home, an uninvested spectator in the chaos). It’s also a hilarious reclamation of satire.
All respect to Hamilton and the quarantine episode of Mythic Quest (which both hit at the exact right time last year), but Inside is also the most consequential musical and the most visually diverse and stunningly conceived “captured during lockdown” project I’ve seen in this era. Even if it’s hitting at a time when people may not be keen to relive a nightmare that they’re actively trying to run away from. Depending on your state of mind, this might be a time capsule or it might be an emotional Pandora’s Box.
Is Burnham fucking with us in his return to comedy? Is he truly melting before our eyes? Is it something in between? It seems right to take this at face value because it feels like the first truly raw, truly authentic appraisal of those and these times. Like, if this is all some Andy Kaufman-esque put-on, I’ll tip my cap and then scream into my pillow for nine years.
Burnham cautions at the start of the special that what he’s about to present will be scattered, and it is at points. But Inside also follows a clear topical path as it presents songs and bits that touch on myriad elements of human existence during this weird time of mass isolation. Something that begins with a mocking ode to comedy’s powers in the midst of tragedy and social decay before moving on to the frustration of family connection through Facetime, obsessions with reaction videos, and Twitchstreams. Eventually, we land on the special’s primary target.
Much has been said about technology and how it enabled us to stay connected during COVID. Some of it by me. But while it was a lifeline for a lot of us, we should also emerge from our own darkened rooms questioning the larger embrace of tech as a substitute for face-to-face interactions and how weird shit got when we were trying to stay sane. Like, seriously, I made videos where I crysang the Cheers theme at 1AM and interviewed my dog. I also turned my camera on to scream, cry, pray, and vent moments after my wife had to be rushed to the hospital by our roommate at the height of COVID when experiencing severe stomach pains. Because I had nowhere else to put those feelings. No one to go to and no way to be at the hospital with her. While it wouldn’t be as funny or brilliantly presented, each of us could easily do our own version of this special.
It probably doesn’t need to be said at this point, but Inside can be an uncomfortable watch at times. Not just because it hits close to home, or because it’s difficult to view what feels like someone’s slow-rolling nervous breakdown or his asides about suicidal ideation. But also because Burnham isn’t just punching up and punching himself in the face. You will feel judged by this and feel like Burnham might be frustrated by his audience and the whole of humanity at points. Do we need to express all thoughts on all things at all times? Are the cliche poses we throw on Instagram a cry for help? Is intimacy being beaten to death by an eggplant emoji? These are thoughts that went through Burnham’s head during lockdown that strike at the core of some of our everyday behaviors, but while that’s uncomfortable, they are worth larger contemplation. For whatever that is worth.
Nothing lands with more precision and impact than Burnham’s immensely catchy circus siren song about the internet, though. How being extremely online fills a life with “a little bit of everything all of the time” and seduces us with the idea that the entire world is in our hands. Imagine the song from Willy Wonka’s psychedelic boat trip remade for this dark part of the internet age. But here, there’s a very clear determination on which direction we are going thanks to a spigot we can’t turn off and senses that are becoming deadened from the repeating flash of scandals, tragedies, and distractions. Something that only increased in velocity during COVID-times… or was it just that we had little else to stare at?
What’s the value of Burnham examining societal fade through billionaire deification, overshare, underfeel, and the rush toward those distractions while set to song, though? As I said before, Burnham makes it clear that it’s not his responsibility or within the purview of a comedian to heal the world with smiles and comedy. He’s throwing those punches and calling attention to the absurdity of these last 15 months (and, to a degree, what’s been brewing for these last 15 years).
At one point in the special when talking about his personality failings during a meta-commentary on commentary, Burnham says self-awareness “does not absolve anyone of anything.” The meaning is, just because we acknowledge and are aware that something is wrong, it doesn’t mean we’ve done enough or anything to right it.
Inside is funny, it helped Burnham accomplish the stated goal of not putting a bullet in his head during a bleak time, and it put a mirror in front of our faces. As the song says at the start of the special, he made you some content… open wide. Whether it becomes another well-meaning distraction or something that makes you think isn’t really on him.
Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ is streaming now on Netflix.