It’s Bo Burnham vs. the inner-machinations of his mind in his quarantine-centric special Inside

By: Steve Pulaski

Left with few other options than to sit at home and get comfortable with ourselves, many of us have channeled the deep recesses of our worried, restless minds over the last year. Comedian Bo Burnham opted to use that as an opportunity to make art and further challenge himself creatively. His latest Netflix special Inside is comedically astute but also haunting in its fragility, both structurally and thematically. Through his usual onslaught of satirical songs, Burnham seems *this close* to breaking, which gifts this project a rare suspenseful edge.

Recorded in his home (allegedly) during the COVID-19 pandemic, Burnham wrote, shot, and edited Inside in true one-man-show fashion. He is the only person to appear throughout the entire 87-minute special. Even the pandemic isn’t directly mentioned, but it’s not like any of us need context as to why the now-30-year-old comic is not on-stage surrounded by an adoring crowd. In his small studio apartment, Burnham is surrounded by camera equipment, lighting mechanisms, keyboards, wires, etc as he tries to push himself to “make art” during a time of civil unrest and a worsening global health crisis.

One look at the song titles for Inside and you’ll realize how much he has on his mind. Early on, he invites a sock-puppet named “Socko” onto his hand to provide the second verses for his song “How the World Works.” After singing about worms, dirt, and other foundations of the Earth, Burnham throws it over to Socko, so he can start us off with this kicker: “The simple narrative taught in every history class is demonstrably false and pedagogically classist.” If that doesn’t tell you the undercurrent of hard-to-swallow political truths within this special, I don’t know what does.

Fear not, if you’re looking for a simple laugh. Sure to be a new favorite in Burnham’s discography is “White Woman’s Instagram,” which is elevated by an expertly filmed montage of Burnham impersonating all the cutesy-mutesy outfits, poses, and accoutrements commonly seen on any given suburban white woman’s Instagram account. There’s also a number about sexting, as funny as it is otherwise out of place, and a song about Burnham entering his 30s at the stroke of midnight on his birthday.

Bo Burnham: Inside is so comically subversive and indicative of a nation’s mental health in lockdown that it will be liable to intense discussion and debate for years to come. Among many things, it grapples with the millennial/content-creator “grind culture” that propels people to sacrifice their wellbeing, self-worth, and socialization by “making art” and getting it out to the masses. “Daddy made you some content,” Burnham tiredly sings to us, employing the buzzword that effectively reduces film/TV shows to icons on a crowded streaming service to be consumed and promptly forgotten.

Burnham got his start on YouTube, recording songs, rants, and comedy routines as a pubescent boy before landing a Comedy Central deal at the age of 18. Long overdue for a haircut and boasting a straggly beard, Burnham seems not only burnt out by the pandemic but by the desire to feed the people’s and the machine’s insatiable appetite for content. After questioning whether or not making comedy in a time of darkness is even possible, he embraces his desire to keep creating under the justification that “the world needs direction from a white guy like me.”

Burnham eventually goes as far as to make a pretty incisive critique of the internet and social media. “Maybe allowing giant digital media companies to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit, you know — maybe that was a bad call by us,” he softly states into a microphone while lying on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Taking his criticisms further to the commodification of internet art, he follows that up by saying: “Maybe the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody except for, um, you know a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley, maybe that as a way of life forever — maybe that’s not good.”

While he’s not wrong, this special is streaming on Netflix, after all.

Certainly, few people know the ins and outs of content-creating through the last two generations as well as Burnham. While Inside has Burnham criticizing the cottage industry on which he helped build, he doesn’t exactly address the fact that he is also benefiting from his position. That’s the eternal challenge for everyone who dares criticize the internet, their own societal positions, or capitalism/corporatism in the United States.

Ultimately, Burnham’s social status didn’t exempt him from the isolated reality brought on by the pandemic, and Inside provides him a catalyst in sharing his personal struggles in a universal manner.

The band-aid for that is the specificity and inclusivity Inside provides. The confinement we experience watching it and the messiness within Burnham’s apartment feels like a reflection of his crowded mind. For us creatives, many of whom surely to press play on Burnham’s latest, it feels like a reflection of our own. On top of the many interpretations it welcomes, it’s also a seriously refined piece of art. Burnham’s use of lighting and editing is quite profound, such as a scene where he parodies people who film themselves reacting to other YouTube videos or quite literally “plays himself” as a video-game streamer. This gives Bo Burnham: Inside the quality of an intensely watchable piece of performance theater, and sure to be one of the most memorable, relatable pieces of content you watch all year.

NOTE: Bo Burnham: Inside is now streaming on Netflix.

Grade: A-

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