Bo Burnham: Inside takes on the Pandemic’s Effects on Mental Health

by Hassan Ilahi

Never has it been more challenging for comedians with hectic routines to manage their mental hygiene than amidst quarantine. Following the COVID-19 Pandemic, stand-up comics have struggled to keep their passion for art alive as their mental health has taken a nosedive. While most comedians have used quarantine as an excuse to evacuate from their professions, Bo Burnham documented his struggle against isolation. Ever since he achieved stardom on YouTube in 2006, Burnham has always concealed mental health problems beneath his happy-go-lucky stage façade. For reasons of privacy, it’s common for artists to keep their personal lives hushed-up to avoid media attention. After all, mental health is depressing subject matter that- particularly during a sad pandemic- is no laughing matter. How, then, could Burnham’s quarantine meltdown leave a lasting impression with audiences during lockdown?

Strange as it might sound, there’s something therapeutic about witnessing the comedian record his quarantine onscreen in his Emmy-nominated film Bo Burnham: Inside. A candid, heartbreaking and timely stand-up special, it captures experiences of creative burnout during lockdown. With his fourth special, Bo Burnham uses autobiographical experiences to convey universal feelings of post-pandemic anxieties. Packed with memorable music, interactive storytelling and phenomenal performances, it’s an outstanding one-man achievement. Although Bo Burnham: Inside is undeniably unforgettable, ultimately it isn’t a flawless film. It’s slightly short, and undermined by an abrupt conclusion. Nonetheless, it offers meaningful entertainment that will satisfy Burnham’s fanbase.

Based on personal experiences, Bo Burnham: Inside follows an anxiety-ridden comedian that seeks to keep his career from fizzling out during post-pandemic burnout. Bo Burnham stars in the lead role as himself, an anxious comic trapped inside a room. Burnham has always thrived at performing sold-out shows onstage. However, quarantine’s backbreaking circumstances force Burnham to deliver comedy without an audience. As Burnham’s mindset deteriorates, he questions whether passion is worth pursuing anymore.

Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham has always been attracted towards adolescent anxiety. Ever since he earned worldwide recognition with Eighth Grade in 2018, Burnham has become an outstanding comic with flair for satirizing controversial subjects. His directorial debut Eighth Grade offered an intimate look at a fearful adolescent girl battling social anxiety in middle-school. With Bo Burnham: Inside, however, Burnham has recorded his first quarantine stand-up special. It’s the filmmaker’s first attempt to satirize his personal experiences during the pandemic in a stand-up special, but he pulls it off seamlessly. Using marvelous cinematography, Burnham draws viewers into a comedian’s struggles to create art in post-pandemic world. Despite limitations of recording in a restrictive room, Burnham succeeds in spades. Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Burnham successfully utilizes the contained setting to capture isolation’s harmful effect on well-being. Burnham excels at documenting his fight against lockdown loneliness, and his latest feature is worth watching on Netflix for this reason alone.

If quarantine seclusion experiences do not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to see Bo Burnham: Inside. For a movie made entirely by one artist, it’s a jaw-dropping feat. Burnham excels at utilizing numerous cinematic ratios to demonstrate heightened emotions of musical sequences. For instance, shifting aspect ratios are used particularly well to demonstrate detachment in the FaceTime with My Mom musical sequence. During this mesmerizing scene, Bo recounts his desperate attempt to reconnect with his technologically inept parents through FaceTime. It’s hard to not marvel at iPhone-like ratios which imitate phone-screens in a flashy style evocative of David Fincher’s The Social Network. Using these ratios, Burnham captures pandemic-era’s technology overdependence. Burnham creates musical sequences that cannot be replicated onstage. Furthermore, Burnham’s score deserves appreciation. Each song is deftly integrated and leaves viewers humming its melodies. Through magnificent production values, Burnham reconstructs his lockdown.

Another impressive aspect of Bo Burnham: Inside is the screenplay. Burnham’s greatest strength as a screenwriter is his aptitude for building a compassionate portrayal of an artist’s mental deterioration by breaking the fourth wall. When discussing mental well-being, stand-up comics tend to take comical approaches and avoid confronting serious sides to the topic. This often risks offending audiences with debilitating illnesses and perpetuates stigma around mental health. Thankfully, though, that is not a problem with Bo Burnham: Inside. Burnham wisely avoids stigmatizing mental health through offensive humor. Instead, he effectively uses fourth-wall breaking monologues to capture an artist’s meltdown during lockdown. The film features scenes where Burnham shares his feelings directly with viewers by breaking fourth wall. Like Jordan Belfort in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Burnham’s fourth-wall monologues convey his declining mental state. Burnham’s revealing interactions with audiences provide awareness of psychological problems artists experienced during lockdown. Breaking the fourth wall is a tricky technique to utilize deftly in stand-up specials, but it works immensely in this movie. Using a sensitive screenplay, Burnham keeps viewers absorbed in a comedian’s survival.

One can’t overlook outstanding performances.

Bo Burnham delivers a dazzling comic performance as himself. Following his overnight success on YouTube, Burnham has become an exceptional comic with aptitude for performing onstage. With Bo Burnham: Inside, however, he bares his soul in his most vulnerable role to date. It’s not easy for celebrities to publicly disclose their mental problems during quarantine. However, Burnham pulls it off fearlessly. With mesmerizing expressions, he captures angst, loneliness and resentment of a comedian that seeks to protect his passion amid hopeless lockdown. Not only does Burnham prove to be a rib-tickling comic, but he emerges as a talented singer. It’s a show-stopping performance from America’s greatest comedian.

The final component of Bo Burnham: Inside that deserves appreciation is its powerful message. Despite Bo Burnham’s millennial-targeted humor, his film’s universal message has power to resonate with everyone. The movie tackles topical themes such as depression, loneliness and technological overdependence that will connect with audiences in the post-pandemic era. Viewers don’t need to be fans of Burnham’s stand-up comedy to identify with his quarantine experience. As someone whose well-being was damaged during quarantine, I identified with Burnham’s experience. Therefore, Bo Burnham: Inside has widespread appeal.

Despite its broad appeal, however, it’s unfortunate that Bo Burnham: Inside doesn’t entirely delve deep enough into the darkest corners of its artist’s mind. In adapting his stand-up comedy to the big-screen, Burnham overlooks differences in length between the two art-forms. Whereas shortened length worked in a concert-like special like 2016’s Make Happy, it hinders viewer’s satisfaction with this film. Furthermore, the movie is undermined by an ambiguous ending. Burnham’s decision to conclude the movie with a final shot of self-awareness is clever and inventive, but it doesn’t entirely work. It’s a head-scratching ending that overwhelms viewers with its humor-overcomes-adversity meaning. Instead of bringing the film to satisfying resolution, it simply raises questions. Consequently, Bo Burnham: Inside falls short of Burnham’s best specials.

Nevertheless, Bo Burnham’s fans will appreciate Bo Burnham: Inside and so will moviegoers seeking thought-provoking entertainment. A soul-stirring achievement, it proves comedians’ quarantine experiences can heal audiences. If humor can heal wounds of lockdown, hopefully it will inspire artists whose lives have hit all-time lows to find funny feelings even if that isn’t how the world always works.

Hassan’s Grade:  A-