Bo Burnham is back after a five-year hiatus from comedy with what is perhaps the best work of his career so far. “Bo Burnham: Inside” was written, filmed, and edited over the course of a full year, capturing Burnham’s internal life over the course of the pandemic. This special is not only entertaining, but extremely honest and heartfelt, reflecting on the often harsh and dehumanizing reality of both being a creative and a human being in 2020. Burnham may be performing to the void, but to the audience, he is holding up a mirror.
The special flows in the same way as Burnham’s mental state as the year progresses: an upbeat answer to free time to create that slowly devolves into chaos.
“Bo Burnham: Inside” starts off with a serious question hidden inside an upbeat song about saving the world with comedy: “should I be joking at a time like this?” The joke seems quaint and silly when paired with a synthesizer and Burnham performing alone in his home; however, as the special wears on, the question seems to carry more weight. Burnham fully dives into the discussion of whether or not it is okay to produce comedy in such a seemingly unfunny world as his own mental health starts to mirror the depressing state of the world. It takes the length of the special to fully answer that question.
Burnham addresses at multiple points in this special that working on his show was a way of surviving a year in isolation. If you spent much of your past year alone or locked inside, “Bo Burnham: Inside” will hit uncomfortably close to home. Between sketches showing off what a mind numbing day in lockdown looked like to outright discussing depression and derealization, this special is the visualization of the dissociative state of being our brains have found themselves in over the past year—chaotic and increasingly depressing as the story progresses. That is what makes it so powerful as a work of art; “Bo Burnham: Inside” is by no means just a comedy special, but a documentation of a rare experience in human history. If there is a time capsule of the experience of creating in the age of Covid-19, this is it.
Unlike in his previous work, this time around Burnham forgoes traditional stand-up almost altogether. As he points out in the special, “does anybody want to joke when no one’s laughing in the background?” The standup that does briefly appear is surreal, showing Burnham’s downward spiral as the year of making this special wears on. If anything, “Bo Burnham: Inside” is an existential crisis expressed through comedy as opposed to a purely comedic performance.
Social commentary is not new for Burnham. This special tackles everything from surface level Instagram jokes to an honest confrontation of growing up in the digital sphere. Burnham’s tone changes with the subject matter, from a sock puppet explaining exploitation and genocide as a result of capitalism in a Sesame Street-esque children’s song to a pure satirization of brands marketing their products around social movements. Burnham also focuses heavily on modern entertainment, exposing both himself and poking fun at streamers and YouTubers who react to themselves or a product such as a video game for a living.
In between well aimed critiques of our increasingly digital culture, living through Burnham’s perspective for an hour and a half is wonderfully cathartic. At one point, Burnham lays curled up in a blanket on the floor surrounded by a swarm of production equipment. In this break from the theatrical performances established in the first half, Burnham quietly questions the exploitation of a generation of young minds at the hands of large social media companies. He is quick to cut back to a more structured performance, but as the year goes on, he continues to speak to the audience in a similar manner. This fourth wall break gives the audience glimpses of the real Burnham and his deteriorating mental health—not just his stage persona—and in doing so, gives the audience permission to acknowledge their own tribulations from the past year.
These breaks in the fourth wall—which become more frequent in the second half of Burnham’s special—inform the conclusion of “Bo Burnham: Inside;” comedy, or any form of self expression for that matter, is perhaps the only way to survive a time like this.
“Bo Burnham: Inside” is now available to stream on Netflix.
By Emily Frantz