Arts and Entertainment

Bo Burnham’s Internet Age Quarantine Fever Dream

Bo Burnham’s new special is not as comedic as many expected, but delivers as a piece of truly innovative and introspective art.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

It’s hard to tell exactly what Bo Burnham’s “Inside” is. Marking the comic’s return to performing after five long years, the special undoubtedly delivers on Burnham’s uniquely strange and sincere brand of humor. Yet, it feels wrong to call “Inside” a comedy. At times, the piece feels like a diary, or a YouTube parody video, or a making-of documentary, remaining hard to define but enjoyable and poignant the whole way through. Though it was released in the place of Burnham’s next live show, “Inside” is far from a pale, internet-bound emulation of stand-up. Rather, it is an expertly crafted, deeply relatable portrait of one man as he struggles with very real problems in a disturbingly honest way.

While never explicitly mentioning COVID-19, “Inside” was clearly influenced by the constraints of quarantine. Written, shot, directed, scored, and, of course, performed by Burnham alone, the entire special was filmed in a single room of his house over the course of the pandemic. The level of production alone is astounding, with Burnham flexing his muscles not only as a brilliant writer and musician, but also as a producer and cinematographer. Whether it’s the light streaming through his blinds or him lying half awake on the floor, surrounded by a mess of recording equipment, every shot seems far too perfect to have been exhaustingly composed by one person. However, what is most interesting about “Inside” is how this change in style works with Burnham’s usual format. Though his previous live shows, consisting of unconnected songs and sketches, required an admittedly high level of preparation, they still had to bend to the limitations of a single performer on stage. “Inside” feels much more like the content put out by independent creators online, only with a level of polish typically absent from such media. Beginning his career as a comedic musician on YouTube, “Inside” sees Burnham returning to his roots. But, it’s also a signal of his evolution as a writer, with him seamlessly weaving meaning into seemingly simple segments.

Throughout the special, Burnham pursues a number of different topical themes—the internet age, social media, performative activism, and white saviorism—alongside his personal challenges, including deteriorating mental health during quarantine, general anxieties as a performer, and a complex relationship with fame. With a mix of skits, genuinely excellent songs, and surprisingly raw scenes of him speaking directly into the camera, Burnham is able to criticize the vapidness and narcissism of the internet without seeming pretentious and be extraordinarily introspective without seeming overly self-indulgent. No matter how bizarre “Inside” gets, it manages to stay amusing, sincere, and self-aware, which does a lot to keep it enjoyable even as it takes on a darker, more abstract tone. One particularly memorable moment has Burnham alone in a dark room, talking about his stagnation, both in making his special and his life, as he turns 30 in quarantine. This scene, of course, is followed by a catchy musical number of Burnham singing in his underpants about how old he feels.

More than jokes, Instagram, or COVID-19, “Inside” focuses on an artist’s struggle to create in the midst of an existential crisis. There are quite a few long, static shots of Burnham talking straight to the audience about his mental health and his work, often framed by the piles of production machinery that fill his small room from wall to wall. These moments bring a personal touch to the special, to the point that they start to blur the line between artist and art. Burnham is always front and center, but it’s often unclear if he’s performing—if the quirks of production were fully organic or part of his narrative. Over the course of the show, the audience witnesses his decline, most obviously as he goes from reasonably well-groomed to scraggly and disheveled, but also as his tone shifts from lightly satirical to deeply emotional. Though he starts with amusing, observational songs about politics and pandemic life, Burnham enlists a progressively heavier tone, openly discussing his suicidal thoughts and dissociation, alongside his grim criticisms of the internet. It’s sad but also intensely relatable and authentic in ways other performers shy away from.

“Inside” is not especially funny. There’s no moment that will have you busting your gut, and few that merit more than a light chuckle. It’s not a comedy special. However, more important than its categorization is the fact that “Inside” is personal, clever, and authentic in a truly innovative way. Past its fantastic cinematography, great music, and sharp writing, the special addresses some of the many pressing problems of modern times. Burnham doesn’t have all the answers, and the show can be far from comfortable. But, at the end of it all, he manages to create something masterful and beautiful, and it may be what a lot of people need after 15 months inside.