Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ is a masterpiece

Burnham is a tour de force

From+%22Inside%22+on+Netflix

From “Inside” on Netflix

By Ana Pietrewicz, Editor in Chief

Bo Burnham’s newest Netflix special “Inside” opens in a dark, empty bedroom with a chair, a keyboard and a desk. Burnham enters, and one of his addictive hooks starts. He apologizes for how he looks, since he has been a little depressed, but assures viewers he’s back to making content for us from the isolation of his room. After all, like every day since March 2020, “it’s a beautiful day to stay inside.”

Our next song begs the question Burnham has struggled with for the better part of the last year: “should I be joking at a time like this?” He was gearing up to perform in front of audiences again after suffering severe panic attacks on stage and taking a five-year break from stand-up comedy when the pandemic forced him back inside. Burnham questions his role in comedy and his privilege to joke about serious topics as a straight white man. This introspective song sets us up for the rest of “Inside.” It, like the rest of the special, is self-aware without being self-pitying, bitingly funny and gorgeously composed. As the song concludes, I was ready for Burnham to be back to “healing the world” with his sardonic brand of comedy.

Burnham takes viewers on a quick ride through “Inside,” zipping from bit to bit without much segue – which he addresses in the first speaking portion of the special, apologizing for the lack of smooth transitions. As is common in Burnham’s specials, “Inside” contains lighter sketches and songs, including a sketch critiquing major brands who use activism to push sales, and a song about FaceTiming with his mom. Burnham’s soaring synths and clear, strong vocals always manage to pull at my heartstrings, and his comedic timing always delivers.

Burnham also includes some self-aware skits. After a song about unpaid interns, the following bit shows Burnham reacting to the song. Then, the video loops again and he finds himself reacting to the reaction, critiquing himself in the process. He also sings about his problematic past over an ‘80s-inspired track and begs people to hold him accountable so he can move on, both poking fun at himself and at the way social media reacts to admissions of problematic behavior.

Burnham has grown up in his years away from live performance. He has always been critical of modern society and hasn’t shied away from using comedy as an outlet for his emotions – see the finale of 2016’s “Make Happy” – but on “Inside” he takes it up a notch. It feels more mature than his previous live specials and any of his previous comedy, which feels fitting, as a highlight of the show follows Burnham turning 30 years old. He says his goal was to finish “Inside” before his birthday, but clearly, he didn’t. We watch as the clock strikes midnight and Burnham has an existential crisis over another poppy, synth-y backing track.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the song about the Internet, which is another major highlight of the special. The lyrics highlight the pitfalls and evils of the information age, gradually becoming more deranged while the driving backing track picks up in speed and an ambiance of blue and green lights accompanies the track. It’s nothing short of a villain song.

Where the special shines the most for me is in the production. “Inside” is shot, directed and edited by Burnham, and masterfully so. He manages to make it seem like he’s on different sets for each sketch by using a seemingly basic lighting and camera setup. He transitions between bits by including shots of himself setting up scenes and lighting and, as the filming progresses, he shows himself becoming increasingly frustrated and falling further into depression. The choice to include bits of these moments gives viewers a glimpse at the man behind the curtain. At one point around an hour in, he reaches a low point, saying he thinks he might never finish working on “Inside” and might never release it – immediately after, he launches into a short song about Jeff Bezos.

The departure from the traditional stand-up special format gives Burnham freedom to incorporate more visual jokes that add to the sketches. Where this perhaps works best is in the song about white women’s Instagram feeds. He poses in stereotypical “basic white girl” Instagram setups, poking fun at the homogeneity of Instagram feeds while simultaneously acknowledging the misogyny at the heart of making fun of “basic white girls.”

It’s also important to note the role the audience, or lack thereof, plays throughout “Inside.” Burnham struggles performing in front of an audience, but he is also struggling without one. We watch Burnham army-crawl through performing in isolation, questioning himself when there is no audience to laugh at his jokes and spiraling into depression. At times, it feels like you should look away, but you can’t – you simply have to observe Burnham’s declining mental health from the other side of your screen.

“Inside” is definitely darker than most of Burnham’s specials. He sings about suicidal thoughts and his struggles with anxiety and depression. He grapples with that funny feeling that a lot of us have felt during the last year – the feeling that comes from existing in a society that at times feels like it is on the verge of collapse, “the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.” It’s an introspective dive into Burnham’s mental health and a scathing criticism of the way we all live our lives. We watch Burnham survive a pandemic alone and make the entire special, right in front of us. As “Inside” ends, we watch as Burnham disassembles his sets and lighting and gets ready to venture outside, just to realize maybe he doesn’t really want to go back to the way things were.

I can’t look away from “Inside.” I’ve watched it four times now, and it’s gotten better every time. It’s a time capsule of a year of Burnham’s life, and while deeply personal to Burnham, the special serves as a reflection of the internal struggles a lot of people faced during the last year. Don’t go into it expecting your usual Burnham special – “Inside” is highly emotional and not always funny. But Burnham’s departure from the traditional standup special allows viewers into his mind in a new, unguarded way. It’s good if you analyze the deeper meaning behind every lyric, it’s good if you take it at face value. I’ve said a lot of words about it and could say even more, but the best way to experience it is to see it for yourself.

“Inside” is on Netflix now, and the official album is on streaming services.

Ana Pietrewicz can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @anapietrewicz.