Now we know what Bo Burnham was up to during his lockdown. Inside is his new Netflix show, which he developed alone in his Los Angeles home throughout 2020. And, if its story and the evidence of our own eyes are to be trusted, it was not a haphazardly thrown-together creation to pass the time. It’s more of a comedic quest, a voyage to the brain’s nerve centre, an introspection into the age of not just social, but also digital isolation. It may be a breakdown – or the pandemic’s most outrageous gift to comedy.
As stated, Bo Burnham’s Inside was shot in a single room over the course of a year. One of the first works to reflect on the pandemic—to situate itself in the recent past rather than the uncertain present. It arrives at precisely the right time. As we go from an indefinite quarantine to a relatively open summer, it can feel like we’re skipping over the point when we reflect on what we’ve gone through: not just the mass loss of life and sorrow, but also the personal crises each of us has endured while making our way through a world in lockdown. Inside is a free-form fusion of music, stand-up, interludes, and skits that build up to a realistic confrontation with what we’ll be living with long after we’ve finally left the house.
The limitations of a tiny room with no audience are clear as a setting. However, as Inside progresses, the benefits of this forced arrangement become obvious. The most important of these is control over everything. Burnham has returned to not-so-live performance as a skilled visual storyteller, a skill-set he can now apply to his self-image with even more elegance.
Take, for example, one of the more light-hearted tracks in this special, White Woman’s Instagram, which is about ( you guessed it) a white woman’s Instagram profile. Hundreds of wonderfully realistic visual jokes are packed throughout this song, parodying the content seen on Instagram. Picture Burnham, with flowers over his eyes, a “Beyoncé is my spirit animal” cup in his hand, and a hand, presumably his, putting a trio of succulents on a stack of books. Without imported props or meticulous set design, none of these slapstick gags would be possible in a live comedy special. Burnham just has the skills to innovate and make do with the limitations of his surroundings with greater accuracy than others, or even himself before his prolonged hiatus from comedy.
Burnham sits and tells jokes only a few times in Inside. That’s an extension of his typical performance style, which involves sitting at a piano and playing one of his original pieces. Instead, Bo Burnham: Inside feels even more in line with both the anxiousness in his previous specials before his break and the early YouTube skits in which he developed his brand of comedy.
He expressed himself through several skits and songs packaged like its own crazy YouTube channel on autoplay. Inside plays on response videos, gaming streams, and even ukulele-driven subscriber thanking videos in his humorous method of showcasing the large picture and letting the ridiculousness ring in the details. To make Inside more about the act of creation, he cuts to behind-the-scenes, vlog-style moments in between nearly every other skit, typically with him viewing the footage from the previous joke or setting up the next shot.
Burnham’s inner turmoil takes centre stage. He admits, “My current mental health is rapidly approaching an ATL,” he says. “That’s an all-time low, not Atlanta.” Burnham pushed himself into Inside since he didn’t have a stage to return to. The special comes across as both a blessing and a curse. Bo Burnham can scarcely confess he’s been working on “whatever this is” for a year; on the other hand, he recognises that “once I finish this special, it means I have to stop working on it. This implies that I must live my life.” The sections of Inside that promises to give a view behind the scenes—of the special’s production, but also of Burnham’s mind—are the most intriguing and most polarising.
Inside’s director, editor, and star intercuts video showing himself putting up shoots, flubbing takes, looking into a laptop, smashing items out of rage, and even crying. These snippets alone show honesty and vulnerability. These moments attempt to indicate Bo Burnham’s mental struggle during quarantine, as these retrospective glimpses are carefully doled out between frank confessionals.
Inside speaks most to a universal human process and the consolation that will always be there with art, as it ebbs and flows between sadness and comedic relief. Inside, we must consider what is true and what is not, what is sheer self-indulgence and what invention serves a purpose. Bo Burnham, after all, is so dubious of comedy that he took a five-year break. But, he’s returned from his self-imposed exile with a special that performs art’s greatest gift: closure, allowing viewers to express the unspeakable as they rise from the self-isolated survival mode the pandemic put us all in.
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