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Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’: A comedy special and an inspired experiment

On the simplest level, “Inside” is the story of a comic struggling to make a funny show during quarantine and gradually losing his mind.

June 13, 2021 / 09:51 AM IST
Bo Burnham in the visually precise and hilarious 'Inside' song about social media vanity, “White Woman’s Instagram” (screen shot).

Bo Burnham in the visually precise and hilarious 'Inside' song about social media vanity, “White Woman’s Instagram” (screen shot).

One of the most encouraging developments in comedy over the past decade has been the growing directorial ambition of stand-up specials. It’s folly to duplicate the feel of a live set, so why not fully adjust to the screen and try to make something as visually ambitious as a feature?

At the forefront of this shift has been Bo Burnham, one of YouTube earliest stars, who went on to make his own innovative specials with satirical songs backed by theatrical lighting and disembodied voices. In recent years, he has begun directing other comics’ specials, staging stand-up sets by Chris Rock and Jerrod Carmichael with his signature extreme close-ups.

His virtuosic new special, “Inside” (on Netflix), pushes this trend further, so far that it feels as if he has created something entirely new and unlikely, both sweepingly cinematic and claustrophobically intimate, a Zeitgeist-chasing musical comedy made alone to an audience of no one. It’s a feat, the work of a gifted experimentalist whose craft has caught up to his talent. And while it’s an ominous portrait of the isolation of the pandemic, there’s hope in its existence: Written, designed and shot by Burnham over the last year inside a single room, it illustrates that there’s no greater inspiration than limitations.

On the simplest level, “Inside” is the story of a comic struggling to make a funny show during quarantine and gradually losing his mind. Burnham says he had quit live comedy several years ago because of panic attacks and returned in January 2020 before, as he puts it in typical perverse irony, “the funniest thing happened.”

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The reason he started making this special, he explains in the show, is to distract himself from shooting himself in the head, the first of several mentions of suicide (including one in which he tells viewers to “just don’t”). With menacing horror movie sound effects and hectic, dreamy camerawork, what becomes clear is Burnham’s title has a double meaning: referring to being inside not just a room, but also his head. There’s always been a tension in his comedy between an ironic, smarty-pants cleverness and an often melodramatic point of view. Underneath the Steve Martin-like formal trickery has always beaten the heaving heart of a flamboyantly dramatic theater kid. And the biggest risk Burnham takes in the show is letting his emotional side loose, but not before cracking a ton of jokes.

The first half is dominated by sharp, silly satires of the moment, like a visually precise and hilarious song about social media vanity, “White Woman’s Instagram,” and a commercial for a woke brand consultant. (“The question is no longer, ‘Do you want to buy Wheat Thins?,’ for example. The question is now, ‘Will you support Wheat Thins in the fight against Lyme disease?’”)

After about 35 minutes of candy-colored, slickly designed sketch comedy, the tone shifts with Burnham’s first completely earnest song, a lovely indie-rock tune with an ear worm of a hook about “trying to be funny and stuck in a room.” This is the show’s hinge. Tapping on a synthesizer, he sings about the challenges of isolation as he sits on a cluttered floor, two striking squares of sunlight streaming in through the windows of a dark room.

Many of his songs begin seriously, then shift into the joke, but this one doesn’t. Though it does have a twist. At first it seems to be just about life in the pandemic, but it becomes a reference to his past, when he made faces and jokes from his bedroom as a teenager and put that on the internet. It’s an origin story of sorts. While this special is the product of evolution, Burnham is pointing out it’s also a regression. He is now back to where he was, making jokes alone in his room, an effort to escape his reality. There’s a nostalgic sweetness to this song, but parts of it return throughout the show, in darker forms, one of many variations on a theme.

A harsh skepticism of digital life (a life the pandemic has only magnified) is the dominant subject of the special. Burnham spoofs a PewDiePie-like figure, as a YouTuber who narrates his playing of a video game with a dead-eyed smugness, as shown in an image at the bottom-right corner of the screen. Burnham is also the main character in the game, a character who is seen moving mechanically around a room. At various points, the gamer is given the option to make the character cry. He takes it, and Burnham cries robotically as a tinny version of the song about being stuck in the room plays. It’s an uncanny, dystopian view of Burnham as an instrument in the soulless game of social media. And it portends and casts doubt on a later scene when his mental health frays and Burnham cries in earnest.

The incentives of the web, those that reward outrage, excess and sentiment, are the villains of this show. In a giddy homage to “Cabaret,” Burnham, in sunglasses, plays the emcee of the internet, welcoming everyone with a decadent menu of options while disco lights twirl. It’s a lyrically dense song with camerawork that speeds up with its rhythm. Just as often, Burnham’s shot sequencing plays against the meaning of a song, like when he breaks out a glamorous split screen to complement a comic song about FaceTiming with his mom.

“Inside” is the work of a comic with artistic tools most of his peers ignore or overlook. Not only has his musical range expanded — his pastiche of styles includes bebop, synth-pop and peppy show tunes — Burnham, who once published a book of poems, has also become as meticulous and creative with his visual vocabulary as his language.

Some of the narrative of the show can be indulgently overheated, playing into cliches about the process of the brooding artist, but Burnham has anticipated this and other criticisms, and integrated them into the special, including the idea that drawing attention to potential flaws fixes them. “Self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything,” he says.

True, but it can deepen and clarify art. “Inside” is a tricky work that for all its boundary-crossing remains in the end a comedy in the spirit of neurotic, self-loathing stand-up. Burnham skewers himself as a virtue-signaling ally with a white-savior complex, a bully and an egoist who draws a Venn diagram and locates himself in the overlap between Weird Al and Malcolm X. That his special is an indictment of the internet by an artist whose career was born and flourished there is the ultimate joke.

Burnham lingers on his behind-the-scenes technical tinkering — handling lights, editing, practicing lines. He’s bedraggled, increasingly unshaven, growing a Rasputin-like beard. The aesthetic telegraphs authenticity and vulnerability, but the special’s stunning final shots reveal the misdirection at work, encouraging skepticism of the performativity of such realism.

Toward the end, he appears completely naked behind his keyboard. It’s a visual that signifies a man exposing himself, until you realize he’s in a spotlight.

Jason Zinoman | c.2021 The New York Times Company
New York Times