From amateurs to artists, the pandemic sold many on the idea of self-producing. And in keeping with the shift, Bo Burnham shot, starred in, and edited his Netflix comedy musical special Inside — a solo endeavour — throughout 2020. The opening number leads with the proclamation “I made you some content,” and what more could we ask for? With an explosion of commentary, podcasts, live streams, and features over the last year, it’s clear that this more direct form of communication has become the mode.
Retaining high production values but pared back to a room the size of a shed, Burnham shows his new and inventive ways of selling some of the oldest and most common ideas. He grapples with the ongoing struggle of being a successful performer riddled with self-doubt and addresses the existential themes that have resurfaced during a year of quarantine. What does he have to say? I’ll let you find out.
Bo Burnham: Inside
Director: Bo Burnham
Release date: May 30, 2021 (Netflix)
Unlike what. and Make Happy, Inside isn’t necessarily just a musical special. I really think Inside refers to his interior world, as well as his physical boundaries — a dark and sometimes frightening place. Perhaps it would have been better named Bo Burnham: Alone. And though I both anticipated and enjoyed it — a film as inventive, poignant and surprising as you could hope — I couldn’t shake the feeling that the past 12 months have been really tough for our subject.
Signatures of Burnham’s own comedy are laced throughout the film. In a series of discrete segments, he tackles different themes and musical genres, and we’re warned from the outset that the film will feel disjointed. Early on, we have a parody of upscale brands marketing in mockumentary form. Shot in monochrome, the comedian-turned-social-brand-consultant asks: are you willing to use your brand awareness to affect positive social change? It’s a skewering of corporate social responsibility that sees everything “through the lens of self-actualisation.” In other words: we can’t really do anything, but we’re pretending to, to make ourselves feel better. It’s a cynical take, but it shows a popular attitude towards overly contrived corporate messages.
Burnham documents the milestone of turning 30 during a pandemic, in a dark room with a digital alarm clock counting down the minutes and a song to mark the occasion. He has created a wonderful music video parodying Taylor Swift’s evermore, aptly named White Woman’s Instagram. In another sketch, he appears in a live stream of himself as both gamer and RPG character. It’s clever, witty and, in circumstances other than the pandemic, it would be hilarious.
Only, it’s not just funny: I found it quite saddening. The term self-reflexive is an overused way of categorising his older work, and while he is aware and conscious in this new film, at times this comedy didn’t even pretend to be funny. He has multiple false-starts trying to give a commentary on his creative process. He speaks to the camera in an unguarded moment: “I’m not well.” Not that it lasts – it’s soon drowned out by the sound of a sampled crowd, roaring.
This film is an elegy for his missed performances, a desperate plea to be recognised and loved and appreciated by thousands. If we’ve realised that we need each other throughout the pandemic, then this film only shows how much that sense of loneliness and the need for connection is amplified for a performer. Burnham mentions that he’d quit live comedy for five years between 2015-2020 due to severe anxiety on stage. Over that time he improved and worked on the not insignificant projects Eighth Grade and Promising Young Woman, and was ready to re-emerge in 2020. “Only,” he says, a hint of an ironic laugh: “something really funny happened.” Cue: laugh track.
This is the first time I can say I’ve watched a Bo Burnham comedy and been genuinely concerned. It feels like he’s mentally unraveled and we’re there to witness his undoing, a breakdown caught on camera. At times I wondered whether it was even appropriate to sit on the top spot on Netflix because parts of this are devastating and just a little too sincere.
Movements between genres are certainly rapid: blink and you’ll miss it. A children’s educational song, This Is How The World Works, soon descends into a sock puppet’s Marxist views on how society separates workers from the means of production. Wow! We have a grandiose cabaret number from a fictional gatekeeper to the Internet, offering anything and everything, all of the time, and it’s sinister! (Adopting these different personas does reveal how versatile a performer Burnham can be.) Following this are quieter reflections in the form of a song examining disassociation and derealisation – the feeling of losing touch with reality. ‘We were overdue, but it’ll be over soon,” Burnham sings. Is he referring to the pandemic, the world at large?
Is comedy over? is a question that pervades this film. Healing the world with comedy is presented as a lighthearted solution within the opening minutes of the film, but it’s clear it carries all the familiar guilt of being successful while watching the world fall apart. You’re never quite sure what is real and what is a performance: the lines are too blurred. We have interludes where Burnham talks about working on the special for a few weeks, a few months, a year. But he’s visibly angry and upset between takes, and I found myself wondering whether Netflix should have released this at all. In many ways, I think this is the most chaotic thing he’s ever produced.
I’m giving Inside a lower rating than I would Bo Burnham’s other comedy, but not because I didn’t enjoy it. Parts were exceptional and I’ll be replaying them for days. The musical numbers were catchy and, most importantly, incisive. But the truth is, I am concerned that sometimes the wrong message comes off, and there’s nothing to stop more impressionable viewers from easily reading into Burnham’s more self-destructive jokes. He gives us a disclaimer about all this and a website to find more information about support available, and it’s true it’s been a disastrous year for so many. No doubt a lot of people will be able to empathise with this discontent. But when it overwhelms a piece of work, it can be difficult to watch, especially when the line between performance and reality is so indistinct.