I’m not sure, as I begin to write this, how to quantify this piece on Bo Burnham’s recent special, Inside. Will it be a review? A Friday Night Dinner essay? A personal piece? I’m not entirely sure. I suppose that’s fitting, as Inside itself tends to avoid precise analysis; it is, all at once, a comedy special, a one-man show, a treatise, a self-reflection, a video essay, a call to arms, and so much more, all wrapped into one. But I do know one thing: Inside isn’t just the crowning achievement of Burnham’s already-impressive career. It will be the greatest piece of art about the pandemic, and perhaps one of the best pieces of art all year.
It seems insane to praise Burnham any more than he already has been. Inside received universal acclaim upon its release, sold out copies of the soundtrack for months on end, and received a litany of Grammy and Emmy nods (it even managed to box out Hamilton once or twice). But I can’t help it. Burnham is a figure I’ve grown up with, ever since I was exposed to his music, inexplicably, in a church youth group back in the day. His music has aged as I have aged – irreverently brilliant with its use of music and wordplay, appropriately inappropriate as he touches on a myriad of taboos, and always utterly hysterical. I have watched comedy special after comedy special, praised his work as an actor in Promising Young Woman, watched every episode of his cancelled television program (the underrated Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous) live as they aired, and even met him in person at the premiere of his 2018 hit directorial debut Eighth Grade. So it’s safe to say that I’m a fan. But even if I weren’t, I do believe Inside would move me deeply, on a spiritual level, as it truly has done.
In order to understand my praise of this special, I unfortunately need to talk about the last nearly two years, and the fluctuation of my mental state and the litany of realizations, epiphanies, and breakdowns that culminated. In March 2020, I entered quarantine while living at my childhood home. There were four of us now living under a roof, each scared to a varying degree of the virus plaguing our society. But unlike my family, I did not have the luxury of staying at home. My sole source of income (and my family’s near-sole outlet for the outside world) was a job at a retail store that I’ll leave nameless (it was one of the few successful chains during the pandemic, I’ll say that). I was required to work long, inconvenient hours that messed with my health and well-being. Coworkers and guests constantly ranted about how “real” the disease was. My friends, who I wouldn’t have been able to see anyway since they lived out of state, were mostly cut off from me. I’d come home to hear stories about the walks and puzzles my family completed without me. And my usual outlets – the movies and the gym – were completely shuttered. Even as I lived with my whole family in close proximity for the first time since I was a young child, I felt utterly alone.
And without an outlet for that loneliness and mental health, things turned to anger during the summer. How could it not? I was still out in public, exposed to disease on a daily basis, as people my age were being shot in the street protesting the death of an unarmed Black man. The company I worked for put out a statement to our coworkers amounting to “We hear you, Black employees,” and provided free copies of the hack neoliberal grift “White Fragility” (later on, another coworker provided “How To Be Anti-Racist,” although I’m not sure it was ever read). Later, we were told we’d be protected as we began to receive harassment from the anti-mask crowd. Yet whenever my Black coworkers received harassment from hateful shoppers, as occurred on the Fourth of July 2020, or had people coming in maskless and berating myself and others for fearing for our safety – or in one case, pulling a knife on us – management was nowhere to be found. If asked about our safety protocols, or if steps would be taken, we would be told (as I was several times), “If you don’t feel safe here, you can feel free to seek employment elsewhere.” *
Eventually, I did just that, taking a job (as some of you remember) in a low-paying position that eventually revealed itself to be a racket in which employees were fired just before becoming eligible for benefits (they now dedicate all their energies to crypto, if that should tell you anything). The depression of being scammed and fired hit hard, but didn’t last long – I was rehired after Christmas 2020, now in a hospital, thus returning to the field of the “essential worker.” Throughout all of this, the only escape I, and many of us, had was the Internet. And here’s the thing about the Internet: if you spend all your time there, you will either realize how poisonous it truly is (like most millennials now fleeing Facebook), find yourself brain-poisoned (like most Boomers), or some myriad of the in-between. In my case, I found myself becoming more and more disgusted with social media and its attempts to have its cake and eat it too with disinformation and Neo-Nazism, and consuming articles I knew would pollute my brain regarding toxicity, hate, and beyond.
I eventually reached a breaking point, fueled by soulless shoppers at my old job, the greed of the political and corporate elites, the seeming callousness regarding the fact that human beings were dying – of Covid, of police brutality, of everything – while no one gave a sh*t. It was a moment of self-realization, of anger, yet perhaps not of ignorance, that there was something inherently broken. With everything. And there was very little, if anything, that humans could do to fix it – certainly not an election between two goobers whose seemingly only difference was (is?) if unarmed protesters should be shot in the face or the leg. Everyone was at fault – my generation, past generations, my family, my friends who seemed to be posturing without seemingly doing anything **; all I could see were the flaws dragging us down, with the only apparent outcome being humanity’s march into the twilight. It was not a healthy place to be in, or a healthy conclusion to reach, but as the world crumbled around us while no one was doing anything, and with no alternatives while we remained locked in our houses, it seemed like the inevitable reality.
* And for what it’s worth, I recently revisited my old stomping ground and learned that this attitude had driven almost all of their employees away, leaving upper management flummoxed and panicked. Good.
** As a mental health reminder, it’s important to remember that just because someone isn’t outwardly doing something doesn’t mean that they a) aren’t making a difference, or that b) they aren’t dealing with their own mental health sh*t
Enter Bo Burnham. Burnham’s Inside was both a reflection and a balm on my fracturing psyche. It was an electrifying cry of comedy, of pathos, and of reflection about the collective journey we took in the last year. Burnham edits the special so it dives in and out of the realities we now face – bouts of depression, the little things that brought us joy, that impassioned desire to connect, and yes, a primal scream of anger at the ludicrous nature of the world around us. Burnham’s targets for anger are sage and just, yet rarely extend beyond comedic jingles and Tom Lehrer-esque ditties. One song makes Jeff Bezos sound like a superhero as he exploited thousands of workers and hundreds of thousands of the dead to become a trillionaire. A sock puppet openly berates the broken system – and Bo himself – for the role they play in allowing a group of corrupt politicians (Democrat, Republican, it doesn’t matter) to continue generations of bloodshed and exploitation. And as a corrupt carnival barker named “The Internet,” Burnham explains how he’s groomed children from birth to apathetically scroll through feeds of pessimism and disinformation until they are morphed into child soldiers.
None of it works without Burnham’s songs, which range from playful to pointed to shocking. He’s capable of humor and musical ability in the same way as Tom Lehrer and Weird Al. Songs like “Jeff Bezos,” “Sh*t,” and “White Women’s Instagram” are as musically rich as they are endlessly hilarious. The patter song “Welcome To The Internet” will remain stuck in your heads for months after first hearing it. And in two cases, Burnham pushes himself to his greatest limits to date. “All Eyes on Me” is a stunning revelation, musically and emotionally. And “That Funny Feeling,” an acoustic recap of the way technology and stupid distractions have brought about humanity’s potential destruction, is so hauntingly poignant it is now part of Phoebe Bridgers’ encore. “That Funny Feeling” may end up being the song Burnham is remembered for when all is said and done; it’s the Father John Misty song that Father John Misty never managed to write, a song filled with anger ironically juxtaposed with beautiful acoustics – which, I suppose, mirrors the way we distract ourselves with petty non-problems to distract from the world we’ve destroyed.
Yet while Inside made my anger feel vindicated and my voice feel heard, what it managed to accomplish actually goes far deeper than that. For example, take a look at the song “White Woman’s Instagram.” The song is filmed like a Taylor Swift music video, complete with Burnham Winnie-the-Poohing it in a long cardigan, and playfully mocks the vanity often seen on Instagram, as women post similar-to-the-same pictures to make it seem like they have a perfect life (latte foam art, “healing” political statements that actually come from Lord of the Rings). And yet, as the song builds to its largest punchline, or so it seems, it zigs when it normally would zag. Instead of a joke, Burnham – whose persona is seemingly describing the photos he sees as he scrolls through the app – describes a post he sees of a woman whose mother has died, the pain she’s felt in the interim, and describing her life and how she wishes she still had her best friend with her. It’s a surprisingly poignant moment in arguably the special’s silliest song. But it’s a reminder of the few good qualities about the Internet – and inherently, of society itself. It’s a plea for humanity’s beauty, and a counter to the bile built up at the hate around us. And between the one-two punch of venting the anger and the balming reminders of humanity’s inherent goodness, it’s enough to both calm the soul and – dare I say – maybe even begin healing the psyche.
While the driving force of the special is, indeed, the pandemic, and all the positive and negative emotions tied into that general concept, what makes Burnham’s special so memorable is the way he branches out from his own theme to explore a series of other existential crises, each tangentially tied to quarantine in the sense that Burnham was forced to reflect upon them, but still completely unrelated to the isolation. Burnham’s largest topics are creativity, mortality, and mental health – and especially the ways in which they all tie together. As Burnham tries to create a new special – his first since a private breakdown six years ago – the action ultimately makes him reflect on the absurdity of creating comedy – especially comedy so focused on the concept of being “real.” While Inside attempts to act as a form of cinema verité, Burnham constantly finds himself poking holes in the very concept. We see him writing and rerecording takes, making jokes about how shoddy the editing is, and the amount of effort that goes into seeming effortless. It’s a surprising peek behind the curtain, and possesses a raw energy that certain other Netflix specials that won’t be named pretend to possess without half as much soul.
Creativity is nothing new to Burnham, however, who turned 30 during production on the special. A large portion of Inside is dedicated to the comedian’s reflection on the ramification of becoming famous at such a young age. In fact, this fear of turning 30, along with the general idea of aging and the loneliness that accompanies it, serves as an underlying theme throughout the special’s entire runtime. We watch as a 30-year-old Bo, complete with the beard he once joked he couldn’t grow and long locks of hair, watches his clean-cut baby-faced self in a projection on his bedroom wall. Later, he forces the audience to sit with him in a full minute of silence as time ticks down to his 30th birthday. It’s a smart counternarrative; most films about turning 30 focus on the existential dread of not accomplishing anything. Burnham deals with the terror that he’s accomplished too much, was exposed to fame too young, and that he has nowhere to go but down. It’s reason enough to drive one to a mental breakdown, whether in the form of existential loneliness, humorous songs gallantly highlighting the unglamorous aspects of a depressive episode (“I haven’t showered in over nine days/feeling like a piece of sh*t!”), or his constant jokes about killing himself (gallows humor can be a key tool to someone battling depression, even if it makes the audience uncomfortable – I would know).
This all sounds like a bummer, but then again, so did Lehrer’s “We Will All Go Together When We Go” and “So Long, Mom (A Song For World War III)” without proper context. Songs like “White Women’s Instagram,” “Welcome To The Internet,” and “Sh*t” are among the funniest comedic songs I’ve heard, from any comic, in a long time – maybe ever. Yet the humor expands beyond just the songwriting. Burnham keeps the jokes flowing through impeccable lighting and smart edits, making jokes about the show’s do-it-yourself nature. After one song (“Unpaid Intern,” which also resonated after my two low-paying jobs of the last year), Burnham takes a jab (loving? Spiteful? Who’s to say) at Internet commentators as he begins to comment on his own work in the form of a YouTube video, only to become trapped in an ouroboros as he becomes trapped in commentary on commentary on commentary. Similar humor arises in his sequence about sexting with your significant other, a Twitch stream involving Bo playing a video game where he just cries a lot, and a randomly threatening unboxing video. This is a special that can carefully, and upon command, switch from incisively scathing and uncontrollably silly, often at the drop of a hat.
Early in the show, Bo performs a song titled “Comedy,” which jokingly mocks the idea that comedy can “change the world” and how no one really needs another special from an entitled rich white douchebag. And yet, while he is right – nothing has been worse for, say, Saturday Night Live than thinking they were the “bastions of truth” – he also misses two fundamental realities of his own work. First, that after so many months trapped inside with no hope and doom creeping in, people need work like this as an outlet: an outlet for rage, an outlet for despair, and yes, an outlet to laugh. And second, that comedy can in fact be rich and daring and funny in quote-unquote “today’s climate,” yet without resorting to hack jokes. I dare anyone who called a certain rival Netflix special “daring” in any sense to watch Inside and report back to me.
This is a special that works in every single facet. As a comedy about the pandemic, the jokes are there, whether it’s bits about sexting, the joys and frustrations of FaceTiming with relatives, and the humorously insignificant distractions of Twitch, Instagram, and YouTube. It’s a reflection on the growing resentment of the powerful figures working to destroy society. It’s a reminder that you aren’t alone in your struggle with mental health, even if you’ve disassociated beyond the point of taking a shower. I can’t say that this was everyone’s experience during the pandemic; in fact, it mostly likely isn’t. But for me, it captured almost every aspect of melting down during quarantine, and made me feel less alone. And whether you watch this special in one quick go, like my brother, ten times in seven days like my best friend, or you’re like me, and the discomforting parallels force you to break it up over several months of ten-minute viewings, I can tell you this. You won’t ever see anything quite like it. Not now, not ever.
Bo Burnham: Inside is now streaming on Netflix