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Bo Burnham's 'Inside' Is A Musical Fantasy About Terrible Realities

Bo Burnham, seen here accepting a DGA First-Time Feature Film Award for <em>Eighth Grade </em>in 2019, has a new special that places him in a much quieter space.
Bo Burnham, seen here accepting a DGA First-Time Feature Film Award for <em>Eighth Grade </em>in 2019, has a new special that places him in a much quieter space.

Bo Burnham made his new Netflix special, Inside, for an audience, of course. It wouldn't be on Netflix otherwise. But as he suggests, he perhaps made it for another reason, too: This was the only way he could think of to survive more than a year of isolation.

Burnham has done a lot of stand-up, but he's also spoken about the way it used to give him panic attacks. For the last several years, he's become more prominent for other things. His first feature as a writer and director, Eighth Grade, came out of nowhere for people who only knew him from stand-up, earning a haul of awards and nominations. His performance in Promising Young Woman was skilled and surprising. He's set to play Larry Bird in an upcoming HBO series. (That he's 6'5" is something I never noticed until Promising Young Woman.)

Inside is chaos, at first glance: Burnham is in one room, working alone to make the special, performing a series of silly songs about Instagram and the internet and "problematic" men, using a disco ball and colored lights to dress up the plain space. He slam-cuts between footage of himself sitting at a keyboard singing (he's both a good singer and a terrific writer of catchy pop hooks!) and footage of himself in a near-catatonic state, as his hair and beard get longer and scragglier. He says it took over a year to film, and you can see that year in his face and in his outright exhaustion. Almost none of it is stand-up, although he occasionally begins to do traditional comedy and finds that it turns sour or uninspired, and that it makes no sense without an audience to laugh at it.

How to receive this special is complicated by the fact that Burnham is a writer, of course, and this is not a documentary but an exceptionally well-written piece of theater. (The term "tour de force" has been cheapened by overly broad application, but here, I'd allow it.) Lines between truth and fiction are blurry. He talks about his panic attacks and how they pulled him out of stand-up, which is something he's disclosed in interviews, including a very good New Yorker profile. But there are also sequences shot as if they're spontaneous even though they aren't, so it's not a vérité video diary.

What it does so successfully is capture the unquiet isolated mind. As I watched it — having spent more than a year almost completely alone with my dog — I kept feeling it buzz uncomfortably close, as if it were telling secrets about how isolation feels that were supposed to remain secrets. The Burnham you see alone in his house was not a literal translation of my own experience, by any means. I did not wind up unable to get out of bed, or stuck in one room, or feeling myself go to pieces in quite the way this represents. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: This is a picture of what the inside of my head felt like for a year.

What feels eerily familiar is the way the version of Bo Burnham we see here is struggling with a completely unfamiliar and unexpected happening by trying to balance two impulses. One is to stay in bed, stay in the dark, stay alone. The other is to create, create, create, stay busy, and make jokes. How many jokes do you make about having had no human contact and losing (in his case) access to audiences and work, and how much do you candidly acknowledge that you have no idea how long you can go on like this? That's familiar to me. It might be familiar to anyone who decided to garden or make sourdough bread or learn a language or do anything else that represents a mind at work and at play and not in freefall.

Burnham has made the first piece of pandemic culture that I would show to someone in 20 years and say, "I'm not a comedian and I can't write songs, but the inside of my head was like this guy sitting at a keyboard in his underpants trying desperately not to lose it."

None of this resonance, though, would carry you through an hour and a half running time if the actual segments weren't any good. Quite a few of them are explorations of well-covered territory, like the mockery of white women's Instagram setups, But you can't help but hand it to him: He does it with a lot of panache. He has studied a lot of white women's Instagram setups. Similarly, a lot of people have done comedy about the wildness of the online experience, but Burnham's big number that makes him both a gentle pop evangelist for its potential and a creepy patter-song hustler is one of the best executions of it I can remember.

There are songs here that sound like Hozier to me, and like Harvey Danger, and there are videos that look spookily similar to videos that really exist. The pastiche is hugely skillful, particularly for something that sprung from one brain as it paced and climbed the walls.

Theater that stubbornly walks a line between irony and sincerity, between intimacy and distance, is a complicated form. Sometimes, the very push-pull of "Am I kidding or not?" is expected to be so satisfying and complicating that the content itself forgets to make a point. Undercutting yourself with knowing self-deprecation, as Burnham often does, is wearying — even exhausting — unless the work that you're doing is precisely on point and the thinking behind it has stark clarity. If someone described this special and explained that Bo Burnham does both a song about being a white guy who won't shut up and a song sending up the idea of the "problematic" figure, it would be quite reasonable to suspect that he's disappeared up his own comedic innards, trying to substitute irony and metacommentary about comedy and celebrity for having anything to say.

That's not the case. There's something profound and unnerving about this piece that speaks to the careening and difficult thoughts that I think haunted a particular kind of person for well over a year. It's fortunate that he thought to start working when a special probably seemed more like a side project to keep busy. By the end, it's quite a bit more than that.

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