Comedy can often feel like you’re fraying at the seams. Those moments can be painfully awkward, but they can also be the most rewarding. This ranges from the masochistic joy that comics take from seeing their peers struggle to get an audience back, or it can be engaging to see someone having a mental breakdown onstage, in the same way that it’s exciting to watch a car-wreck. Most comics will tell you that despite the hard times, it’s usually a matter of actually getting up there and running material that helps keep you sane. It’s in all of these spaces that Bo Burnham’s Inside lives.
Burnham isn’t the first comic to do a special amidst the pandemic (see: Colin Quinn, Nate Bargatze). He’s also not the first person to take an unconventional approach (Drew Michael, Sarah Cooper), but he is a comic who planned to end his hiatus and had it cut short due to the pandemic. Donning unkept long hair and a beard, Burnham no longer looks like the dork who was asking you to come see an improv show in a dorm room. He looks like a person who’s been stranded on a deserted island for a year. At the start of the special, Burnham tells the viewer that he made the special “to distract me from wanting to put a bullet into my head with a gun.” Even though he says it with a cheeky tone, by the end, you realize Burnham isn’t really kidding.
Inside is comprised mostly of a series of self-produced videos that are some of the best-produced that Burnham has yet to write. For the most part, many of the songs could blend in with the standard pop fare you’d hear at a summer outing or on TikTok, but Burnham puts his own comical spins on them in the ways his fans have become accustomed to. There are plenty of moments where Burnham takes digs at parts of everyday life, like “White Woman’s Instagram” and “Sexting,” and jokey takes on typical COVID-inspired activities, like in “FaceTime with My Mom.”
While Burnham hasn’t hesitated from making social commentary in his past two special what (“From God’s Perspective”) and Make Happy, Burnham is even more outspoken in the songs from Inside than ever before. “How the World Works” and “Welcome to the Internet” tackle injustices and capitalism and online overstimulation, respectively, with a sense of humor that’s much more grim than laugh-out-loud funny. Occasionally, he does take a much more tongue-in-cheek approach, making fun of comedy’s response to tragedy in “Comedy” and “Problematic.”
Burnham still does a great job by cutting serious songs with even sillier moments. After a jazzy number about unpaid internships, he follows with a sudden reaction video that just continues with him reacting to the reaction ad nauseum. It’s good at keeping the tempo up and keeping the special from getting bogged down in overly serious social commentary.
Burnham peppers the songs with a mix of standup styled monologues, where he doesn’t seem to be trying to be hilarious as much as he’s just trying to talk either from a stool or the floor. It’s like when a well-known comic will simply have a conversation with an audience rather than work on material. He also will jump in with more sketches, like the aforementioned reaction video, or a faux commercial talking about how brands react to times of political turmoil, lampooning corporations for taking advantage of societal movements.
The special is interspersed with scenes of Burnham doing the actual work to put together the special, setting up cameras, lights and projectors to change his living room into a nightclub, karaoke bar, comedy club, and theater. There are also moments when he seems much more distraught, speaking to the camera about actually struggling to piece the special together. After finishing a song about turning 30, he sings, “2030, I’ll be 40 and kill myself then.” As the lights come down, Burnham stands in the room breathing heavily. It’s a staunch juxtaposition versus the silly song he just played, which was a slice of electropop, and the overall tone of Inside. Prior to the 30 song, he talks about how he struggled to finish the special before the end of his 20s, and these are the moments where Burnham is most humanized.
Burnham has used his comedy to project an elevated version of himself since he was putting videos on the internet as a teenager. Even though he’s spoken to his audience to make sure their collective mental health is in check, when Burnham advises viewers not to kill themselves, he seems like he’s telling himself more than an audience. During the home stretch of the special (after the intermission), Burnham is much more serious overall. There’s moments where he talks about not feeling like he’ll be able to finish the special and the songs are much darker.
The two best songs in the special are back-to-back: “Funny Feeling” sounds like a send up to For Emma, Forever Ago that lists a series of “funny” things that it seems like Burnham can’t really bring himself to actually write jokes about. These aren’t grotesque or difficult topics as much as they’re just things that Burnham seems stuck with, culminating in a chorus where he peacefully accepts the end of the world. “Hey, what can ya say?/We were overdue/But it’ll be over soon. Just wait,” he sings.
After a short clip where Burnham laments working on the special much longer than he’d expected, pushing over a light, he launches into one of the most confessional songs. In “Hands Up (Eyes on Me),” Burnham sings about the struggle for attention in a song that is parodically vapid with an overblown chorus telling people to put up their hands, say prayers, and pay attention to him. In an interlude, Burnham gives a life update, telling viewers that he was ready to end his five-year hiatus from standup comedy in January only for the world to fall apart shortly after he started performing and getting over the panic attacks that forced him offstage. He sings about how everything is ending, and he can’t bring himself to care.
At one point in the special’s final song (right before a closing that involves him going outside), a voiceover sings at a naked Burnham, hunched behind his piano. It gives the impression that this is the comedian at his most vulnerable he’s ever been. Burnham has opened up about his mental health plenty of times in his comedy (like in Make Happy’s “Can’t Handle This”), but Inside gives the impression that he’s allowed people their most intimate glance at his life, both seeing him create the hilarious moments and how taxing it was to create them.