Trapped “Inside” with Bo Burnham: a look at an ingenious comedy special we’re all too familiar with.
This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
In the early days of the pandemic as folks were still working through what a “coronavirus” was and what “15 days to flatten the curve meant,” an unexpected beam of hope pierced the drawn blinds of our quarantine windows through the concept of “lockdown breakthroughs.” The law, er, premise was that this unexpected lockdown could be a gift if it served to catalyze one’s innovative enterprise or discovery. Shakespeare’s cloistered plague life resulted in King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra and Isaac Newton’s own “bubonic breakthrough” led to the theory of gravity. These seemed to give credence to the early myth of quarantine’s creative power. The bar was perhaps set a little too high. As the pandemic persisted, the hopeful anecdotes of isolated genius gave way. There was no Newtonian revelation of achievement to be acquired through quarantine; those were the exceptions to the rule.
While lockdown life is certainly experienced on a spectrum, there is, perhaps, no better prism through which to see the full gambit COVID emotion than Bo Burnham’s recently released Netflix special, the aptly titled Inside.1 Here Bo plays with the presupposed form of comedy, crafting a piece of performance art that is despairingly entertaining. This isn’t your dad’s standup. It is a “comedy special” unlike any you’ve seen and unlike any Netflix has ever funded. It is, perhaps, the height of reductionism to categorize Inside alongside the morass of Netflix’s other standup comedy selections. While overt jokes are few and far between, Bo’s penchant for invective cultural diatribe turned up to 11 throughout this acutely self-aware masquerade.
Inside is an understated-yet-grandiloquent opus which emanates from its creator’s troubled genius. It is a digital exposé of a “Renaissance self-portraitist,” to imbibe Kathryn VanArendonk’s description in Vulture. It presents a feat which ought to be acknowledged on its own, being the oeuvre of a solitary comedian writing, directing, filming, performing, and editing everything by himself — in a single room, no less. Slotted between electro-disco tunes covering a smorgasbord of topics — ranging from the pandemic to comedy’s place in a changing world to Jeff Bezos to a “white woman’s Instagram” — are glimpses of the creative process, despairing self-commentary included. We see Bo fumbling and fiddling with a cornucopia of wires and keyboards and lights, even rehearsing bits through multiple takes. It is equal parts chronicle, confessional, and concert all rolled into one. Inside is, to quote The Guardian’s Brian Logan, “a comedy Gesamtkunstwerk, a journey to the nerve-centre of the quarantined entertainer’s mind, a son et lumière Robinson Crusoe musical for the age of not just social but digital isolation. It could be a breakdown — or it could be the pandemic’s wildest gift to comedy.”
What you end up learning, however, is that the idea behind Inside is not just another “pandemic hobby” ventured upon in hopes of passing the time. Rather, making Inside is Bo’s lifeline — his King Lear. He confesses that he may never finish this project, nor does he really want to, because once it is done, it’s over. What then? What would get him out of his crappy smelling bed and crappy smelling clothes then? Instead of finishing, he admits to wanting this project to last forever. It’s a melancholy existential crisis edited and cued up for your entertainment. Indeed, of all the unforgettable images to which we are privy in Inside — and there are definitely ones you’ll likely want to forget — the prevailing one is of a distressed artist curating his existential angst and anxiety into a ninety-minute broadcast. Witnessing Bo not only record himself but also meticulously edit himself as he wrestles with existence and meaning and finding solace in solitary confinement serves as a whimsical diversion from one’s own brawl with futility. At its core, Inside is an opera of anxiety in which we are given a painfully intimate portrait of an artist on the verge of mental collapse.
In his 2016 foray, Make Happy, Burnham divulged his love/hate relationship with the construct of performing in front of crowds. He both needed and detested the audience, making his standup performance more of a leap in the dark in hopes of somehow understanding his quiddities by the end of it. This longing and loathing is still very much apparent in Inside, only this time it is, perhaps, more sinister. Certainly more somber. “Does anybody want to joke when no one’s laughing in the background?” he asks. No longer is he afforded the cathartic buzz, however small, of guffaws from flesh and blood faces. This time he is telling jokes to the wall in the dark. The cold, blank space upon which the special opens serves as the menacingly blank canvas upon which Bo’s insidest-insides — or “bowels,” as it is in the King James — are existentially strewn.
But in that way, too, Bo serves as the uncanny representative for many who have endured such searing anguish over the last year-plus. He taps into the “struggles people have dealt with over the past year, including feelings of isolation, depression, boredom, and despair,” comments Rosin O’Connor in The Independent. This insightful glimpse into lockdown life embodies the kaleidoscope of emotions to which we have all been subjected. At one point, Bo controls an avatar of himself in a horrifying video game recreation of the dystopian drama we have just lived through, where crying, finding a flashlight, playing the piano, and more crying are all the accomplishments needed for one day. “I am not well,” Bo exhales as he collapses in his hands. “I am not feeling good . . . I am rapidly approaching an A.T.L., an all time low.” Seeing Bo’s anxieties in full effect exacted a moment in which I was forced to face my own burgeoning misgivings about our days.
Perhaps more candidly than ever, you and I have been coerced into facing our own futility. The pandemic’s cruel joke to the world has been a year-long sabbatical wherein our burgeoning affinity for digital connection, expression, and affection was made the only outlet for such gifts, revealing the veritable thinness of quantifying such things in 0s and 1s. “Maybe,” Bo ponders as he lies on the floor curled up under a blanket, “maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neuro-chemical drama of our children for profit, maybe that was a bad call.” Whereas Make Happy concluded with that eponymous albeit conflicted “Kanye rant,” there is no semblance of euphoria as Inside comes to a close. “I think I’m done,” Bo hesitatingly says, with no small amount of incredulity. The anthemic rhapsody of “All Eyes on Me” precedes a denouement in which he vows to “never go outside again.” Indeed, the haunting reality which Bo seems to embrace that he has actually reverted back to where he was fourteen years ago: a kid stuck in a room trying to be funny to get out of it, and now he’s stuck in a room again. “Can one be funny when stuck in a room?” he asks. In the end, he lets you be the judge of that.
Bo Burnham’s unvarnished inner turmoil is reminiscent of St. Paul’s own existential scuffle in Romans 7. The cascading confessions of the apostle are not that dissimilar to Bo’s despairingly honest consent to his own inability to effect any sort of change in himself, let alone in the world. His dream to “heal the world through comedy” and “make a literal difference metaphorically” ends in a macabre yet merciful embrace that such an endeavor is impossible. But whereas Bo’s answer to the question, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” is apparently to go back “inside,” Paul gives us a better answer — to be rescued from our inner turmoil. Locked in our unassailable rooms of despair and self-doubt, there is One who holds the key to free us from ourselves, whether we want to leave or not.
Ever since I was first introduced to comedian Bo Burnham, I’ve had what I guess you could call a voyeuristic affinity for his particular comedic milieu. His off-beat and often off-putting vaudevillian theatrics are affectingly honest even as they dismantle the social constructs with which I am so familiar. In the name of transparency, though, I’m still grappling with my own predilection towards Burnham’s insistently vulgar routine. His alluring decadence makes the epicurean entertaining. But perhaps his resonance, at least in my case, stems from the fact that he and I share the same birth year — in fact, he is only twenty days my elder. His consonant insights into modern Internet culture are apropos precisely because they often resemble (not always, but sometimes) my own deep-seated misgivings.