Music, theatre, comedy: all have been hit hard by a pandemic that severely restricted the ability to perform. Stand up comedy, requiring the give and take of an audience, is something that has struggled during these unprecedented times (a phrase that has gone from sincere, to tongue in cheek, and back to despondent again). Many have adapted as best they can. Bo Burnham, award-winning American comedian, adapted by turning one room of his home into his only outlet, and suffered severe highs and lows in doing so.
Written, directed, produced, filmed, and performed by Burnham, Inside is a comedy show that is as hilarious as it is despondent. Created entirely within one room, Bo Burnham: Inside is at the simplest level a collection of comedy songs. Such topics as ‘White Woman’s Instagram’, ‘FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight)’ and ‘Sexting’ wouldn’t be out of place even if the world hadn’t shuddered to a halt since 2020. Such subjects take on a deeper meaning in a world where we have all been locked in our own homes, of course, and Inside is part relatable performance art, part documentary of one man’s mental descent.
What makes Inside stand out above other lockdown shows like, say, Staged, is that it doesn’t shy away from showing the joins between the bits. There are semi-stand up monologues, YouTube-esque skewerings (targeting Twitch streamers), and musings on ageing (Bo ‘celebrated’ his 30th birthday whilst in lockdown), sure. But linking those together are moments of Burnham setting up his camera shots, re-doing songs that he didn’t feel he had performed well enough, or just plain failing to deal with the reality of his isolation. “I was having panic attacks,” he admits, when talking candidly about giving up live performances pre-pandemic. And when he had repaired his mental health and was ready to come back, well that was circa Jan 2020…
It can be unclear at times what constitutes a genuine fourth wall breaking moment of reality or something approaching a real nerve that got worked into the narrative. Burnham delivering a journal-esque moment of vulnerability will morph into a song, or a sketch about playing a video game where the protagonist has no actions available other than ‘cry’ or ‘walk miserably about the room’. These elements combined together paints a picture of a man trying desperately to create but failing to keep the wolf from the door when depression comes knocking throughout the process.
As mentioned, the bulk of the content is songs. Indeed, the first song, ‘Content’, is a wry disco ball celebration of Burnham being able to provide you, the viewer, with any content at all. It sets the tone as one of a self-aware comedian who has considered all the angles. If you'd've told me a year ago / That I'd be locked inside of my home / I would have told you, a year ago / “Interesting; now leave me alone,” Burnham sings with swagger. This is followed up by ‘Comedy’ in which he flip-flops over whether to do the Netflix special at all: Is comedy over? Should I leave you alone? ‘Cause, really, who's gonna go for joking at a time like this? Should I be joking at a time like this?
Musings on relevance, misery, and rage aside, if there is one thing that Bo Burnham: Inside proves yet again is that Burnham is an excellent musician, comedy or no. The mostly synth-based tracks are catchy numbers with delicious melodies; you will find yourself singing the songs long after the initial laughs have faded.
Similarly, the production he has achieved by himself and without any crew is nothing short of astonishing. A combination of projectors, clever editing techniques, and carefully placed lighting effects (all of which you will see ‘behind the scenes’ in between bits) is really more akin to a performance art piece than something borne of necessity. Even without a pandemic, Inside would have been a fantastic achievement.
Burnham’s glib and meta-comedy style may not be for everyone (perhaps check out his earlier specials such as Make Happy, or what. if you are unsure what you are getting into), but with Inside he has distilled everything that worked for him in a live setting and elevated it to a time capsule magnum opus. It will hit close to home, it will hit hard (“Don’t you know the world is built with blood?!” sings sock puppet ‘Socko’ at one point), and there will be laughs along the way. Inside reflects a world of four walls back at you. Perhaps, as one, we can soon place a hand on the door handle.
Words by Mike Record