Bo Burnham: Inside is one of the greatest films to emerge from the pandemic, an always funny, frequently scathing and often emotional tour-de-force of comedy.
As comedian Bo Burnham (Promising Young Woman) explains during one of his later songs in Inside, “All Eyes On Me”, 2016 saw him suffer panic attacks onstage whilst performing his previous stand-up tour, Make Happy. He goes on in a mockingly distorted and low voice, like many serious musicians out there, to note that, after four years of work on his mental health, he was ready to make a comeback in 2020. And then, as he puts it, “the funniest thing happened”. It is one of many self-referential moments that bring to light Burnham’s recent mental health issues and the impact of the pandemic. Throughout the 87-minute special, Burnham consistently achieves comedic heights that few others can attain and showcases a breathtaking musical talent to boot. He also recognises the irony and hypocrisy of Inside: a rich, white man singing songs in a bid to ‘help’ people. Inside, though, can help people in very simple terms. It will make you laugh, for one thing, but will also highlight a shared pandemic experience, one of mental health struggles in the face of lockdowns and a deadly virus. Inside is a special that captures the mood of 2020 and 2021 to perfection and is one of the defining works to emerge from the pandemic.
Recorded in Burnham’s house, Inside is a hugely imaginative, devilishly witty Netflix special that includes songs, stand-up comedy and skits. All of it emerges from the quite brilliant mind of Burnham who – take a deep breath – stars in and is the director, writer, director of photography and editor of Inside. One other credit appears alongside his name in the form of Josh Senior as producer. After his experience of anxiety during the Make Happy tour and subsequent hiatus from stand-up, Burnham turned his attention first to screenwriting and directing in the form of Eight Grade (2018) – one of the best films of 2018 – and then acting, playing the main love interest in Promising Young Woman (2020).
Both turns showcased his versatility and ability to dip between comedy and serious emotion in swift, seamless steps, something Burnham manages to achieve again in Inside. One minute he will be singing about a white woman’s Instagram (in the appropriately named “White Woman’s Instagram”), the next he will be talking about how low he feels and at one point even bursting into tears in front of the camera. If ever there was a moment to capture the intensity and the sapping depression of the past year, that is it: a comedian, so often seen as a face of laughter, letting the audience into his deepest anxieties and feelings with a startling vulnerability.
Yet, for all these moments of emotional weight in Inside, there are more moments of incredibly intelligent and sumptuously stupid humour. Burnham recognises the irony of someone with his status in society attempting to help people with comedy – the second song of the special, “Comedy”, literally has the lyrics, “healing the world with comedy” – as well as his white privilege. He also sings about problematic things he has said previously in the song – you guessed it – “Problematic”, a clear nod to and agreement with the need to call people out for offensive remarks made in the earlier stages of their careers. A sweaty, topless Bo Burnham shot in dramatic fashion and singing in a sassy, Scissor Sisters style is the perfect way to encapsulate this. Add in a couple of short songs sarcastically complimenting Jeff Bezos for his achievements and Inside is as scathing of society and the privileged living in it as comedy specials come. But at the same time, Burnham is equally as adept at creating comedy from stupid faces and awkward dancing.
Burnham’s creativity also comes to light, perhaps most surprisingly, in the set design. No other crew were on set with Burnham, leaving him to his own devices to create compelling visuals alongside his lyrics and performances. Burnham keeps things simple in Inside but no less impressive, like shining a phone torch onto a revolving disco ball to illuminate the room or adding a backdrop of a forest to a white wall. These choices are not just superficial either and all play into and reflect the lyrics. The forest, for example, is displayed during a slower, more serious track called “That Funny Feeling”. Burnham’s camera angles are also used to great effect, mocking and mimicking the dramatic intensity of music videos for popstars like Justin Bieber and ensuring Inside maintains your interest in every scene.
And all of this plays out with Burnham bedraggled and tired, his hair and beard long and largely unkempt, a ‘pandemic look’ most people can identify with so easily. Inside ends with a song shot early in the days of the pandemic, with Burnham clean-shaven and looking like his old self. With this shift in time, you feel as if you’ve been on a journey with Burnham throughout Inside, seeing his vulnerabilities in full as well as his comedic and musical talents. This special is undoubtedly one of the best things to emerge from Netflix in recent years and is one of the defining pieces of work from the past year, a standout film from a glut of pandemic-inspired work which will inevitably emerge over the coming months. The ending song, “Any Day Now”, which plays over the credits, is one of startling simplicity, at odds with the intelligent, broad journey of the previous hour and a half: Burnham solely repeats the lyrics, “It’ll stop any day now (any day now, any day now)”. Simple, but hugely resonant. Through all the heartbreak and difficulties of the past year, it really will stop – eventually at least. Whilst Burnham, as he recognises, won’t stop the serious issues facing society such as racism and poverty, he has at least given us simple hope of brighter days to come.