Bo Burnham's 'Inside': Review

In which the comedian juxtaposes the sad with the silly, to great acclaim

It goes something like this: after achieving online fame for his musical comedy as a teenager, Bo Burnham quickly developed a preoccupation with the corrosive effects of—what else—the internet, fame, and capitalism on American culture and his personal mental health. By the time he was 20, the comedian-cum-hyphenate had already written a song called “Art is Dead”:

Entertainers like to seem complicated
But we’re not complicated
I can explain it pretty easily
Have you ever been to a birthday party for children?
And one of the children won’t stop screaming?
‘Cause he’s just a little attention-attractor
When he grows up to be a comic or actor
He’ll be rewarded for never maturing
For never understanding or learning
That every day can’t be about him
There’s other people, you selfish asshole!

Burnham is 30 now. His career is going well. He has made several comedy specials, and directed ones for Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock. He made a tv show. He made a movie. When the pandemic hit, he hunkered down at home and recorded his latest comedy song cycle, Inside. Filmed entirely by himself in his guest house, the Netflix special finds Burnham exploring his traditional fixations with little new to say, relying on technical mastery and an inward spiral of self-criticism to mask an artistic regression.

Others disagree. In fact, it is Metacritic’s highest-rated tv special ever. Critics have unanimously hailed the project as a form-breaking masterpiece, praising Burnham’s ability to fashion high-grade content under the severe COVID constraints of one man, in one room. Performing, writing, directing, shooting, lighting, editing, designing—you name it, he did it. There is no need to grade Inside’s aesthetics on the curve of pandemic-induced homespun production values. It is not impressive-all-things-considered; it is impressive, full stop. I can’t think of any other comedians who have that many gadgets at their disposal, but it’s hard to walk away from this special without finding Burnham incredibly talented.

Inside is also receiving plaudits for its ‘raw’ look at mental health, sparking another round of ‘is this comedy a comedy?’ discourse online. The taxonomy game works to the special’s benefit, because a big issue with Inside is that it isn’t very funny. The special’s efforts at comedy feel tired and stale, especially in the first half. His song premises read like an extremely online “We Didn’t Start the Fire” for 2020: the pandemic is boring, comedy is pointless, white men are self-absorbed (among other things), moms are bad at technology, corporations pretend to be “woke” but aren’t, white women post kooky stuff on Instagram, problematic celebrity apologies are cringe, “stupid friends are having stupid children,” Jeff Bezos is bad, sexting is crazy, sometimes you feel like shit. “Can one be funny when stuck in a room?” he sings. The jury is out! 

My main gripe with Inside, though, is that I find Burnham’s constant self-flagellation and meta noodling frustrating and vain. He openly remarks on the futility of the special throughout. How can it be good? Should I even be making it? There is an immense privilege in the ability to record a comedy special while safe at home during a pandemic that has killed millions. It strikes me as graceless for Burnham to spend so much of Inside navel-gazing about that fact, and lazy to do so over a year after many comedians expressed these same anxieties, only more constructively. At one point, Burnham advises everyone online to “shut the fuck up” instead of sharing every little thought, and cuts for effect when he acknowledges he could take his own advice. That’s the joke, I guess, but no one asked him to make it. Seth Rogen did pottery.

When Burnham’s self-criticism does inch toward substance, he often undercuts himself with a cheap nod toward self-awareness. A characteristic early song questions the propriety of a white man like Burnham performing comedy “at a time like this.” He reflects for a moment. Then, his ignorant stage persona declares himself “bored” and forges ahead. A song about his problematic past parodies the self-absorbed celebrity non-apology by incorporating distracting thirst trap visuals, going so far as to put himself up shirtless on a digital cross. Again, I get it. But the lyrics are unusually lightweight, only mentioning dressing up as Aladdin for Halloween and being “vaguely shitty.” Strange, because when I first watched this I immediately thought about how this is his first special where he doesn’t use the f-word slur. 

He seems like a thoughtful guy, so why does he insist on being clever instead? A song about the plight of interns transitions into a YouTube reaction video parody, and then a reaction video to the reaction video, and so on, down an endless wormhole. It’s an amusing conceit he squanders on himself. He pillories himself for a “desperate need to be seen as intelligent,” then in the next reaction video calls this out as a defense mechanism. “Self-awareness does not absolve anyone of anything,” he says, shortly before the sketch comes to an unexpected halt. True, but I’m not sure it’s a substitute for insight, either.

Burnham explores his interests more fruitfully in television and film, where he can’t waste screen time compulsively picking himself apart. On his little-seen but winsome show Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous, Burnham plays the titular, delusional, fame-obsessed teen. His superlative film Eighth Grade explores how social media warps adolescents’ self-image through the lens of Kayla, an incredibly lovable but friendless introvert. Familiar characters and ideas, no doubt. But with a layer of narrative remove, he is able to offer a clearer social critique by treating his characters with sympathy. It’s easier to show us the machine when he doesn’t spend half the time yelling at a cog.

My drug’s attention, I am an addict
But I get paid to indulge in my habit
It’s all an illusion, I’m wearing makeup
I’m wearing makeup, makeup, makeup

This is where the Bo-heads will tell me the whole thing went over my head. The endless self-reproach is intentional. The inability to see outside himself is the point. One could even argue the failure to be funny is purposeful, meant to convey Burnham’s impotence and feelings of worthlessness. (One could.) 

The experience of watching the special itself is carefully designed to mirror Burnham’s decline in mental health. Inside has more than one meaning, you see. Remember the increasingly agitated songs? The increasingly frenetic pacing? The increasingly shaggy hair? The increasingly disheveled beard? The increasingly disturbing confessionals? Yes, I noticed. For all his gifts, Burnham has always operated with the subtlety of a Hans Zimmer score. 

The showy craftsmanship makes my mind wander. I believe Burnham when he claims to be at an “all time low,” but I also imagine him hitting ‘record’ and ‘stop’ on the camera, watching himself, and months later deciding if the take was affecting enough to include in his special. He fake-cries during one sketch and later genuinely(?) cries to camera. He curls up under a blanket on the floor, wonderfully composed next to all his gear. Inside often feels like a type-A reenactment of the “Could a Depressed Person Make This?” meme from Parks and Rec. 2016’s Make Happy, his most recent special, ends with Burnham leaving the same guest house, opening the door and letting the light in. His longtime partner, also an accomplished director, to whom Inside is dedicated, stands outside their real home. She holds their dog, smiling. Burnham walks over and embraces both of them. I could imagine a similar scene unfolding IRL after a long day of shooting Inside.

I like Bo Burnham. I think it's perfectly fine, if less appealing, for the rich and famous to make art about being sad. Ditto for critiquing capitalism. But why not be honest? Why pretend to rough it in your guest house? Why give us the facsimile? Considering he spent a year making a special about his inner life, it’s surprising that Burnham reveals nothing about his personal life. That’s his prerogative, sure, but it makes it difficult to care and connect emotionally. Why is he sad, exactly? Maybe it’s enough—intentional, even!—for Burnham to play an empty vessel, with the signifiers of mental decline and pandemic fatigue, so that denizens of the internet can project their experiences onto him. There is always a market for art that aims for verisimilitude and nothing more.

With about thirty minutes to go, Inside dispenses with hackneyed parody and picks up steam. “Welcome to the Internet,” his best song, effectively captures the internet’s addicting, context-stripping overwhelmingness. “A little bit of everything all of the time,” indeed. It begins and ends as a carnivalesque romp redolent of the “Big Boo’s Haunt” level from Super Mario 64, with a poignant midsection about the broken promise of the internet. (I think Burnham writes ballads much more tunefully than he approximates pop music.) No longer focused on himself, he can let his ideas sit and breathe without a need to wrestle with his ego. Not coincidentally, this is also one of his few songs that feels complete as a musical idea, and doesn’t crash out with an abrupt cut. 

A nice acoustic tune follows. Burnham breaks down further. A sentimental closing number sums the special up with lyrical and visual callbacks. I’m a sentimental person, so I enjoy it all. He admits all he’s ever wanted is “a little bit of everything all of the time.” It’s a smart loop, tying what he hates about the internet to what he hates about himself. It’s also solipsism.

If this special is designed to replicate what it’s like to be online, I suppose it’s successful in a narrow sense. Like the internet, I find Inside to be circular, constantly engaging, frustrating, entertaining, surprising, not as funny as it wants to be, overflowing with spectacle, and endlessly fascinated with itself. I don’t think the internet is such a great place, and I know Burnham doesn’t, either. So what are we doing here?

The conclusion features more meta skullduggery, because he can’t leave well enough alone. He follows a light outside—another spotlight. It’s night. He can’t get back inside. Canned laughter mocks him. He bangs on the door. Back inside, we watch Bo watch himself banging on the door. He smiles. Fin. It’s an indictment of capitalism, the internet, the viewer, and Burnham himself. Or it’s not. Burnham is your internet avatar, eager to serve. It was never about Burnham the person, it was about your conception of him. Or the other way around. The whole thing is a stunning tower of Babel, reaching to the heavens, a claustrophobic, phantasmagorical abstraction of Bo Burnham’s pandemic experience, or it isn’t, but also that’s the point. It’s a hall of mirrors, a wink in a trench coat.

Before this, at the end of the final song, an omniscient voice hectors Burnham. “Well, well, look who’s inside again,” it sings. “Went out to look for a reason to hide again.” From the dark, a harsh spotlight finds Burnham suddenly nude. He sits and looks directly at the camera, at you. What’s the difference, ha ha. He doesn’t show his butt or his genitalia. He is a naked man, completely unexposed.

A self-centered artist, self-obsessed artist
I am an artist
But I’m just a kid, I’m just a kid
I’m just a kid, kid
And maybe I’ll grow out of it.