‘Bo Burnham: Inside’ Is Spectacular, Must-See Pandemic Content. And Hopefully the Last.
Burnham’s Netflix special is the smartest retrospective and most bizarre distillation yet of the time in which we all went mad. Now, please, can we stop making pandemic TV?
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Bo Burnham’s Pandemic Special Really Is That Good
Before Thursday night, when I sat down to watch comedian/actor/filmmaker Bo Burnham’s Bo Burnham: Inside special on Netflix, I would sooner have thrown my TV out the window and occupy my time doing dumb things like “reading a book” or “discovering a hobby” than watch another piece of content created during and about the pandemic.
Now that I’ve seen Bo Burnham: Inside—a brilliant, maddening, and transformative piece of art-meets-comedy-meets-commentary—I officially make that pledge. This is it. Inside is the perfect punctuation on the grand quarantine TV experiment. It’s at once an exclamation point, a question mark, and an ellipsis to a maddening, sad, and paradigm-shifting time of our existence. After this, no more.
The world is reopening. Inside is the perfect special to look back and reflect at the dark tunnel behind us as we move, some of us cautiously and some of us as if shot out of a cannon, into the light.
Burnham is both a peculiar talent and a bit of a wunderkind. His comedy career began on YouTube when he was 16, when his comedy songs went viral to the tune of 300 million views. That earned him a Comedy Central record deal. At age 18, he became the youngest person to record a comedy special for the channel.
A plum role in The Big Sick buoyed his acting career, but his biggest critical success was writing and directing the achingly brilliant feature Eighth Grade in 2018—somehow capturing one adolescent girl’s angst to perfection despite, at the time, being a 27-year-old man.
Last year, his supporting role in Promising Young Woman was championed as expert Nice Guy casting. His lip sync performance to Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” in the film gave the Oscar-winning movie’s audiences enough serotonin to make it through the rest of the pandemic.
He wrote, performed, directed, edited, and scored Inside by himself over a span of months, during which, in a bit of trivia that is as impressive as it makes me want to puke with jealousy, he turned only 30.
Now, that 30-year-old produced what might the smartest retrospective and most bizarre distillation of the time in which we all went mad. He vacillates between wise and unhinged as he leans on the forms that sparked his career—vlogging, musical parodies, wry stand-up—and hurls them through the looking glass to create something as shell-shocked and evolved as we all feel right now.
It’s cathartic, but it’s also so triggering and painful you want to crawl out of your skin while watching. By the end, you might wrap yourself up in your own discarded epidermis, like a macabre comfort blanket protecting your newly exposed nerves.
He films the whole thing alone in a claustrophobic room. The series of sketches, songs, and music videos touch on everything from corporate brand activism to privilege and accountability, white women’s Instagrams, Jeff Bezos’ greed, sexting and horniness, race, and a prudent question that raised itself over the last year of intense discourse: “Can anyone shut the fuck up?”
In one bit, he jokingly illustrates his approach as the center of a Venn diagram between Malcolm X and Weird Al. More seriously, he addresses the audience at the top of the special, saying, “I hope this special can maybe do for you what it’s done for me in the last couple months, which is distract me from the feeling of wanting to put a bullet in my head with a gun.”
“Look, I made you some content!” he belts in one of the first songs. In another, when he frequently laments, “What the fuck is going on?” he inserts a laugh track to insert some levity, or maybe irony, as he narrates the bleak state of affairs. “The world is so fucked up. Systematic oppression. Income inequality. The other stuff. There’s only one thing I can do about it, while being paid and the center of attention... healing the world with comedy. Making a literal difference, metaphorically.”
The trick to making this work is Burnham’s chameleonic abilities—or, maybe less generously, his tall, young, attractive, white-boy capacity for being a blank slate. Even as the months wear on and his hair and beard grow grizzlier, he’s able to morph nimbly between the various personas—and manias—he uses to mirror our own kaleidoscopic experience.
He delivers some of it as an Instagram thot posing for thirst traps. Other times, he channels a perky kid show host. In some sketches, he mocks talking heads in documentaries. He’s a carnival barker. A rocker losing his mind. A sad comedian.
In one moment, he’s in control, making astute commentary and seemingly motivated by his work. And then the next, he’s suffering an emotional breakdown. What is performance and what is voyeuristic when the pain we’re watching is almost uncomfortably real? Maybe not being able to tell is the point.
That’s something, too, I think we all went through. When you’re incredibly depressed and struggling, it takes a lot of energy to perform being normal and functioning. Not that they need to, but no one appreciates that.
The subject matter of the special acts as a greatest hits of the pandemic’s peaks and valleys. There’s an authenticity to its very intimate, very personal approach that shields it, in some ways, from the criticism aimed at other pandemic TV shows, which were too often indulgent, patronizing, or mostly meaningless.
The funny thing is that you could lob those same criticisms at this special, to the point that Inside almost is self-aware about those pitfalls. There’s a meticulous inelegance to it in that way, a dichotomy that may best describe the traumatizing unknown of what we went through as well as the hopeful unease of where we’re going. It’s a pretty amazing achievement. And I hope to never see anything like it again.