For many, almost a year of lockdown was mentally and emotionally strenuous. Isolation bread depression and many wondered if we would ever return to a world resembling pre-pandemic life. It is that feeling that comedian Bo Burnham’s latest offering, “Inside,” tackles so beautifully. “Inside” is as tense as it is funny, and absolutely brilliant for it.
The special takes an almost narrative setup, following Burnham as he attempts to create a stand-up special from his apartment, where he is locked down and alone during the pandemic, trying to keep the isolation from destroying his sanity.
Burnham is at his best sitting behind a keyboard, setting snarky observations about people and society to catchy melodies. He broke out at age 16 with the memorable ditty “My Whole Family,” a comic tune detailing his parents’ erroneous assumptions about his sexuality. From there, his lyrics have taken on everything from mental health to dating expectations to insincere country lyrics. The simple instrumentals and crass yet charming words make you laugh out loud while lightly dancing along.
The songs of “Inside” are very different. To start, several are incomplete, lasting only a verse and refrain before ending, emphasizing the fractured mental state of their creator, or at least his persona. Rather than the stripped-down vocal and piano lines, Burnham’s songs are very processed, with audio filters, backup lines, and techno beats. There is something alienating about the sound, a far cry from the intimacy of just a guy and his keyboard, though that is likely intentional.
For longtime fans of the comedian’s work, this change might be alienating at first. The visible editing, slower pace, and processing destroys the urgency and momentum present in a typical stand-up show. While this actually works in the special’s favor once the confines of the genre are accepted to be broken, it does not save the special from dragging at times, replacing the tension or laughs with boredom or self-indulgence.
While Netflix labels “Inside” as “stand-up comedy,” the 90-minute special feels more like a film or one-man play where the protagonist slowly loses his sanity during the long, lonely months.
Despite the psychological thriller sensibilities, however, “Inside” is ultimately a comedy, with songs and sketches intended to make viewers laugh. On this count, Burnham largely succeeds. Several songs, while lacking the jaunty tunes of their predecessors, are welcome additions to his musical canon. Early in the special, an anthem about how his “comedy” will “heal the world,” to absolve him of attempting to make actual change while feeling self-satisfied, was hilariously self-aware.
He likewise skewered cancel culture with an ironic tune, “Problematic,” which satirized contemporary culture so well it was difficult to tell whether he intended to beg forgiveness for more provocative jokes of his past or was mocking the idea that anyone would need to. With the Jesus imagery and references to an adolescent Aladdin Halloween costume, I’d venture a guess he intended the latter, but the song serves as a Rorschach test for your own opinions on the subject.
Of course, not every joke landed. Crass references overshadowed any humor in the song about sexting, and the mini songs about Jeff Bezos went nowhere and added nothing. Shallow conversations with loved ones were sent up humorously in an ode to FaceTiming one’s mother, but the joke could have been taken farther. For so bold a special, it was bizarre the few times that Burnham played it safe.
The filmmaking was engaging, a surprising thing to note in a comedy special. Many of the lighting and editing tricks called attention to themselves, and in multiple instances, Burnham visibly created his own light effects on camera. Rather than take viewers out of the immersion of the experience, however, these details contributed to the meta-narrative about a creator’s experience with creating.
Few works captured this fractured state with the necessary nihilism and absurdity. The only comparable work that comes to mind is British series “Staged,” with a similar mix of comedy and drama paired with metatextual jokes. The deeply personal nature of the work, however, is better likened to Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2,” or rather the musical adaptation “Nine.” While not even close to the same artistic level as Fellini’s surrealist masterpiece, “Inside” is an engaging look at an artist’s relationship with his work, his sanity, and himself.