A fun fact about me is that I enjoy many different artistic mediums but am the biggest fan of when they collide and interplay as one. Television and film is where I see this happen the most, as there are so many layers of artistic mediums being presented: writing, casting, directing, acting, lighting, props and scene design, costume design, hair and makeup, editing, music/scoring…the list is endless. I could really talk for hours about how every piece of the puzzle that comes together in the making of theater (whether on the stage or the screen) is genius execution of artists. So it should come as no shocker that I’m here today to talk about Bo Burnham’s new Netflix comedy special.
“Bo Burnham: Inside” is an artistic amalgamation of musical comedy, lights, camera work, acting, singing, and genius writing that serves as a commentary for what it was like for the comedian (and generally, all of us) to live locked inside through all of the events that happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bo Burnham has been an established musical comedian ever since he accidentally went viral on YouTube. He has two other comedy specials available on Netflix that were recorded in front of live audiences that include traditional stand-up, musical sketches, and fabulous light design that further enhance his quirky style. His genre of humor has always been wrapped in word play and commentary on society while showcasing his immense knowledge of music theory and talent in his application of it. In short, Bo Burnham is really really smart.
This comedy special is different from his other specials in that it is less “haha”-slapstick-funny and more “wow that was genius and hilariously accurate”-funny. Vignettes including a sock puppet song about how the world works only in terms of capitalistic gain and oppressive systems, a song about FaceTiming his mother, all of the various photos that white women tend to post on Instagram, a video game live stream simulation of what Bo does in a day in quarantine (cry, find a flashlight, play piano), how the concept that the internet is a place where any and all information is available one hundred percent of the time is sinister and harmful for kids to have unlimited access to, and more (!) are played one after the other.
One of his first bits in the special is of him deciding whether it is even appropriate to joke at a time like this. He explores whether or not there is a need for comedy in a world that is facing so much suffering. Throughout the special, Bo doesn’t explicitly mention the pandemic or BLM protests, not taking cheap shots at jokes about masks or tear-gassing that one may have expected him to do based on the content of his previous specials. He instead heavily focuses on the consuming feelings of one stuck inside witnessing these things happening in the world around him and trying to make sense of oneself in this time. What does one do during quarantine? Do brands actually care about social issues or are they pushing “what they stand for” in order to be trendy? What does it feel like to turn thirty? How should he atone for the problematic things that he has done in the past?
We follow Bo through the process of his writing, filming, and editing of these vignettes, too. We as the audience not only get to receive the content that Mr. Burnham is putting out for us, but we also get intimate access to how he feels about this content and what the process of making it looked and felt like for him. At the beginning of the special, he talks to the camera in a vlog style. Speaking to the camera’s reflection in a mirror, he says that it was just going to be him and his camera and us and our screen, “the way that our Lord intended.” Intentionally, he invites us into his mind and into his tiny studio office house for over a year (the time it took to make the special).
This is probably the most important part of this special — that it is not performed for us but meant to be experienced with us. I’ve personally watched it three times now and each time I’ve left with different perspectives on it. Each time you catch different things, like how the colors of his sweater match the colors of the lights in the background during “How the World Works” or how the music from the song “Look Who’s Inside Again” is played on a synth during his faux video game live stream. But also, each time you realize how much this process (and this year) has truly taken a toll on him. His hair and beard are longer, his face looks more defeated, and he dances and smiles less and less as the special goes on. Bo puts a content warning that this special discusses depression and suicidal thoughts, and he mentions that he stopped doing stand-up because he began to have anxiety attacks while performing. This special is definitely not a light-hearted commentary on society, but a deep and personal reflection of where he is at in the wake of the tumultuous events of 2020 and 2021.
I could probably write a thesis paper on this special because it truly is an artistic masterpiece of a comedy special and a beautiful and heartbreaking (while also relatable and comforting) commentary on what it felt like to go through quarantine at this point in history. I couldn’t recommend it more!!