At the start of the pandemic, people talked about how Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantined during a plague in England. Similarly, Isaac Newton innovated calculus while in quarantine during the Great Plague of London. Inside, the 90-minute comedy special from comedian Bo Burnham that just dropped on Netflix, is not King Lear, but damn if it isn’t the closest thing to it I’ve encountered during this lousy year.
Written, shot, edited, and performed entirely by Burnham, Inside is less a comedy special than it is an exploration of isolation, mental wellness, and the creative process. It is shot almost entirely in a single room, with no audience. If you haven’t realized it already, your enjoyment of this special will vary wildly depending on your appetite for the unconventional. This is not a traditional comedy special by any means.
Burnham first rose to prominence as a comedian who incorporated musical bits into his sets alongside a high level of meta-self awareness and a quirky sensibility. He started in the mid-aughts doing musical comedy videos on YouTube (his channel now has more than 300 million views) before releasing his first comedy special, Words Words Words, in 2010. He followed that up with what. in 2013 and Make Happy in 2016. In addition to his standup, Burnham has also directed several comedy specials, written and directed the movie Eighth Grade, appeared in the hit film Promising Young Woman and written a bestselling book of poetry.
[Read our review of Promising Young Woman.]
In his previous specials, I occasionally found this style a little alienating––not bad, just something that held me at an arm’s length and made him a comic I respected more than viscerally enjoyed. This special takes that sensibility and cranks it far past 11 to the breaking point, yet the switch from a live setting to a cinematic one serves him well. Perhaps Burham’s thing doesn’t work as well for me live, but the transition to film worked wonders for me. This is Burnham’s vision, pure and unfiltered, and it comes across splendidly.
The amount of creativity on display in this special is extraordinary. My last comedy review discussed someone who had mastered what comedy is now. Inside is a glimpse into what comedy might look like in ten years. It shows what a comedy special can be. Again, this might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there is no denying that it is breaking new ground.
Burnham takes full advantage of the space he is in to deploy a dizzying number of clever film techniques and stylistic tricks over the course of Inside. (One thing I’m grateful for is the opportunity to use “Brechtian” in a review; keep your eyes peeled for that.)
One particularly smart tactic he uses frequently is to project onto the bare white wall of the room behind him. Doing nothing to obscure the door, or the light switches or air conditioner, and often incorporating multiple failed takes and other behind-the-scenes bits into his segments, he emphasizes the artificiality of filmed performance, giving the entire experience a very Brechtian feel. (<< Hey!)
This works particularly well in sketches like “Brand Consulting,” where he subverts the slickness of the modern woke-branding trend (“The question is no longer do you want to buy Wheat Thins; the question is will you support Wheat Thins in the fight against… Lyme disease?”) simply by expanding the frame to show the light fixtures: the messy room around him and his flip flops. On a purely visual level, he puts the disingenuousness of these sales pitches on full display.
In a later bit, he discusses his sadness at turning 30 in the isolation of quarantine, watching the clock strike 12:00 in the most depressing New Year’s Eve countdown of all time. The camera very subtly zooms in throughout the monologue, nicely visualizing the sense of the walls closing in around him as his sense of seclusion mounts.
(This is probably a good spot to point out that the show’s title, Inside, is a nice bit of wordplay, operating on a few different levels. Yes, he is stuck inside, but the entire special operates as a very intense bit of critical self-examination and glimpse into Burnham’s psyche.)
In terms of content, the show alternates between the songs we’ve come to expect from Burnham, and short, interstitial bits and sketches, occasionally broken up by behind-the-scenes footage (real or staged). Standouts include:
- “How the World Works,” featuring a sock puppet who has an unusually hardcore left-wing worldview, and with whom Burnham shares a terrifyingly cheery dominance relationship;
- “White Woman’s Instagram,” which is spectacularly shot, and shows off Burnham’s impressive range of feminine “influencer” poses; and
- “Welcome to the Internet.” My dad is always asking me what Twitter is; I may just show him this bit to explain it.
The non-musical segments are terrific, as well, including a hilarious spin on a “let’s play” game walk-through and a reaction video spoof that incepts itself like a Russian nesting doll.
As funny as the show is, it is the unusual level of introspection and heart that puts the special over the top. (“I want to leave the world better than I found it,” he sings at one point, “I fear that comedy won’t help, and the fear is not unfounded.”) Burnham brings the funny, but he also takes the viewer on an emotional journey. During a song late in the program, “All Eyes On Me,” I found myself legitimately tearing up.
Almost all of the innovative film techniques Burnham uses over the course of the 90-minute show work to bring the audience into his slowly deteriorating headspace, making the Netflix movie feel as intimate as any live show. It is a rare case of style serving function.
The special is not without flaws. It was just a touch too long and so emotionally raw in parts that I found it necessary to take breaks a couple of times. The show is aware of this, though, and includes a helpful intermission. It is also a Netflix film, so you can of course pause it at your leisure. I also think that a small minority of the stylistic flourishes felt unmotivated, and in such an innovative project it isn’t necessary to gild the lily with any extras.
Lastly, as I said at the top, this show will not be for everyone. Even when the show pivoted away from the overtly comedic, I found the film techniques on display enthralling, but this will not be the case for all comers. It is often absurdly funny, and hilariously absurd, but it definitely pushes the boundaries of what a “comedy special” is––if you prefer a more traditional standup set, I would look elsewhere.
Up to this point, I have used a 5-point scoring metric, but never awarded “stars,” choosing instead to give some number of silly articles referencing back to the piece I had just reviewed. I always assumed that someday I would come across some piece of content that was so exceptional that I would simply tell it like it is. I never once suspected, however, that it would be a comedy special that would overwhelm me to the point of dropping the bit.
Bo Burnham’s Inside is the most creative, surprising, and exciting work of art I have seen since I started reviewing for this website. Boundaries have been broken here, and I must reward that.
I award it 5 out of 5 stars.