Five years ago, Bo Burnham “quit performing live comedy.” For those who don’t know him, Burnham is a comedian who got his start making funny songs in his bedroom for his YouTube channel. Between the start of his channel and 2016, he had created four musical comedy specials, three of which had hour-long runtimes. Following “Make Happy,” his 2016 project, he vanished from the comedy circuit. Though he re-appeared in 2017 with his film directorial debut, “Eighth Grade,” he wasn’t seen for long after that — that is, until May 2021, with the release of “Bo Burnham: Inside.”
Inside” continues the Burnham tradition of musical comedy, featuring his well-known sense of dark and, at times, absurdist humor. The big twist though is that, unlike his previous four specials which took place on stages with large audiences, this special was filmed entirely within the guest house of his home over the course of many weeks with no audience at all. The songs, many of which were released on the special’s companion album “Inside (The Songs),” follow Burnham’s life in quarantine during the COVID-19 pandemic. The entire special was filmed and edited entirely by
Bo Burnham himself and was released on Netflix.
Looking at the songs and scenes, the opening number, “Content,” provides a humorous look both at Burnham’s early-quarantine experience as well as society’s obsession with the consumption of “content.” This satirizing of society is a common theme through the special, continuing with the next song, “Comedy.” In this scene, he questions whether a pandemic is an appropriate time for jokes
, and, if it is an appropriate time, whether he’s the right man for the job.
Some songs deal with the realities of COVID more head-on, like “FaceTime with my Mom” and “Look Who’s Inside Again.” The former describes a relatively mundane interaction:
, chatting with a parent, and all the complications that come with. It ends on a rather sad note in the video, where a visibly frustrated Burnham desperately tries to explain to his mom that her thumb is blocking the camera to no avail, which isn’t a big deal at all, but is a phenomenon that many are likely accustomed to. The latter song is a look into his creative process during his lockdown, highlighting the challenge of trying to be comedic without an audience. Other songs, like “Goodbye,” also broach this topic, but I’ll get to that one later.
Besides songs, the special features a number of skits and interludes. One such skit features him as a video game live streamer, commentating over “Inside,” the game. Burnham, the commentator, plays as a virtual version of himself, completing various tasks, like “cry three times” and “play the piano,” in a manner reminiscent of “The Sims.” Other interludes highlight just how sad and alone he feels. In talking to a friend over lunch about this special, she noted that physically speaking, he isn’t all that alone. He lives with his long-time girlfriend in a house near the guest house where “Inside” was filmed. While there’s obviously a difference between physical and emotional loneliness, knowing that the guest house is effectively a glorified movie set took away a bit of the sympathetic charm for me that the special attempts to convey. The emotions that otherwise would feel sincere end up feeling more performative.
Some of the songs in the special were released as standalone music videos on both Burnham’s and Netflix’s YouTube channels. The first of these to be released, “Welcome to the Internet,” can only be described as a fever dream. In the song and video, he is portrayed as a carnival barker-type character eager to discuss the “mountains of content” present online. Throughout the song, the intensity increases as the pace picks up, with Burnham frantically enumerating examples of things you might find on the internet. After the first chorus, the song slows to a near halt and moves into waltz time as he laments about the internet of the past before returning to a chorus that speeds up until a crashing conclusion.
One of the major highlights towards the end of the special is “All Eyes On Me,” a song about being a performer. Songs that highlight Burnham’s life as a comedian aren’t exactly hard to come by throughout his specials, with some examples including “Art is Dead” from the “Words Words Words” special and “Can’t Handle This” from “Make Happy.” During “All Eyes On Me,” he opens up about his struggles with panic attacks which ultimately led to his previously mentioned disappearance, as well as the coincidence of him attempting to return to performing right as the world began to close down.
The songs and the skits often tend to reference each other, with musical motifs appearing throughout the special. Often, these motifs come about through background instrumentals in the skits that are pulled directly from the larger musical numbers. One major example of motif though is the final pre-credits song in the special, “Goodbye.” In the song, Burnham revisits many previous pieces from the special but with a twist. It ties up the entire special in a very clever way, reminiscent of previous closing songs like “We Think We Know You” from “what.” and “Are You Happy” from “Make Happy,” leaving you in awe of just how well put together the themes and performances of the special are.
That production value is of course one of the highlights of Burnham’s performances. Unlike many standup comedy specials on Netflix, a typical Bo Burnham special is far closer to a stage show, featuring intricate lighting effects, state direction, choreography
, and sound effects. As “Inside” was mostly filmed in one small room and without an audience, those effects were more scaled back, but in their place, he manages to turn the video itself into his stage. Frequently, he makes use of a projector, handheld lights, and mirrors in order to accentuate and emphasize details and add a visual component to an otherwise dull room. In terms of editing, Burnham makes use of video aspect ratio uniquely, framing videos like the aforementioned “FaceTime With My Mom” in 9:16, the vertical aspect ratio of many mobile phones, and “White Woman’s Instagram” in 1:1, which is the default ratio of Instagram posts. These details are a testament to Burnham’s familiarity with technology and social media.
While Burnham got his start on YouTube, he was also a popular personality on the Vine platform, which was discontinued in late 2016. On Vine’s pseudo-successor, TikTok, songs from “Inside” have become quite popular. The song “Bezos I,” a comedic take on the wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, has been used in over 600,000 videos on the platform.
There’s so much more to talk about that simply cannot be put into words, from the awkward comedy of “Sexting” to the horror of the “Unpaid Intern” reaction video scene, but I cannot recommend this special enough. While there were a million ways to mess up a “COVID special,” Burnham handled this incredibly well. I give it 4.5 crabs out of five and can’t wait to see what content he delivers next.