Bo Burnham: Inside is premised upon both a literal and artistic isolation; a one-man special created in a backyard shed, written, directed, edited, and filmed entirely by Burnham over the course of the first year of the pandemic.
The notion that the show is entirely self-made and insulated isn’t just a behind-the-scenes tidbit — it’s Inside’s very conceit and content. As time passes non-chronologically, with shifts marked by the growing of Burnham’s hair and beard, the technology that he is using to create the show— electronic keyboards, lighting effects, cameras, sound systems — build up around him, until at moments it feels like he’s almost drowning in it.
Inside is a direct product of its time. It is a creation born from pandemic ennui, within “these unprecedented times.” But inside also allows itself to be watched in a multitude of ways; a one-man hour-long comedy special, or a piece of art made “about the pandemic”, or a moment of personal expression from someone with the uncanny and distinctly modern experience of having risen to fame not just alongside but through the digital space.
Burnham’s beginnings were in comedic songs on YouTube, created and performed from his childhood bedroom in his mid-teens. He went on to do a collection of comedy specials: Words, Words, Words, What., and finally Make Happy. The pressures of touring Make Happy triggered such crippling panic attacks that Burnham decided to step away from stand-up comedy, with his next artistic pursuit being his debut feature film, Eighth Grade.
Three years after Eighth Grade, Inside isn’t quite an exact return to Burnham’s traditional comedy roots, though it certainly contains remnants of his signature persona. He continues to have a certain hand-wringing self-awareness over his wealth, white privilege, and gender. He certainly still grapples with his desire to be validated for his work while simultaneously having a tendency to express a certain distaste for his audience’s very existence and the pressures it places on him. This specific balance of craving validation and fearing his audience requires some creative adjustments in Inside, as he opts for occasionally clicking a button to play a hollow-sounding, pre-recorded laugh track, pretending to do stand-up live, or encouraging an audience of no one to put their hands up in celebration.
Something about the isolation of the pandemic reflects the very questions that Burnham has been grappling with throughout the entirety of his work over the last fourteen years — what does it mean to perform constantly in the digital space? What does it mean to become one of the few to actually garner a significant audience? And, with the pandemic and our increasingly isolated lives, what does it mean to have the digital space become one of our only means of connecting?
He expresses conflicting feelings about his own beginnings, his own specific experience with fame in the modern era.In the song “Look Who’s Inside Again” (sung seated on the floor with his keyboard and a headset microphone, hair growing longer, white shirt and sweatpants thrown on, mess accumulating), Burnham tracks his fluctuating feelings regarding both being stuck inside and being overexposed, “When you’re a kid and you’re stuck in your room, you’ll do any old of shit to get out of it […] well, well, look who’s inside again, went out to look for a reason to hide again, well, well buddy you found it.”
This song is immediately followed by a thirty year old, scraggly Burnham watching an old video of his sixteen year old self singing, imposed on the wall of the shed — how strange to think of the way our lives progressed, how strange to be perpetually dissatisfied with where we are as humans and as artists, and how strange to have even these existential issues both exacerbated and undercut so drastically by a world-shifting event like the one we are in.
At one moment in the special, Burnham sits at a faux stand-up stage, bathed in yellow light, perched on a wooden stool, clutching a corded microphone. His hair and beard have grown very long, and he is only in his underwear. The uncanny sound of birds chirping and ambient air plays from somewhere, despite us sitting inside the same darkened room we’ve been in with him for over an hour. “You know, I’ve learned something in this last year,” he murmurs, “which is pretty funny. Um, I’ve learned that real world human-to-human tactile content will kill you, and that all human interaction, whether it be social, political, spiritual, sexual, or interpersonal should be contained in the much more safe, much more real interior digital space […] One should only engage with the outside world as one engages with the coal mine. Suit up, gather what is needed, and return to the surface.”
Burnham breaks down these spheres of the “interior digital space” throughout, with songs like “Sexting” (“it isn’t sex, it’s the next best thing,” Burnham sings, images of cheeky emojis and dirty words projected over his body as he types away at his phone), and with bits about the constant onslaught of online discourse: “Can anyone, any single one, shut the fuck up about anything, any single thing, for an hour? Is that possible?” Burnham begs, before reaching a moment of clarity: “And I know you’re thinking, you’re not shutting the fuck up right now, but…”
In the year after Inside’s release, its reception has had some fascinating, and at times deeply ironic, twists and turns. Burnham’s scathing critique of the Internet as it currently exists — a space he claims is controlled by “a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley,” that is loaded with so much vastly differentiated content that one is at risk of being permanently stimulated to the point of total dissociation from self (illustrated most powerfully in the detached and achy song “That Funny Feeling”) — was swallowed up by the Internet itself, with out-of-context song clips becoming staples of TikTok and meme fodder, and his satirical songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II” praising billionaire Jeffrey Bezos becoming a short-form mockery for the current billionaire class.
For many, Inside became the preeminent piece of pandemic art, encapsulating echoes of each of our experiences. Many of us are not just literally “inside,” but figuratively increasingly trapped within our own inner narratives and inside the limitations of the overstimulating digital space. For others, Inside signaled the way many of us are so unaware of our privileges — a justified critique in the sense that millions of people were not permitted the luxury of bunkering down inside and creating some introspective art, instead required to go out and work every single day of this pandemic.
Personally, I know that I feel perpetually inside — even in our moments of lower infection rates and safer opportunities, I consistently feel a little less free and bold than I once was, all the more prone to give into my introverted tendencies until they turn debilitating (“full agoraphobic, losing focus, cover blown,” Burnham sings of this feeling in “That Funny Feeling”). I have moved in and then out and then back into my family home over the course of this pandemic. I graduated from university in this pandemic. I recovered from a breakup, I made and lost friends. I have begun my entire writing career from this abstract notion of “inside.” Life carries on, just with a different taste.
It’s been a year since Inside came out. I have no idea what this pandemic will do to shape the next few months and years of my life — I’m not totally sure what lasting effects it has had on me now, it all feels so strange. “It’ll stop any day now,” Burnham sings on repeat over the sparse credits of the film. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry, whether to read this as hopeful or an existential throwing in of the towel. Maybe Inside doesn’t know the answer either — perhaps it’s neither, perhaps it’s both. This pandemic experience is both communal and deeply lonely. Inside, in its both funny and sad way, makes this feeling of being together in our loneliness and struggle tangible — a little artistic capsule of this unique and hard-to-grasp era.
Bo Burnham: Inside premiered May 30, 2021 and is available to stream exclusively on Netflix.