‘Inside,’ a mournful one-man interior apocalypse
No one is going to feel as sorry for Bo Burnham as Bo Burnham feels for himself. His often-brilliant new Netflix special, Inside, is the ultimate meta-commentary on Millennial narcissism. Because of the pandemic, Burnham wrote, performed, directed, and edited the entire thing. Inside is the one-man-band of comedy specials. It is a perfectly realized masterclass in how to use modern technology to produce entertainment.
For those of you unfamiliar with Bo Burnham, he first appeared in 2006, at age 16, with some brilliant YouTube comedy videos, and had his own Comedy Central special two years later. He has a beautiful voice, immense musical gifts, unmatched lyrical wit, and an incredibly deep, layered sense of self-awareness honed by growing up under the watchful and worshipful gaze of an extremely online fanbase. The man is incredibly, almost gut-wrenchingly talented, and is definitely smarter than you, or at least smarter than me.
Inside is uneven to the point of being annoying, but it does feature some classic satirical songs. “That Funny Feeling” is a kind of pandemic-era “We Didn’t Start The Fire” about the phenomenon of “derealization,” with mournful guitar-based accompaniment that recalls a low-key Beck song from Mutations. “Welcome To The Internet” creepily describes the ubiquity of online life in the style of a Kurt Weill ballad. And “White Woman’s Instagram” is an instant banger classic with a catchy hook and some viciously perfect visuals. His work is like Lonely Island meets Bob Dylan with a side of suicidal ideation. There’s also a bit with a sock puppet that mocks children’s TV specials and ends up like an extended sketch from a BernieBro’s TikTok feed.
And yet there’s something off about Inside. The premise is that in 2020, Bo Burnham, on the cusp of turning 30, was ready to finally get out in the world to perform in front of audiences again, which he’d stopped doing five years previous because he was having panic attacks on stage. But then COVID hit, forcing him inside. Burnham never says “COVID” or “Coronavirus” once during the special, to his credit, but the shadow hovers over everything.
This is a little disingenuous. Burnham stopped doing musical standup in the back end of the oughts, but he did direct an acclaimed indie feature, Eighth Grade, and also was the male lead in Promising Young Woman, an Oscar-winning film. In addition, he’s just been cast to play Larry Bird in an upcoming miniseries about 1980s basketball. He clearly struggles with mental illness, but he’s hardly been in a sanitarium.
Even the show’s basic premise is a fakeout. Inside takes place inside what is essentially a studio apartment, with kitchenette, where Burnham is self-consciously creating a special about artifice for our artificial entertainment. It unfolds over the course of a year. He starts the show clean-shaven, with short hair, and ends it looking like Charles Manson. But, let’s face it, Bo Burnham didn’t spend 2020 trapped inside one room, slowly going insane while banging out bitter odes to social media on a keyboard.
Since 2013, he’s been in a relationship with Lorene Scafaria, the director of Hustlers. I have no idea what their lives are like together or where they actually live, and it’s none of my business. They’re not George and Amal Clooney, but they’re still minor Hollywood royalty, which makes his sad dancing clown act feel a little forced. He might have adhered tightly to Stay Home and Stay Safe, but he had plenty of delivery options and ample sunshine.
Of course, all comedy is artifice. Jerry Seinfeld lives in a penthouse. Kevin James is not the King of Queens. Daniel Levy doesn’t operate a candle boutique in a nowhere Canadian plains town. Ellen treats her staff poorly. But Inside feels like a particularly pernicious deepfake. Bo Burnham is essentially performing the puppet theater of lockdown. Even if he didn’t stay in one room himself for the entire year, many people did. These people listen to him.
Even now, I’m seeing my feed full of healthy young people who are “bravely” going into a grocery store for the first time in a year, or talking about how they miss doing yoga, or putting masks on their children to take them to the ice-cream parlor. These people have actually been living inside, glued to their screens, living in a simulacrum of the apocalypse. On the one hand, Burnham’s one-man-show brilliantly reflects this reality, and these anxieties. But it also feeds them.
The last year has been a cosplay rehearsal for the end of the world. People got sick and died. But many more didn’t, and instead stayed “inside” even though the world kept moving forward outside. Our desire to stay safe led to countless thousands of business closures, more than three million kids dropping out of school, and lord knows what other unintended consequences. The year inside may have given Bo Burnham a big sad, as it did many of us. But Jimmy Kimmel loves the special, and loves Bo Burnham. In the long run, like the rest of the elite, Burnham will get to do whatever he wants.