We don’t usually cover stand-up comedy, but Inside is a whole ‘nother animal.
We’ve flirted with covering seminal stand-up comedy specials in the past, but doing so has rarely felt satisfying. Comedy is subjective, but once you discount talking about whether you found it funny or not, there’s not a lot left to say. Rarely do these specials present much in the way of technical nuts and bolts to process; they’re usually just a performer standing on a stage under a spotlight, with occasional moments of crowd shots. Not Bo Burnham’s latest Netflix special, Inside.
The pandemic has birthed some really interesting, technically ambitious comedy projects that break out of the “standing on stage telling jokes” genre. Sarah Cooper put together a surreal and genre busting variety show after rising to fame for her political impersonations. Natalie Palamides took character work and skits to some clever and uncomfortable places in her special, Nate – A One Man Show. Burnham takes his usual musical comedy to a new, often dark place with a fascinating one-man show (he wrote, directed, filmed, edited, and performs the piece solo) that impresses the eyes and ears while aiming a dagger at the heart.
Bo Burham Inside (2021)
A new comedy special shot and performed by Bo Burnham, alone, over the course of the past year. It is set in the comedian’s home, where he spent a year isolated from society during the pandemic. It grapples with social issues, identity, internet culture during Covid-19, and suicide.
Form and Function.
Burnham’s special nominally follows the arc of his stage shows: musical numbers interspersed with traditional stand-up, often using AV elements to highlight the comedy. It is processed through a punishing rubric, though, as the bits are very much embedded in time.
Over the course of the year, Burham notably ages, his environment shifts, and his own relationship to the project becomes visibly tortured. This temporality becomes the touchstone of the emotional impact of the piece. It’s happening in a weird version of real time. While the bits are not always pandemic focused, they are all informed by the fact that they are happening during the lock-down of the pandemic. Covid-19 is the sword of Damocles hovering over every act, from the cutesy internet meme bits to the disturbing ruminations on mental health and suicidal ideation.
Laser Light Show.
The visual impact of Inside is tremendous. Each bit uses audio visual elements that pop. It is astounding that it’s the work of one person, and a person who was probably learning all the little tricks of the many trades needed on the fly.
Beyond technical wizardry, Burnham again plays with the temporal nature of the piece in some mind-bending ways. You’d expect he’d employ call-backs, bits from the early parts of the show popping back into later bits. He also, paradoxically, includes bits from later in the show into the early bits, messing with the flow of “time” for the audience. As he goes from slightly shaggy to looking like a cross between Jesus Christ and Jeffrey Lebowski, you can clearly tell which way time is flowing, and usually that flow is linear…until suddenly it’s not. In one sketch, this deviation is made explicit as Bo does a reaction video to the last song he just played, but instead of ending when the song ends, his reaction video keeps going in an infinite regress, where he’s made to do a reaction to the reaction he was making of the reaction video.
The substance of the show varies from innocuous (riffing on sexting, white people Instagram memes), to fraught (the roll of a white comedian during the era of MeToo and BLM), to harrowing (real talk about suicide and how the very intention of the show was to take his mind off of mental issues*, and then later seeing how the show has gone from being a balm to being a tormenting crutch he can’t let go of or finish.) They range in effectiveness: there’s a lot of self aware lamp-shading of white privilege, a la David Foster Wallace, where being meta-aware of problematic things is not really absolving of engaging in problematic things. But where it plunges the dagger in, it almost always draws blood.
I think whatever you think of its comedic value or social commentary, Inside is a work of art worthy of discussion. There is the technical artistry, watching a single person craft such intricate pieces of audio and visual art under unique constraints. There’s the artistry of the music; some of these songs really slap, while others will haunt you whether you liked them or not. Then there’s the art of being a cultural artifact. Not everyone experienced the pandemic in the same way or to the same degree, but a year’s worth of experiences and ruminations put on display probably means Inside will hit more targets than it misses.
*The special highlights depression, anxiety, and suicide, and thankfully includes resources for anyone grappling with these all-too present issues during the pandemic. The link is here.