After dropping on Netflix in late May, Bo Burnham brought his special Inside to theaters for one weekend only, from July 22 through July 25. Unlike most comedy specials, Inside has no live audience and no stage managers that helped with the production. It was filmed by Burnham himself, in his home, during the course of the pandemic. Inside covers the typical topics of a Burnham special, such as media, internet culture, and existential guilt. It contains about two dozen songs, as well as monologues and scenes, throughout. The special has since been nominated for six Emmy Awards and has been praised by multiple critics as one of the defining pieces of pandemic art.
Burnham has spoken publicly about the anxiety and panic attacks he used to experience while performing live, and I remember feeling a sense of relief when he quit stand-up comedy and pivoted to film after Make Happy in 2016. With that framing, I was wary of Inside from the moment Burnham announced it. My first viewing experience of the special was exceedingly emotional — I found myself unable to enjoy the comedy because I was preoccupied with concern over Burnham’s mental state. Most of the songs in it have comedy tinged with anxiety and cynicism, and I struggled to find the humor among the darkness.
I went to see Inside in a theater because I was drawn to the idea of watching such an intimate and claustrophobic special in the company of strangers. As soon as it was announced, I bought a ticket at my local Alamo Drafthouse in Leesburg, Virginia, for the first screening on July 22. (At the time, it was the only screening, but after tickets sold out nearly immediately, Burnham announced additional shows through the weekend.) I arrived right before showtime and made my way past rows and rows of young millennials, all clearly excited to see Burnham on the big screen. The screening opened with the same Alamo Drafthouse PSA used before Burnham’s film Eighth Grade, with Burnham himself welcoming us to the Alamo and telling us not to talk during the show because “you’re not that interesting.” Before the special started, the Netflix N logo appeared onscreen with the infamous bu-dum sound, which stirred a huge laugh from the audience. I assumed I had a good sense of what to expect in the theater, but as I watched Inside, there was one thought I couldn’t get out of my mind: Why isn’t this as sad as I remember?
On previous at-home viewings, my focus kept returning to Burnham’s apparent despair. The frustrations in “FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight)” overpowered the charming relatability of technologically inept family members, and the humanizing bridge in “White Woman’s Instagram” got lost among the shuffle of the mocking photo ops. These quieter, more comical moments were able to take full effect in a theater, providing a much-needed counterweight. There was also the consistent joy ringing in from the audience around me. Socko’s appearance in “How the World Works” got huge applause, there was cheering throughout “Unpaid Intern,” and everyone around me was mouthing the words (if not fully singing along) to the Jeffrey Bezos song. Everyone at the screening paid to watch something they had already seen, which allowed for a slight Rocky Horror interactive energy from the crowd: People quietly sang along to their favorite songs and laughed with their friends, even putting their hands up when Burnham commanded it in “All Eyes on Me.”
And it’s not just that the audience shifted attention to the happier moments — it also lightened the load of the darker ones. It’s almost as if there was strength in numbers, and the crowd allowed for a diffusion of the show’s tension. Throughout Inside, Burnham attempts to gauge the audience’s response, which is a tool comedians relied on pre-pandemic. The entire song “Don’t Wanna Know” shows Burnham trying to take the audience’s temperature with lines like “Are you finding it boring?” and “Do I have your attention?” But unlike live stand-up, Burnham couldn’t adjust and refine his act based on audience reaction; it’s one-way communication. For better or worse, Inside doesn’t do away with the rough edges another stand-up act might have smoothed out prior to a special taping. In the theater, the sudden jump cuts and the stark tonal contrasts that I found jarring at home were now the biggest laughs of the night.
Seeing Inside in a theater also has a formalizing effect on the special. In the theater, Burnham is no longer in our space, which allows the line between performer and audience to be more clear. The theater showcases the artifice of the special and reminds the audience how manufactured it all is, which is especially needed with an artist who invites parasocial concern as strongly as Burnham. It also blows up the behind-the-scenes elements that are woven throughout the show, like the changing aspect ratios, Fight Club–style subliminal pop-ups, background whiteboards in “Comedy,” and Burnham inviting the audience to pause between songs and watch him go through takes or reset a shot. It’s a reminder that it’s a comedy special made by someone who worked on it through various iterations and multiple takes, with immense technical skill and a deft editing touch. At home, these moments felt as if I were in captivity alongside Burnham, but in a theater setting, they are opportunities to consider the process and remember the performative aspect of Burnham’s work.
There was one time previously when I saw a movie in a theater after seeing it at home and perceived it entirely differently. Experiencing Jaws on the big screen at MoMI in Queens made it absolutely terrifying. I sat in the theater, watching Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw share scar stories, and I thought to myself, Oh, I’ve never seen Jaws, have I? Inside was, in some ways, the opposite — the packed audience of Burnham fans seemed to have a neutralizing effect on the taxing nihilism of the special. When viewing it at home, I found myself fixated on the darker elements, but seeing Inside alongside a receptive and enthusiastic crowd allowed all of the special’s charm and insight to rise to the top.