comedy review

Bo Burnham’s Anguished, Electric Solo Voyage

Bo Burnham in Inside. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Inside, a new Netflix special written, performed, directed, shot, and edited by comedian Bo Burnham, invokes and plays with many forms. Like most of Burnham’s comedy, it’s a musical production, full of songs about things like sexting and internet culture and Jeff Bezos. It’s a piece of cultural criticism focused on the extremely online, often performed by recreating specifically digital forms like an Instagram grid or a Twitch stream. Filmed almost entirely inside one small room, with a host of cameras and interesting lighting set-ups, Inside also plays with the form that launched Burnham’s career. Once again he’s a vlogger, sitting alone in a quiet room with a closed door, staring into the black void of a camera lens, shooting take after take so the result can be edited into meticulous precision. Sometimes it longs to be a concert; sometimes the special veers into the confessional, even journalistic. Shot over many months during 2020, Burnham’s hair and beard grow longer and shaggier with time, turning Inside into something like a captain’s log, with Burnham on a solo voyage through his own pandemic anguish.

Inside’s most insistent form, though, is self-portrait. In many of Burnham’s highly produced bits, he turns himself into characters: a thirst trap, a creepy Baz Luhrmann–style carnival barker, a faux-happy songster with a real-talking puppet-hand interlocutor. In these moments, Inside is a Cindy Sherman kind of self-portrait, although it’s less about physically transforming himself and more about throwing his performance energy across a wide spectrum of affects and moods. Burnham is fascinated by, delighted by the ability to transform himself through different gears of performance. He’s a high-energy, horny Instagram vixen; he’s a weeping video-game character; and he’s also the half-bored player pressing the buttons.

Where Sherman’s work cast her in variations on femininity, many of Burnham’s characters are Internet Types, and his performances play up the mannered, dissociative strangeness of life and art that exists only as fodder for online consumption. Sometimes they’re straight-up parody — Burnham briefly becomes a brand consultant, talking up the vital importance of supporting brands in order to support causes. Sometimes they are stranger and more recursive — at one point, a song about the gig economy shifts abruptly into Burnham doing a reaction video that escalates into a wild and dizzying loop. It’s a joke about a very specific online genre, but Burnham’s painstaking direction also turns it into a self-portrait of self-loathing, like looking into a hall of mirrors and seeing yourself reflected ad infinitum, giving yourself the finger.

In between those high-key character performances, Inside’s self-portraiture sometimes shifts into a much older mode. The special is punctuated by small interstitial scenes, footage framed to situate Burnham in the cramped space of this tiny room. There’s so much labor involved in building the scenes and design for each new performance, and in the interstitials, the same tiny room that was just disguised as a rave or a gym or an arthouse projection space is now full of natural light, littered with cords and tripods and detritus. We see Burnham surrounded by cameras and lighting equipment, often sighing in frustration as he glances at a monitor. He rubs his forehead, pulls out a measuring tape to verify the distance from his chair to the camera, plunks out a keyboard melody. In these moments, he’s not playing a YouTube vlogger or a post-modern photographer; he’s playing a Renaissance self-portraitist in his studio surrounded by easels and still-life objects. In one of them, with Burnham staring into a mirror as a camera captures his reflection, he’s doing the classic Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror framing, knowing full well that for the audience it will feel as though he’s staring directly at them. In the moment, though, he sees only himself.

That absent audience plagues Burnham throughout Inside. His last special, Make Happy, was released five years ago, and in it Burnham ends with an extended song about audience expectation, his desire for attention, the way he needs and resents his audience, the panic attacks that he’d get before performances. His answer then was to quit, to stop doing live performances and focus on artistic forms with less immediate feedback — acting, directing. But with the pandemic shutdown, Burnham finds himself stuck back with the same creative forms he began with: a room, a keyboard, a camera. And us, maybe, somewhere out there watching him, liking it or hating it, maybe vibing with the horniness, maybe laughing as he mimics the posture of an Instagram model with an oversize shirt falling off one shoulder.

He can’t move past the central crux of the project, the looming eye of the audience he longs for and loathes and can’t see. Sometimes he adds laugh tracks into the songs. Sometimes the interstitial scenes are a direct audience address, and Inside’s opening songs are questions. Should he stop trying to be funny? What is the point of comedy when the world is falling apart? Should he, a white guy, even be saying anything at all? If you came across a person in a burning house, why would you ever offer them a joke? The questions come pre-packaged with their own answers, though. Maybe this is all a terrible idea, but the fact that we’re watching it means he made it and someone wanted it. “Look, I made you some content,” he sings at the beginning. “Daddy made you your favorite; open wide.”

Still, he cannot create an audience in front of him, and he’s not even all that sure he wants to. He has only himself. So Burnham’s self-portraiture casts himself as the protagonist, the guy whose ever-growing hair marks the passage of time even as he keeps changing himself into a musing James Taylor acoustic type, a window washer, a puppet. And even as he creates and shoots and edits all the performances, the interstitials show us Burnham watching them back, on tiny phones or laptops. Sometimes he literally projects them onto himself, with his white T-shirt as the blank screen. It’s all endless loops of performance and consumption, worrying about performativity and authenticity and productivity, staring at himself in the mirror.

Inside is not transcendent — it just can’t be. Its author writes himself as a main character stuck in one single room, digging into ever-deeper anxieties about identity and art. Transcending is about leaving, escaping, going up and out, being bigger than something. Inside is about staying in and being wowed by the depths (of life, of art, of the internet) and not being sure how you can ever leave. It is an incredible accomplishment, a testament to Burnham’s genius at directing, writing, songwriting, performance. There are a few overwhelming moments of empathy and warmth, too. They’re moments of grace and openness that feel all the more moving because they come alongside scenes like Burnham’s protagonist-self explaining that he is at an all-time low, admitting that he’s delaying finishing the special because he doesn’t know what to do with himself when it’s done. In some moments it’s Tristram Shandy, in others it’s Parks and Rec’s Ben Wyatt holding up a Claymation figure and asking, “Do you think a depressed person could make this??” But it is also mesmerizing throughout, catchy and astonishing and captivating and self-absorbed and desperately thinking of everyone else, all at once. “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?” Burnham sings, about the internet but also about this special. The answer is yes.

Bo Burnham’s Anguished, Electric Solo Voyage