Inside, the new Netflix special from comedian Bo Burnham, was apparently written, directed, performed and edited solely by its star throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. An impressive feat. In the same timeframe, I posted literally thousands of tweets. What can I say? Some of us are just born productive.
Inside was also filmed entirely in one room. It is a bare, depressing sort of room, uncomfortably reminiscent of the bare, depressing room of the angel-faced serial killer at the center of Takashi Miike’s classic horror film Audition. Happily, Burnham is not keeping a captive in a trash bag. Still, the man has a lot of morbid cerebral fun with the question of whether he can leave the room or whether he is stuck there.
Burnham’s creativity is to be welcomed. Countless ‘specials’ have involved comedians running through listless routines about their shower thoughts, with a few topical jokes wedged in to give their show a half-assed claim to being, well, special. Chris D’Elia should have been canceled for No Pain rather than his sordid-but-not-Weinstein-level sex addiction — and Brendan Schaub’s You’d be Surprised was the comedy equivalent of being flattened by a truly devastating head kick.
Inside has variety, too. There are songs, skits, monologues and interludes, with different lighting, props and effects. There is something a bit ‘theater kid’ about it but at least the effort is there. Whether you like Burnham’s style or not I do not think you will finish the show feeling cheated.
The tone is sad, unsurprisingly. This fits the tone of the pandemic. But it is also vividly symptomatic of the fact that the pandemic has given voice to pre-existing and widespread anxiety and loneliness, which had been half-suppressed before. At one point, Burnham talks about having panic attacks on stage. He gave up performing for several years before finally feeling able to return — in January 2020. A burst of canned laughter erupts, hollow and cheap.
As you can tell, a lot of Inside is not even attempting to be funny. It flirts with being post-comedy, though mercifully not with the hectoring of Nanette. But there is funny and clever, as opposed to merely quirky, material here. Burnham livestreaming the ‘game’ of his own miserable life is well-executed (‘I guess I’ll cry again’). A song in which he basks in self-congratulatory self-deprecation for his own ‘problematic’ past — ‘I dressed up as Aladdin, I did not darken my skin but it still feels weird in hindsight’ — is also entertaining, as is a militantly unsexy song about sexting.
Before he was a successful mainstream comedian and filmmaker, Burnham was apparently a YouTuber, which passed me by because the only YouTubers I have ever made a habit of watching have been TheReportOfTheWeek, Vegan Gains and WarCorpse666. (Where is War Corpse’s Netflix special? That’s what I would like to know.) Regardless, Burnham’s home-grown experience must have served him well as he prepared this DIY project, which exhibits an impressive range and depth of technical and imaginative skill. It looks very professional.
Perhaps a bit too professional. There is a glossiness to a lot of the scenes that does not quite fit a special in which an unkempt man with the sort of facial hair that might get family members dropping subtle references to the virtues of psychotherapy explores the darker reaches of his mind. God knows I do not want to sound like the sort of nerd who wets himself when he encounters fizz on an old indie record but the polish did not jive with the aesthetic.
Some of the writing, meanwhile, is downright annoying. An unfunny song about middle-class white girl’s Instagram accounts — yes, we get it, she is basic — is interrupted by an odd segment in which the middle-class white girl caricature talks about her dead parents and wanting to make them proud. That is a curious twist. There is some kind of original aim here. But it is still an unfunny song — just an unfunny song rather obscurely intellectualized.
Still, I liked this special. No one could call it lazy, and it is honest to the spirit of its times. Now, for the love of God, let’s go outside.