In what looks to be the final performance we will ever get from Bo Burnham, the 87 minute Netflix special: INSIDE is an intimate journal revealing Burnham’s struggle to find a purpose and how he can make a positive, tangible impact on the world. While mental health has gained a bigger platform and understanding, Burnham’s dive into his own mind show a constant slugfest to find a balance in his life so that he can be content. The creative freedom was evident as this is the most “Bo” content we’ve seen since his YouTube videos. Burnham directed, wrote, shot, edited, and performed the special by himself in one room of what presumably is his own home.
On the surface (or to someone unfamiliar with Burnham’s past content) Inside appears to be a creation birthed from quarantine life in 2020 and feeling trapped inside your own space.
While this is true and this special can speak directly AT newcomers to Bo Burnham’s comedy, it’s very clear that this is the final stage of Burnham’s comedic performances, and Inside diaries Burnham’s long time grapple with his mental well being, his purpose, and his comedy while inside his own head and inside his own space.
From his early YouTube videos with problematic, immature songs…. To his first special “what.” which showed an unhinged Burnham flying through bits and songs with youthful fierceness…. To his second Netflix special “Make Happy” in which it was evident there was self-reflection and maturation, but a new struggle emerged in the performer to audience connection as well as the self-doubt of feeling dishonest and performative. Make Happy hinted at many of the problems mentally and creatively that Burnham faced in developing his craft and performing on stage. These hints only boiled over during his final song/rant which floored viewers and left them questioning if they just watched a comedy special or not … to this special that tackles his own mental health in the most revealing fashion he could. INSIDE takes viewers back to the room Burnham left at the end of Make Happy. The room where Burnham shares his turmoil in an astonishingly transparent light.
The show starts out on a predictably ironic note. Burnham sings about he will save the world with his comedy (as long as he gets paid and is the center of attention) but soon realizes that his platform as a comedian is meaningless and shallow. He asks how anyone could be “joking at a time like this” while realizing he should shut up about his problems, but finds that inherently boring and continues singing his plan to save the world with comedy.
Burnham then gives his first testimonial to the audience, explaining the show and sliding a trademark transition/editing joke in before his next goofy song about FaceTiming his mom.
Burnham’s ability to blend commentary with comedy was displayed in the following songs and sketches. One in which he silences a sock puppet who calls for the truth to be unveiled about classism in the world, and a skit in which he is a brand consultant hired to make sure brands are selling products by appearing to be on the right side of social issues. A song about white women’s Instagram follows with 36 different sets curated by Burnham to show the formulaic variety of white women’s Instagram pages, but clarifies that they aren’t really hurting anyone… and then we get our first real introspective skit.
After a short parody working song about unpaid interns, Burnham stages a reaction video to the song. But the fourth wall breaks (a few times) as Burnham then reacts to himself reacting to the song, and so on, until he cuts it off out of frustration. In these reactions, Burnham peels back layer after layer of his own work; saying the song isn’t even that good or interesting, and that being pretentious is an instinct for him because he needs validation for his work. Reacting to THAT statement he explains the defense mechanism behind being the first to hate his own work so that critics or fans can’t beat him to the punch. The final layer before he cuts it off explains that just because he is admittedly self-aware of all this, doesn’t mean he has solved anything. He is simply struggling to find a balance and understanding for his own work and the wide range of criticism it gets.
A few skits and a song later, Burnham sets the stage for the main struggle he faces while creating this special. Sitting alone on the floor with his piano, Burnham goes through two takes of a song with lyrics about how challenging it is to create comedy and content without an audience reacting to him in real-time. If you’ve seen Make Happy you know that in his “Kanye Rant” he speaks to the audience saying: “part of me loves you, part of me hates you, part of me needs you, part of me fears you.” The audience interaction is imperative to his art, and how he measures his success. His goal has been to be honest and non-performative, while also relating to the strangers at his shows. He is comparing this special to when he as a teenager performing songs alone in his room. The following shortcut scene shows Burnham staring intently at a projection of one of his old YouTube videos.
The next song expands on his connection to the past, as he wonders why he hasn’t been held accountable for his old videos and songs which were… more than slightly problematic. He mentions he dressed up as Aladdin for Halloween when he was 17 and how the outfit is still in his moms closet, and Burnham continues to allude to the skeletons in his closet. Pondering when/if he will ever have to face repercussions for his edgy adolescence. Burnham does all this while giving the audience a ridiculously well produced music video with a plethora of different angles, shadows, back lights, and stomach tickling actions and choreography.
Transitioning from past to present, the next skit and song focus on turning 30 years old. While the skit is anxiety-ridden and eerily drawn out, the song is a classic Bo Burnham performance with extremely impressive coordination and lighting. He puts on a one-man show with one static shot from a camera in front of him. The colors throughout the entire special really pop, but maybe non more so than in the turning 30 song.
In what has become a common topic in Burnham’s shows, suicide came up again. Make Happy featured the song Kill Yourself, a song in which Burnham contrasted the difference between seeking actual help for depression, and people gaining fake help from “Katy Perry’s lyrics” which are dishonest and written by a marketing team to make profit.
Inside brings up suicide again as Burnham specifies that a suicide joke in the previous song should not be taken seriously and that no one should kill themselves. But unlike Make Happy, Burnham starts to question the statement and use qualifiers to weigh the options of suicide, saying he would instantly kill himself if he could die for only 18 months.
After a brief intermission that shows Burnham cleaning a glass pane in front of the camera, we see Burnham start to unravel.
The next half hour of the show is anxiety-inducing as Burnham not so subtly disguises his current emotional state with a video game simulation, an upbeat song about feeling like shit, and a second testimonial speaking to the audience about his mental state.
What comes next is one of his most impressive songs of his career. A fast-paced ska-styled piano sprint, breaking the entire internet down into the lyrics “could I interest you in everything, all of the time. A little bit of everything, all of the time.” Slow post-production pushes in and pulls out from the camera make his performance room feel like a grand stage. His ominous persona and demonic laugh drive into the threatening aura he is trying to give off to show how much the internet has impacted our day-to-day lives starting earlier in everyone’s lives.
This is when the unraveling starts to expedite. Without much direction or flow, Burnham shifts from a few different skits, short songs, and testimonials as the viewer becomes growingly uncomfortable with the clearly unstable Burnham. The thought of finishing the special is dreadful. Although the process of creating it is filled with anguish, the idea that once he’s done he will lack an active purpose evenly weighs that aguish.
He does a standup bit about how the tactile world around us is theatrical and the only purpose of real-life interaction is to record it and bring it back to the “much more real” interior digital world. However he defects the message as he starts to do a vanilla joke about the maps of pirates always being beat up or torn.
Around an hour in, Burnham momentarily calms down to perform an acoustic melody about “That Funny Feeling” you get in life. A satire of all the good things in the world people sing about: love, family, friendship, human connection, nature, etc. Burnham instead sings about all the artificial and horrible celebrity things in the world including the GAP being half off in honor of the social revolution. Burnham is known for his grand finales and this felt like it could be it. His slow pace and calm demeanor of this song made me feel like he had come to terms that the world is fucked up and there’s not much he can do about it besides ride with it. The line “20,000 years of this, 7 more to go” then shifts the vibe to a more doomsday feeling. Burnham starts to mention that funny feeling about mall shootings, disassociation, derealization, and the “quiet comprehension of the ending of it all.” While Burnham doesn’t change pace or key, he masks the existential feelings with a calm voice, a quiet guitar, and a wooded background with. A fire crackling.
But just when you think Burnham has come to peace with the world around him, he makes it abundantly clear he is nowhere close to it. Two excruciatingly honest and painful testimonials to the audience reveal his anger and discomfort with himself and his career.
The honesty continues as he performs a blue-lit pop-rap song about All Eyes being on him. The prelude to the song involves Burnham speaking directly to the audience about why he quit performing comedy live. Panic attacks on stage led Burnham to go outside of his comedic realm and live his own life. But quarantine pushed him back inside as he looked for an excuse to hide from the discomfort he was facing in his normal life.
The actual song that follows is a lowly dubbed but still recognizable voice. The mixed camera angles softly cross fading in and out really depict his confusion and feelings about wanting to be seen, and wanting to be the center of everything, and also wanting to hide away. Burnham has lost the light in his eyes and looks immensely tired. He projects a video of himself performing onto the wall behind him to make it feel like a stage at a large venue.
The song proceeds as Burnham repeats “get up out of your seats, all eyes on me” until he aggressively yells at the camera and audience to “get the fuck up” and picks the camera up and brings it with him. The need to control an audience is still something that resides inside him. Grappling with the catch twenty two of yearning for validation from an audience, contrasted by his fear and anxiety of performing for an audience. There is a growing sense that Burnham will not be able to find a balance between the two… which leads to his final song.
Showing his younger self to start, he leads in with his first take of his final song, something he had planned from the beginning, a farewell song. Fading into his present-day self he belts that his comedic career has come full circle from when he started alone in his room as a teenager 14 years ago.
So this is how it ends. A culmination of his entire special and his career arc. Burnham asks the audience if next time “he sits on the couch and we tell a joke to him instead” as he rips through different melodies from earlier in the special. Its vivid enough by now that he is unable to find a balance between his mental health and performing his art.
The final skit we see is Burnham slowly walking outside of the room, only for it to be revealed that he is on a stage with his house as a set in the background. Seeing the crowd, Burnham attempts to go back inside his house but is locked out. The crowd is sent into an uproar as the audience then sees a deadpan Burnham watching the whole thing on a projector screen. The final frames are Burnham quickly cracking a relieved smile before it cuts to black.
While the 87 minutes of Burnham were a once-in-a-lifetime performance, there is slight guilt involved in watching and enjoying the surreal visceral experience. While Burnham fails to find a balance between performing and his mental health, the audience at home has to find the balance of enjoying Burnham’s multitude of talents while also understanding that Burnham is quickly deteriorating for having to perform for them.
There’s so much more that goes into this special and Burnham is better than anyone at screaming for help while allowing viewers to sit and say “haha Bo go burrrrrrr.” However, upon deeper watches into all of his specials, it’s abundantly clear that Burnham is unable to perform without causing severe mental wear and tear upon himself.
Burnham’s Magnum Opus comes in the form of a heavy, emotional, hilarious, spectacular special that metaphorically takes place in the mind of Burnham himself. It’s honest, it’s intuitive, it’s hysterical, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s all inside.