Bo Burnham: Inside
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Filmed over the course of a year of lockdown, this musical comedy special features comedian Bo Burnham performing songs, sharing his personal struggles, and commenting on the state of everything in a single studio space.
Bo Burnham. That’s it. This is a one-man show in every sense. He wrote, directed, edited, composed, and, of course, performs by himself.
Get ready for a lot of adjectives, because this special is mesmerizing, brilliant, raw, intimate, funny, devastating, all-too-relatable, and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. To call Bo Burnham: Inside a comedy special doesn’t quite do it justice. There are moments of humor, to be sure, but also moments that will make you want to cry. At times you have to wonder if he’s okay. And other times you wonder if you are.
As Burnham tells it, five years ago he had to quit performing live shows after experiencing severe panic attacks on stage—”Which is not a great place to have them,” he dryly points out. After taking some small roles in film and television, most notably playing Carey Mulligan’s potential love interest in Promising Young Woman, he finally felt ready to go back to the stage in January of 2020. We all know what happened next. So instead of filming a live special, he started shooting all by himself in a a single, spare performance space (that maybe he was also living in?) over the course of a year. You can mark the time by the growth of his hair and beard, but also the tone, which gets darker as it goes on.
Burnham’s command of the space is masterful. The bare white walls become a canvas for elaborate projections that establish a mood for each song or bit of dialogue. You can feel the tension between his desire to perform in front of a laughing, cheering audience and the terror of being in front of people again. The show is almost theatrical (in the traditional stage sense), but for the clever ways he makes use of digital technology, editing, and cinematography.
The strong visual design is one of the first things that strike you about this special. Burnham plays with perspective, often placing his camera at angles so the room—sometimes empty, sometimes filled with equipment—seems a little too small for his 6’5″ frame. The multicolored lighting effects are craftily designed to create an atmosphere, and choreographed in perfect sync with the music. Burnham has experience directing in the past, but he’s outdone himself here. It’s clear he’s still pondering the same themes he explored in his fantastic debut feature Eighth Grade—including the impact of the internet and social media on modern culture and the paradoxical sense of isolation they can cause.
In a song about turning 30—which he performs in his underwear after watching the clock flip from 11:59 to 12:00 on his actual birthday—he simply moves a phone-camera light around himself as he sings, creating an interesting movement of figures and shapes on the walls. In the hilariously on-point number “White Woman’s Instagram” he uses aspect ratio to mimic the clichéd images you’d find as he lists them off—latte foam art, tiny pumpkins, fuzzy socks—but then, in the middle of the song there’s a section that references a picture of this imagined woman’s deceased mom and he describes a caption that’s so heartfelt even he can’t mock it, while widening the image to the full width of the screen. It’s a hit to the gut (one of many in the special) when you’re least expecting it. Then the screen shrinks again and he goes back to listing hackneyed photographic concepts. That kind of emotional whiplash can be found around every corner here.
Perhaps the special’s best number, “Welcome to the Internet,” is a great example of Burnham’s style, both visually and musically. As he performs the bouncy tune, at odds with the song’s dark lyrics, he uses a galaxy projector to display the universe behind him. He repeats the refrain, “Could I interest you in everything all of the time?” with increasingly frantic tempo while the camera zooms out, and you feel it in your bones. The scene cuts abruptly to him talking directly to the camera, lit only by a ring light on his head, admitting that he might be getting close to finishing the special, and how much that freaks him out because then he’ll have to live his life.
Although the material is deeply personal, Burnham captures the universal feeling of what it was like to be confined to our houses for the past year, and all the accompanying dread, ennui, and uncomfortable introspection that came with it. Somehow, in the midst of serious mental distress he makes no attempt to hide, Burnham managed to channel all that into a brave, ongoing act of creation. I don’t expect I’ll get over it anytime soon.
Bo Burnham: Inside may not be easy to watch, but it is an quintessential artifact of our time. Someday when the pandemic has long since passed, people can look back on this document of a year in quarantine and understand or remember what it felt like going through it all at the time.
If you know anyone who had an especially rough year, watch this together and feel less alone. Due to mature themes, sexual content, and language, viewing should be strictly limited to adult audiences.
Although Burnham claims he doesn’t actually want to kill himself and gives a speech specifically condemning it—”Just don’t,” he says repeatedly—he does reference suicidal thoughts several times throughout the special and has more than one breakdown on camera. So, a trigger warning is in order for anyone experiencing depression, anxiety, or any kind of mental stress, particularly those at risk of suicide or self harm.