To tell you the truth, I couldn’t possibly tell you how many times I’ve watched the ending of Bo Burnham’s previous comedy special, Make Happy. With his closing song “Can’t Handle This,” he showed everyone watching the kind of uniquely gifted talent he is. I remember thinking so many times about the line from the song that intimated that Burnham struggled to make himself happy, and I also learned since then that he quit stand-up comedy shows due to him having suffered from severe panic attacks on stage. But his talents off the stage have nonetheless shone since then, which was evident from his incredible directorial feature film debut, Eighth Grade.
At the time of writing, I’ve seen his latest comedy special Inside — which I’m not even sure I’d call a comedy special (it can be difficult to discern how much of it is performative and what reactions are real) — twice, and I’ve listened to the extensive soundtrack of deep ‘comedy’ songs over and over again. There are certain songs and images that I simply cannot get out of my mind. But I must stress that this is certainly not your average comedy special. Although it was released in 2021, Bo Burnham’s Inside is very much a product of 2020. It was supposedly shot, written, directed, and edited by Bo Burnham from the relative comfort of a single claustrophobic room, from which he manages to perfectly encapsulate so many people’s experiences during the depressing year of 2020, which was completely derailed by the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“The more I look, the more I see nothing to joke about. […] Should I be joking at a time like this?”Bo Burnham in “Inside.”
Since it was shot and performed in a single room over the course of 2020 (and possibly some of 2021?), there is no audience (only a laugh track which is used sparingly but expertly), and we see Burnham change before our eyes from his natural youngish late-twenties look to the long-haired and bearded world-weary appearance that dominates the ‘comedy special.’ And, in the special’s very first moments, Burnham questions whether it is even responsible or right for anyone to joke “at a time like this.”
Burnham puts all of his anxieties on show for all to see over the course of the almost 90-minute long special, which mostly consists of perfectly tuned short skits (such as him ‘shooting reaction videos to his own reaction videos’ or playing games on Twitch that perfectly mirrors his own life) or surprisingly deep songs (that are often paired with elaborate light shows). This special even includes an intermission, after which he nervously sings to us that he both wants to know and doesn’t want to know what we think about the special. It is easy to relate to his struggle here. In fact, it’s a little bit scary just how accurate and relatable some of his songs are.
However, the vast majority of the topics that he covers will not surprise anyone familiar with his previous specials, but the context and the execution of it all makes the special stand out. For example, songs like ‘Unpaid Intern’ and ‘Sexting’ could’ve easily been a part of his previous specials. Except for the fact that the latter song — like ‘FaceTime with my Mom’ — manages to encapsulate exactly that this type of communication, though sometimes frustrating and difficult to manoeuvre, was for many absolutely essential in 2020, throughout which we all had to be responsible through social distancing. The digital space became our entire life in 2020, and who knows if we’ll ever be able to go back to what things where like before social media took over this much. Other moments are more haunting — like the unforgettable songs “That Funny Feeling” and “Welcome to the Internet” — as Burnham manages to express some of our innermost existential worries in difficult times such as the one we’re still going through.
“The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.”Bo Burnham in “Inside.”
It is eye-opening, thought-provoking, and deeply depressing and affecting. Throughout the special, Bo Burnham is all over the place either by design or happenstance. Personally, I suspect that it is by design to express how scattered and unfocused your mind can become at a time like this. But in any case, it works. Because Burnham has ultimately illustrated how loneliness and the absence of human interaction as a result of necessary social distancing can stifle you. It is probably the first truly great artistic response to the pandemic that I have seen. It is an unbelievable and unforgettable encapsulation of this past year, as well as of how depression can have an impact on creative minds and their endeavours. I don’t care if you call it a movie, a documentary, a comedy special, or whatever, but you absolutely should watch it once you’re in the right headspace. Don’t skip it, because this is the first masterpiece of 2021.
– Article / Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.