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The Canny Catharsis of Bo Burnham’s Year ‘Inside’

The auteur can’t help but take the pandemic personally in his new comedy special, but really what he’s describing is the near-universal feeling of despair in 2020. And that feels good.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Entertainment about, or even just set during, the pandemic is no longer a novelty. First, there came a wave of specials and one-offs that used shelter-in-place as their premise—the Netflix anthology Social Distance, for example, or the short-lived sitcom Connecting…, on NBC. Then came TV shows, produced in person after a long hiatus, that wove the pandemic into their plot: Grey’s Anatomy built an entire season around the event, while Mr. Mayor simply mentioned it in passing as a thing of the past. Finally, there are the works set in 2020 but that take place in an alternate timeline where no one wears masks.

With Inside, Bo Burnham kicks off a fourth phase in this evolution. The feature-length special, shot in a single room over the course of a year, is one of the first works to look back on the pandemic—to set itself in the (very recent) past rather than the uncertain present. It lands at the perfect time. As we transition from indefinite quarantine to a mostly open summer, it can feel like we’re skipping the part where we reflect on what we’ve been through: not just the mass death and desperation, but the internal crises each of us faced on our own. Enter Inside, a freewheeling mix of song, stand-up, interludes, and sketches that add up to a real reckoning with what we’ll be living with well after we’ve left the house.

The idea of a nontraditional stand-up special predates Inside, and even the pandemic. In 2012, Maria Bamford released The Special Special Special, an hour of comedy performed for an audience of two: Bamford’s own parents. In 2018, Drew Michael’s self-titled special did away with the audience altogether, framing the comic largely in mood-lit close-up. The pandemic has certainly encouraged unorthodox formats for what can otherwise be a staid, or at least minimalist, medium; later this summer, Tig Notaro will release a special that’s entirely animated. Still, “innovative” doesn’t always mean “unprecedented.”

For Burnham, Inside is less a new frontier than a return to form. The auteur has never been known for traditional stand-up in the sense of monologuing into a microphone; he first rose to fame as a teenager for parody songs uploaded to YouTube, and his ensuing stage act has always used music as a vehicle for commentary. In 2016, after the release of the special Make Happy, Burnham announced an indefinite pause on live performing, citing anxiety. Since then, Burnham has directed a feature film, acted in films like Promising Young Woman, and helmed specials from fellow comics Jerrod Carmichael and Chris Rock. (Burnham also codirected Make Happy with Christopher Storer.) With Inside, Burnham turns his lens back on himself.

As a location, the constraints of a small room with no audience are obvious. But as Inside goes on, the upsides of this forced trade-off come into focus. Chief among them is control. Burnham has returned to not-so-live performance as an accomplished visual storyteller, a skill set he’s now able to apply with even greater finesse to his own self-image. Take a song about a white woman’s Instagram page, a relatively light parody Burnham packs with dozens of stunningly accurate visual gags: Burnham with flowers over his eyes; Burnham holding a “Beyoncé is my spirit animal” mug; a hand, presumably Burnham’s, arranging a trio of succulents atop a pile of books. None of these throwaway jokes would be possible without imported props or careful set design. Necessity has long been the mother of invention; Burnham just has the tools to invent with more precision than others, or even himself before his extended break.

Inside has its fun with digital etiquette and faux-woke corporations, but they’re not its main subject. “I hope this special can do for you what it’s done for me these past couple months,” Burnham explains by way of introduction. “Which is distract me from wanting to put a bullet in my head with a gun.” It’s the first of many mentions of suicide—some sung, some spoken, some joking, some maybe not. To a song about turning 30, Burnham adds the almost throwaway lyric “in 2030 I’ll be 40 and I’ll kill myself then”; right after insisting he’s not in any real danger of self-harm, he admits that “if I could kill myself for a year I would do it today.” Even when they don’t rise to the level of suicidal thoughts, Burnham’s inner struggles are front and center. “My current mental health is rapidly approaching an ATL,” he says. “That’s an all-time low, not Atlanta.”

What these bits manage, in part, is to dramatize a near-universal experience. The early scenes in particular bring us back to the worst of early quarantine—the parts we’ve already begun to repress. One of Inside’s catchiest songs is an upbeat ode to feeling like shit; another takes on sexting, a millennial pastime that’s gotten more popular in the age of distanced dating. Burnham’s first and sharpest critique takes aim at self-righteous comedians (“There’s only one thing I can do … while still being paid and the center of attention”), just one of the many types of oblivious celebrities who’ve shown themselves in recent months. We’re now far enough past the nadir of 2020 that Inside doesn’t feel like an instant reaction. We’ve forgotten enough to be reminded by Burnham’s dispatch from the trenches.

Burnham worked on the special for long enough that luck and science gave him an actual ending: a world to come back to. In Inside’s final moments, a long-haired, white-clad Burnham walks out of the room and into a spotlight, to cheers and applause. It’s not a happy scene, or a triumphant one. Before long, Burnham tries to go back in, only to find the door is locked; his warm welcome quickly curdles into laughter. At the last second, we see the scene is just a filmed projection. Burnham is, in fact, back inside—safe and warm, right where he belongs. The past year was filled with untold horrors, but for many of us, it became a new normal. With Inside, Burnham gives a soundtrack to the agony of isolation. He also gives a voice to the numbing comfort of monotony. “You say the ocean is rising, like I give a shit,” he croons. “You’re not gonna slow it; you already tried. Got it? Good. Now get inside.” There’s no punch line. We may no longer be physically inside, but leaving isn’t as easy as opening a door.

Inside is also a personal, highly specific story, which Burnham hints at throughout but doesn’t confirm until the special’s closing act. Earlier in the same song, Burnham reveals he’d been gearing up to start doing shows again before lockdown hit. “I’m sorry I was gone,” he apologizes by way of the opening song. “But look, I made you some content.” Inside doesn’t just mark Burnham’s return to his own comedy; it’s also Burnham’s return to making comedy by himself and recording it for strangers—a rarer reversion than, say, the laid-off 20-something who moves back in with their parents. “I was a kid who was stuck in his room,” he sings of his adolescence. The difference is that he’s now an adult stuck for very different reasons. Also, he has much better equipment.

Burnham can’t help but take the pandemic personally, a response as solipsistic as it is understandable. (In 2020, we were all the stars of our own disaster movie.) “Well, well, look who’s inside again,” Burnham sneers at himself. “Went out to look for a reason to hide again.” To a man who’s finally worked up the nerve to put himself out there after a half decade offstage, quarantine is more than a cruel joke—it’s practically a sign from God.

With no stage to return to, Burnham threw himself into making Inside. The special comes off as part salvation, part albatross. On the one hand, Burnham can barely admit he’s been working on “whatever this is” for a year; on the other, he realizes, “If I finish this special, that means that I have to not work on it anymore. That means that I have to live my life.” The most interesting, and polarizing, parts of Inside are the ones that purport to offer a glimpse behind the scenes—of the special’s making, but also of Burnham’s brain. The director, editor, and star of Inside weaves in footage of himself setting up shots, flubbing takes, staring into a laptop, breaking things in frustration, even bursting into tears. On their own, these clips suggest honesty or vulnerability. Together, carefully doled out between candid confessionals, they suggest trying to suggest honesty or vulnerability.

How much of this angst is genuine, and how much of it is a performance? The answer, as it tends to be, is likely a little of both. But it also doesn’t matter. Much of Burnham’s work, in Inside and beyond, peels back the layers of artifice it takes to make it on the internet, a process he knows better than most. In fact, the setup of Inside allows him to get even more specific than he has in the past, staging shots to ape the look of a Twitch stream or YouTube watch-along. In the latter, Burnham creates a Russian nesting doll of his own face, looping himself until he’s commenting on himself commenting on himself commenting on himself. It’s a bit that channels Burnham’s paralyzing self-scrutiny, and cautions against rewarding him for it. “Self-awareness does not absolve anybody of anything,” he warns.

Inside practically demands we ask what’s real and what’s not, what’s pure self-indulgence and what invention serves a purpose. After all, Burnham is so skeptical of comedy that he quit for five years. But he’s come back from self-imposed exile with a special that pulls off art’s great magic trick: catharsis, helping fans articulate the unspeakable just as they’ve emerged from survival mode. In a way, Inside is the inverse of Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette, a one-woman show that doubled as a kiss-off to comedy. Nanette was a resignation letter; Inside is a petition for reentry. The Burnham of Inside can’t bring himself to leave his cell, but he can try to hand others the key.