Stylized, chaotic, and frayed with the energy of a creative type sheltered in isolation, Bo Burnham: Inside is both uncomfortable and mildly voyeuristic as well as deeply cathartic. After taking a break five years ago due to debilitating anxiety, comedian turned director and actor Bo Burnham returns to stand-up with a vigorous and barbed tongue, nihilistic prose, and total disdain and cynicism for how technology rules our lives.
He isn’t better for it. The shaggy state of his beard and hair grants visual evidence to the course of the year he spent recording this special in a single room, and the catharsis doesn’t arrive with any grand revelations on what it means to overcome our life’s obstacles. Instead, there’s a crippling sense of dread that permeates through the 90-minute runtime with no escaping the fierce pull of his increasingly unhinged torrent of truths.
It’s those truths that have me reflecting on my own year of isolation and zeroing in on my present. Lately, I’ve taken to following an increasing amount of what some might call “self-help” Instagram pages. From lifestyle gurus who focus on my particular brand of auto-immune disease, to pages that tackle disordered eating and accounts that target consumers with crippling anxiety, I’ve followed them all. May was Mental Health Awareness month and, to celebrate, mine tanked. With some of the worst anxiety and depression I’ve ever encountered, I met the month not with the resilience of someone who had seen battle of countless sleepless nights, panic attacks that led to emergency room visits, and debilitating body dysmorphia. I came out the other side but as someone who was submerged face first into the boiling shitstorm of it all for the first time. All of the tools that I’d gathered and the tricks that I’d honed were no longer applicable as it all felt new and freshly dug.
While viewers don’t necessarily need to experience exactly what Burnham or I have, his special aims to strike nerves. Their anxiety certainly doesn’t need to produce the same level of self-effacing art that he has. But the threads are there for those seeking a level of connection.
I too sought that potent connection, scrambling to find commonality online as well as any form of resource. Be it the CBD gummies I ordered, the therapist I found and the all natural supplements I take now to help me fall asleep — this all began with the intent to change. So, when I found on my search page a plethora of targeted ads and posts about everything from the calories in a Domino’s pizza to intrusive thoughts and anger associated with ADHD, I felt both sickened and relieved. Grossed out at how this mindless platform was managing to leech off of my data to try and sell me anything and everything all the time, but the relief that well, at least someone might have the answer, even if it comes in the form of an inspirational quote slapped against a pastel background.
Strikingly, Burnham’s work in Inside is a juxtaposition of a person who is sick of technology and our relationship to it while also seeking the tethering comfort that comes from it. Despite never fully mentioning the pandemic by name, it is a perfect encapsulation of what the last year has done to us, cutting from journalistic reporting and confessionals to a deranged sock puppet back-and-forth and his musical performances on piano and guitar. Regardless of our own individual experiences, beneath the laughs—often shocked gasps and guffaws from remarks so honest they startle them out of you—there’s a mirror being held up to our own loneliness, anxiety, and the need many of us felt to stay productive and to make something of the year so that it didn’t just feel like a waste of time and life.
Strip away the social resonance and still there is some terrific and innovative direction, especially when remembering that Burnham was a one man team throughout. Stark shots of wires, mics, cameras and other gadegry that littered the floor and corners of the room induce claustrophobia, a constantly present visual reminder that his joke telling and skits are temporal. He derives humor by peeling away the veneer of performance and showcasing the artist behind the art, the human overwhelmed by the world that turns to humor, storytelling and distraction to escape it.
Burnham’s scathing take down on our culture’s inability to shut the fuck up about any opinion we have ever and our need to share the minute details of our lives online cut deep. I am a part of the problem, but we’re all complicit. What’s also striking however was how in this year of isolation it was through the internet that people both kept many of their most important connections as well as buoyed their mental health to keep water beneath them – myself included.
It’s that inability to escape reality that makes for so many of Burnham’s strongest moments in the special. There are clever sequences, such as a riff on white women’s Instagram pages where he models in off-the-shoulder sweaters or an inspired sequence where he plays himself as a Twitch streamer who gets caught in his own reaction video loop. It is an evolution of the internet and influencer style culture—something he was enmeshed in right at the start with his own Youtube videos, which get their own song full of lacerating reevaluations. But while those skits are undoubtedly funny in their self-awareness, it’s the moments where the artifice falls that deliver both some of the greatest moments of shocked laughter as well as the most startling depiction of a person on the brink.
It was during his song about turning 30 where we watch the time change to midnight and rein in his birthday alone that left me especially raw. Age is arbitrary, sure, but I’m turning 30 this year too and as he alluded to there’s both such a pressure to that marker in time as well as a melancholy sign of the times where, while still young, we’re no longer in the decade that so many still believe to be the formative years of our lives. “Turning 30,” the electrifying opening “Inside,” the nauseating “Welcome to the Internet” and the oddly, wonderfully produced yet very sad “Hands Up (Eyes On Me)” are some of the strongest sequences of the special and a true testament to his range.
There’s so much to say about Bo Burnham: Inside—plenty that people already have and will undoubtedly go on to with words more eloquent than mine. It clearly cements Burnham as a forceful presence in comedy and film. But maybe the best compliment I can give it, in all of its rough, emotional edges yet perfectly composed frames and innovative lighting, is that it spoke to the experience of isolation and will be one of, if not, the definitive piece of work that was born from creating art in lockdown.