Bo Burnham makes his highly-anticipated comeback with Bo Burnham: Inside five years after his last comedy special, Make Happy. A veritable triple-threat, Burnham made his name as a Comedy Central stand-up comedian in the early 2000s before venturing into writing and directing during his hiatus. After his critically acclaimed Eighth Grade in 2018 and a scene-stealing turn in last year’s Promising Young Woman, the stage seemed to be set for his triumphant return to comedy—that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic came.
Like so many of us, Burnham found himself unexpectedly alone in his house for the better part of last year. This overwhelming sense of mortality and isolation became the premise of Bo Burnham: Inside—which he’d written, produced, edited, and directed—as the insightful comedian explores social upheaval, yearning, and the inconveniences of existence inside the four walls of his room. Delightfully nuanced and surprisingly searing, you will come for the white people jokes and stay for the soulful contemplation on art, life, and everything in between.
Burnham’s latest piece is less reminiscent of a comedy than it is of a tragedy: the opening shot seemingly threads onto the closing scene of Make Happy, his last major act before announcing his indefinite hiatus due to mental health concerns. Much like his previous work, his most recent project tackles the irony of having performance anxiety as an entertainer—his third Netflix special simultaneously functions as a diary of a man in pain who’s desperately clinging onto the high of performing for an audience but is being held back by his own self-loathing and insecurities as well as an entertainment piece for whoever cares enough to watch the mess of his inner monologue unfurl on screen.
Burnham acknowledges this early on, providing the audience a disclaimer that the special “may be a little all over the place.” It is made very apparent that this is intentional, as it’s chock full of smash cuts between scenes full of dynamic lighting and angles—so much so that Burnham’s masterful production and editing skills may even lead one to forget that the entire special was shot in a single room. His technical prowess contributes a fever-dream quality to the piece, paralleling the blur of time quarantine has been for all of us.
‘Everything, all of the time’
The first half will evoke a sense of familiarity for long-time fans as Burnham’s skits carry the same penchants he bore during his earlier works: particularly tongue-in-cheek songs and speeches about the current zeitgeist paired with overly enthusiastic acting. However, Bo Burnham: Inside is a mature take on what Burnham has grown accustomed to as he attempts to add a level of profundity higher than any of his prior Netflix specials.
This time, Burnham chose to highlight humanity’s growing reliance on technology to maintain relationships and social status. In White Woman’s Instagram, he deftly portrays the pressure to maintain picture-perfect lives on the app. At the same time, FaceTime With My Mom and Sexting comically jabs at how we navigate modern relationships and intimacy. Perhaps the most pointed segment of the first half is when he parodied the hypocrisy of brands getting into social awareness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
While humorous, these skits also provide the groundwork for Burnham to gradually shift the focus toward metacommentary, such as his skits on reaction channels, video game live streamers, and the like. Intriguingly enough, these also provide a foundational set-up for his introspection in the latter half of the special, providing enough build-up toward his commentary on himself as a content creator.
‘Eyes on me’
As the special barreled into its darker second half, Burnham’s skits begin to focus more on himself and his feelings—the personal profusely bleeding into the performance. The special becomes more jagged and uneven, an upbeat melody one second and a gloomy diatribe the next. Burnham himself seems increasingly on edge, constantly asking his captive audience if they still liked the show and nitpicking previous parts of the special. In one of the more poignant moments, he celebrates the clock striking midnight on his 30th birthday, his loneliness so palpable and heart-wrenching as he sits alone in the dark.
Somewhere in this dichotomy of caustic wit and evocative vulnerability is a symbol of the parasocial relationship between an artist and his audience. From the elaborate sets to the moments of raw vulnerability, everything is precisely packaged into entertainment. Burnham perfectly depicts celebrity culture with this maneuver—capturing how artists have to straddle the line between god and mortal and how authenticity is served for the people’s consumption.
No matter how raw or chaotic the special gets, there is that nagging feeling that everything was staged by a very precise hand. But the burning question isn’t whether or not what you saw was authentic; it’s whether or not it was real enough for you. With this, Burnham incisively critiques how art is often lost in a hyper-commodified world—and how emotions and ideals are parlayed into capital. He makes no apologies for the role he has to play in it. He claws at the remnants of applause and the magic of the stage—doomed to a bottomless hole of dissatisfaction and need, just like we are doomed to be the captive audience of so many a farce.
In the end, Bo Burnham: Inside leaves more questions than it answers, and it’s ultimately better off this way. There is no big epiphany waiting for you at the end; what Burnham can offer instead is a brief encounter where you are understood and seen, no matter how fleeting the moment may be.