Going into Bo Burnham’s new special, I was expecting some cool cinematography and a few musings about mental health and lockdown amid jokes about Instagram and sexting; after all, that is what Twitter had led me to believe Inside was, but it turned out to be so much more. Instead, Inside was just as much documentary and diary as it was a comedy special, documenting Robert’s (Burnham’s real name, which he uses to separate the person from the performer) declining mental health as lockdown dragged on. Throughout the special, it became increasingly clear that making it was not just a form of artistic expression, but a coping mechanism.
Inside opens with a shot of Bo silently entering a small room populated with a single chair and keyboard, prefacing the isolation felt throughout the film and the year in general. Inside is hyperaware of its context, with Bo asking the question ‘should I be joking at a time like this?’. Throughout the special, Bo deals with current world issues such as climate change, performative activism, and inequality alongside more light-hearted themes, such as Instagram, and FaceTiming family members. As the special goes on, however, Bo opens up more about his declining mental health, and particularly the impact of the pandemic on his wellbeing.
After worsening anxiety, Bo took a break from performing live shows in 2016, using this break to direct the brilliant Eighth Grade and star opposite Carey Mulligan in the Oscar-winning Promising Young Woman. At the beginning of 2020, he decided he was ready to return to the stage. Of course, this did not happen, and the lack of live audience for Inside is felt not just by the audience, but by Bo as well. The eerie laugh tracks that are occasionally cut in serve as a reminder of how strange the situation we have all found ourselves in is. While the lack of audience does feel a little strange at first, Burnham makes up for it by taking advantage of techniques that would not be available to him onstage, such as the YouTube-style reaction video he makes to his own song.
Bo’s honesty about his mental health feels refreshing, but at times can feel a little too personal, with Bo really baring his soul for millions of viewers. The showings of mental health struggles sometimes go a little too far and watching feels a little invasive, like watching a therapy session rather than a comedy special. However, making Inside clearly helped both Bo and many viewers. As mental health has, in theory, been a big talking point over the last few years, depictions have often focused on people just being a little sad and stressed, so it is a change to see a successful individual honestly depicting the debilitating nature of depression that cannot just be fixed with a little ‘self-care’.
As a musical comedian, Burnham obviously incorporates songs into Inside, which are not only funny and profound, but also genuinely good music. ‘Welcome to the Internet’ would not feel out of place coming out of the mouth of a Disney villain, and ‘Shit’ (which has gone viral on TikTok) puts the way many of us have felt over the past 18 months into words. It is ‘All Eyes On Me’, however, that is the musical highlight of the special, and perhaps Burnham’s whole career. After watching the full special, I have found myself streaming the album again and again to relive the full experience.
Good songs that are both funny and meaningful are what we have come to expect from Burnham, but his filmmaking skills are really on show in Inside. Despite entirely being filmed in one room, Inside has some of the year’s best cinematography mostly created with lighting and projectors. Throughout the special, a variety of images are projected onto Bo, from the word ‘balls’ to an anti-suicide message, making the world of Inside feel larger than just the one room.
A deeply personal reflection on lockdown and the way it has impacted the world as a whole and Robert Pickering Burnham individually, Inside may not be the funniest comedy special ever made, but it is certainly one of the most thought-provoking. Through his use of music and visual images, Bo Burnham’s insular Inside feels bigger than how it started.
Bo Burnham: Inside is available for streaming now on Netflix
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