Image: Netflix

The cathartic rumination on modern living that is Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’

There’s an eerie buzzing; the empty room is flooded with light, and Bo Burnham walks inside, firmly closing the door behind him. The synthesised electro-pop comes in – get ready for a journey, because the show’s about to begin. 

I first came across Burnham with his last Netflix special Make Happy, five years ago. Before that, I wouldn’t have said I was a fan of any comedians, though I liked plenty. Discovering Bo Burnham revolutionised my ideas about what comedy can be and what it can achieve, and seriously raised my expectations for stage shows. Make Happy was a magnificent, witty, emotive journey with moments of introspection interwoven with clever humour. Known for his musical comedy, Burnham has always been experimental and creative, but never more so than in his latest work, Inside.

After experiencing panic attacks on stage, often raising his inner conflict about performance both in shows and interviews, Burnham took a step back from the spotlight for what many (including myself) assumed would be a permanent withdrawal. But after one of the most difficult years, Burnham finally returns with a perfect reflection on the absurd experience of modern life. I thought this was never going to happen, but I’m glad it did.

These intrusive shots speak to the feeling of Inside – a deeply personal, raw performance where the audience is made to feel just as naked and exposed as the stripped back Burnham

Following an introductory song that reimagines the typically low-effort vein of relatable comedy as an unorthodox melodic monologue, we’re given a look behind the curtain before the show properly begins. Along with Burnham setting up equipment, we get uncomfortable close-ups, sudden cutaways from eye contact, and a slow zoom towards the camera lens which reflects yourself watching on your vacant black screen. These intrusive shots speak to the feeling of Inside – a deeply personal, raw performance where the audience is made to feel just as naked and exposed as the stripped back Burnham. 

For fans, Inside eases you into this new, claustrophobic style with some familiar cynical, self-conscious comedy. There are strong parallels between Inside and its precursor, from intense existentialism and self-doubt over his privilege to his fear of making jokes that punch down. The only answer to these sincere concerns is that all he can do at a time like this is make people laugh, comically alternating from serious to theatrical within a line. It’s what allows the Netflix special to exist in the first place. This approach to humour and commentary is reminiscent of his previous work: a smooth transition from the last special, where the messages appear to be the same, but the tone and style are markedly different.

But is it a comedy? It’s less obvious in Inside than in what. or Make Happy, but the honest portrayal of an anguished, unreal year reminds you how life can be laughable in the best and worst ways. Its chaotic, manic quality reflects what it’s like to live a life which is intertwined with the modern internet and capitalist culture, and is absurdly comforting simply because of its acknowledgement of that. 

The entire show is a nostalgic, self-aware exploration and critique of internet culture that could be an homage to Burnham’s roots or an attempt to move away from them

Mocking brands, influencers, content creators, and himself, he makes the most of the form visually, musically, and verbally. The concepts wouldn’t come across in the same way if he had a live audience laughing instead of a manually operated laugh track or silence, if he had been a performer distinct from the means of production rather than controlling his own lights and leaving wires in frame. Inside wouldn’t have worked in any way but this.

Early in the show, Burnham remarks that it’s just him and his camera, and us and our screens – that’s what Inside is all about. Fan rewrites have even popped up, with people inserting their own experiences into the folk tune ‘That Funny Feeling’. It’s also a pseudo-regression to his origins, making jokes alone in his room. The entire show is a nostalgic, self-aware exploration and critique of internet culture that could be an homage to Burnham’s roots or an attempt to move away from them. Regardless, it’s a perspective that traditional comedians would have a much harder time pulling off, accurately creating comedy about something that established celebrities seemingly fail to understand and get a proper grasp of. 

Inside is a bizarre experience that rewards you for accepting its unusual style and premise, something first-time watchers in particular will need to get on board with to really get the most out of it. But if you can be open to that, Bo Burnham offers a painfully accurate, cathartic rumination on the modern horror story of reality that remarkably remains an electrifying, enthralling experience.

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