The comedian returns with a poignant comedy special made almost entirely by himself at his home during the pandemic.
Content warning: This article contains brief mentions of suicide.
Bo Burnham's had a rough year.
The comedian-turned-filmmaker drives this point home less than two minutes into his new Netflix special, Bo Burnham: Inside. "Robert's been a little depressed," he sings with glossy AutoTune, referring to himself by his legal first name like a doctor delivering a prognosis to a patient's anxious family.
Burnham wrote, filmed, directed, and edited Inside by himself over the course of the past year. Save for its Charlie Kaufman-like ending, the 90-minute special takes place entirely in Burnham's home studio. With exceptionally clever usage of lighting and post-production editing, Inside comes remarkably close to mimicking the same magic of his live stand-up specials. Without the buffer of audience laughter, it also warmly harks back to Burnham's early days as a YouTube phenomenon recording songs in his childhood bedroom.
In his comedy, Burnham has frequently alluded to his struggles with his mental health. Ultimately, his anxiety became the reason he stepped away from stand-up a few years ago. He began getting debilitating panic attacks onstage in the middle of his performances. While fans held out for his comeback, Burnham's explanation in Inside hints that he thought a return to stand-up was virtually impossible.
However, without the stressors of a live performance or the pressure to make an audience laugh, Inside allows Burnham to be his most vulnerable, frank, and candid self. If you're in the market for laugh-out-loud musical bits like those of his previous special Make Happy, then Inside is not for you. This time around, Burnham has created something between a comedy special and a documentation of his personal pandemic experience.
Aside from critical news updates, pandemic-centered media has grown tired at this point. There have been enough essays and albums to last us throughout (God forbid) a whole other worldwide health crisis. While the unbiased summary of Inside — wealthy white man whines about his year from the comfort of his home — understandably seems trite, the special differs from its peers because Burnham doesn't preach his coping mechanisms to his audience. There is no feasible coping mechanism for a collective trauma of this scale, and to sugarcoat that fact would only make matters worse.
Fittingly, Burnham's comedy has long abided by the premise that the world sucks, life isn't fair, and people are inherently awful; Inside is no exception. In his previous specials, he's imparted these notions with a tongue-in-cheek audaciousness. This is, after all, the same guy who once wrote a song called "From God's Perspective" where he tells his audience that none of them are getting into heaven.
But Inside differs from its predecessors because, for the first time, Burnham isn't posturing as a guru of navigating sadness for comedic effect. He can finally admit that he's suffering, too. We see it in his jittery legs, his increasingly unkempt beard, the fit of anger that erupts when he realizes that this special, and the pandemic that spawned it in the first place, have consumed an entire year of his life.
"I hope this special can maybe do for you what it's done for me these last couple months," Burnham introduces in an early scene. "Which is to distract me from wanting to put a bullet into my head with a gun."
Later, he explains that he doesn't actually want to be dead — or he probably doesn't. At least not forever, or at least not right now. "But if I could kill myself for a year, I'd do it today," he says. "If I could kill myself today and be dead until, like, 18 months from now, I would do it." A brief intermission follows, allowing the audience to breathe a sigh of relief in knowing that someone else, finally, was able to put that exact feeling into words.
But when all is said and done, this is still a Bo Burnham special, meaning there's plenty of moments of ridiculousness to conjure laughter. There's an entire song about FaceTiming your mother, another about the fraught and calculated art of sexting, and another about the oblivious bliss that radiates through a white woman's Instagram account.
On the surface, none of these are particularly groundbreaking, but even these lighthearted moments carry a heavier weight in the midst of a pandemic, where FaceTime calls have replaced holiday visits and social media shows people's true colors more than ever.
Inside is not intended to make you forget how terrible your own life has been since March 2020, and to hope for that would be missing its point entirely. Years from now, when "the new normal" feels routine and COVID-19 (hopefully) is more of a memory than a reality, Inside will serve as one of the most raw and authentic depictions of life under social distancing guidelines. Nothing will change the fact that the world is a terrible place, Burnham seems to say. But laughing a little can't hurt, right?