Let’s all agree right now that asking someone what they “got done” in 2020 is a dick move worthy of public shame. Over a year ago, we all went to sleep and the sun rose on a world much worse than the one we’d known the day before, so glibly asking what someone did after that is not really a small talk kind of question. Bo Burnham did something in quarantine, though, and he wants us to watch it. Or maybe he doesn’t. Either way, his new Netflix special Bo Burnham: Inside is an amazing argument for why asking that question is loaded at best and emotionally horrifying at worst.
This special, written, filmed, and edited by Burnham over the course of 2020, takes place almost entirely in one room of his guest house, but the constantly transforming and claustrophobic space Burnham uses to stage his sketches isn’t only what the title means by “inside.” Bo Burnham: Inside is a devastating portrait of the actor-director-singer-comedian’s dysfunctional interiority and 2020’s unyielding assault on mental and social health. What begins as a project to pass the hours in a year when many people were forcibly gifted a lot of alone time transforms over the hour into an upsetting (in a good way?) musical recap of shared psychic trauma.
Burnham’s talent for using his charisma, character, and musical talent to poke fun at his insecurities while holding a mirror up to ours is well established, as is his directorial eye as seen in 2018’s Eighth Grade. If each of his individual skills is one component of the band that is Bo Burnham, then Inside is their supergroup. Songs like “White Woman’s Instagram” are a visual collage that expertly apes pop music and social media posting tropes in video form while “Turning 30” is a single-take performance of a frankly hurtful banger wherein Burnham uses pedals and his own ass to control a dynamic lighting system. Almost every number has you asking “how did he do that?” and the increasingly remarkable answer is “alone, and inside.”
The centerpiece of Inside is “Welcome to the Internet,” a four-and-a-half minute villain song that casts Burnham as a sinister carnival barker laying out the thesis statement of the trash fire we call the web: “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time? Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” The frenetic beat gets faster as he describes what the internet has in store (feet pics, breakfast recipes, instructions for building a bomb) and instantly recalls the overwhelming feeling of getting locked in a spiral of doomscrolling and realizing that everything, everything about existing online is a nightmare — all of the time.
The bait-and-switch of funny guy stuff with depressing realism is a well known Burnham trick, but mixing this particular journey into hilarious darkness with the communal hellscape of 2020 makes it much more potent. It’s very easy to watch Inside and pinpoint familiar quarantine moments like “that time we thought it was going to be short and fun,” “sexting and feeling bad about it,” “feeling helpless in the face of neoliberal fascism,” and “not showering for more than a week, maybe talk to someone about that.” The anxieties and concerns Burnham exploits for his comedy are much more common this time and as a result, they’re harder to watch. At around the three-quarter point, the emotional experience of watching Inside becomes almost unbearable because Burnham’s performance of pain is too much, too real, too unbearable.
In one of the final songs, “All Eyes On Me,” Burnham copies the wavy stadium vibe of a successful Soundcloud DJ and pitches his voice lower to ask an imagined audience to look at him, then look away, pray for him, all eyes on him, heads down, and so on. His relationship to the imagined audience is present and changing throughout the special, but it’s there that Burnham’s ambivalence towards even filming this comes across the most. That is the moment where the camera lens almost cracks to show the artist behind this very well-made journey into darkness. He made this alone thinking of the people who would watch it, except fuck them, but he needs them, but he’d rather not know what they think.
Inside is…a lot. It’s a staggering feat of multimedia art that speaks to Bo Burnham’s rare creativity. It’s also a hopeless and upsetting projection of depression that gets a little too close to the feels if one is inclined to feel them. It’s brilliant, the songs are mostly bangers, and it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious. It’s physically painful to watch. That oscillation is the point of Inside and of Burnham’s work as a whole. All eyes on him. Now heads down. Pray for him. And for the love of god, don’t ask him what he did in 2020.
Bo Burnham: Inside is now streaming on Netflix.