Cultures Film & TV

Inside (Bo Burnham’s head)

Bo Burnham’s Inside sees him stuck both inside his house and his head. The special gives a real and relatable insight into his well-being and way of thinking; it’s one of the most remarkable things about the show. There’s a lot of competition for that given that Burnham wrote, shot, edited and directed it all, and that’s without mentioning the quality of the production and the songs. I didn’t laugh when watching, which is odd for a comedy show, especially for one that is as funny as this. But it hits too close to home to produce laughter; the past year and a half has been taxing for everyone – especially those with existing mental health struggles – and Burnham captures this exactly. The pandemic has been full of moments of celebrities failing at being relatable, from Gal Gadot’s singing to Ellen DeGeneres’ complaints, but Burham masterfully creates something that made me say ‘I’ve been this person’.  

Both technically and musically, the show is a complete success. There are drawbacks to it not being a live stand-up performance; I particularly missed hearing the audiences’ reactions. Nevertheless, I would love to see this medium again in the future, especially for musical comics. Burnham’s choice of lighting and angles is spot on, illustrating that he knows how to create an atmosphere which could not be done so effectively on a stage. The fact that it is all shot in one room is a constant reminder of the strain he is under; he’s trapped by the pandemic and his fear of being done with the special. The songs were of the highest production quality and technicality that I have ever seen from Burnham, and his voice has never sounded better; the harmonies are tight, and the synthesiser well used. He covers a wide range of genres and often the humour in the song does not come from cheeky punchlines and funny observations but from the mismatch between the content and the beat  –  lyrics about facetiming his mum are paired with a sexual pop song. His comedy throughout is subversive and understated; unlike in his earliest shows, he doesn’t say things for shock value. Burnham has evolved both in his musical ability and his humour.  

Callbacks are common in comedy, and normally take the form of a reference to an earlier joke. Burnham takes a different route; he repeatedly references messianic imagery, linking well with the message in the song ‘Comedy’, where he debates whether performing comedy makes a positive difference to the world. His relentless self-awareness is central to the special and the godly imagery is part of this; you can tell that he wants to believe that, by creating a comedy show, he is making the world a better place. But he doesn’t believe it. This isn’t new for him; Art is Dead captures this in a far less sophisticated form. Yet, while Art is Dead felt specific to comics, this show captures the existential angst and drive to be productive that so many of us feel all the time – and how exhausting it is. We all want to believe we make a difference but do we actually? Can we actually?  

Another part of the special’s relatability is the need Burnham expresses to justify his actions. The reaction video segment epitomises this, because the layers of self-analysis keep going on and on until an overwhelming crescendo is reached. Something that I appreciate is Burnham’s commitment to being honest about his experience and the reality of poor mental health; too often it can be romanticised or glamorised in the media. But not here. His hair is greasy at points, and he breaks down on camera.  Early on in the special, he uses a streaming skit to let the audience know what his days consist of: crying multiple times, being trapped in the room and playing piano. It’s a clever way to be vulnerable under the guise of humour.  

Overall, the piece is unexpected. There are few jokes that follow the normal ‘set up then punchline’ structure; the cheeky demeanour seen in previous work is gone. Yet, or perhaps because of this, Burnham creates a spectacle that I believe will be enduring. It’s technically stunning; he completes the work of a crew all by himself to a high standard and with such purpose. Every detail feels thought out, without being contrived. At one point he tells the audience that he hopes the show will be a distraction for us the way it has been for him. It’s a rather humble aim and there is no doubt that he succeeds in it.