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Bo Burnham, a seminal comedian who has always been known for brazenly wearing his heart and mind on his piano keys while retaining an unmatched air of enigma and mystery, has finally returned to musical comedy with Inside, ending a five-year hiatus. To be frank, Burnham has created a masterpiece that is simultaneously an evolution of his earlier work and a new, more cinematic lens through which his ruminations on mental health, relationships and the internet can be viewed.
His pandemic-inspired opus transcends regular Bo Burnham-ness, which, while balancing humour and emotional depth, would often tip the scales towards joviality through Burnham’s typically energetic, frenetic performance style. The dark and depressive shadow that falls on the latter half of Inside would not have been possible in a stage production, but Burnham adapts to the change effortlessly, having had experience through his hugely successful debut film Eighth Grade. The new medium accommodates a more filmic presentation of ideas, allowing for more methodical guidance of his audience through the sensitive subjects at the heart of his catalogue, without having to risk the dissatisfaction of paying customers in Row A of a packed theatre.
But make no mistake, Burnham’s comedic tools are still as sharp and socially incisive as ever in spite of the darker tone, with a handful of songs that possess his trademark style which first propelled him to viral success on YouTube 15 years ago. He has an unrivalled ability to pluck elusive but acutely relatable sentiments out of universal situations, such as in the early entry ‘FaceTime with my Mom (Tonight)’, which picks apart the slight awkwardness of the situation with which anyone living away from home is now familiar. ‘She’ll hold her iPhone 5 no further than six inches from her face, yeah’. Just yes. One of many a Bo Burnham line where his insight into modern culture is perfectly exposed and the diamonds of humour within the complex cave network of the online are mined.
Many more of those can be found in ‘White Woman’s Instagram’, a droll take on the stereotypical posts of the eponymous subject’s Instagram feed. ‘Incredibly derivative political street art / A dreamcatcher bought from Urban Outfitters / A vintage neon sign’ is a particularly insightful line that exposes the unrealistic and occasionally ignorant idyll these accounts propagate. However, as with many of his other tracks, Burnham does not exist in this medium solely to poke fun at easy targets, he instead criticises his audience’s failure to consider the bigger picture. The song’s bridge focuses on the title character’s personal trauma—the death of a parent—which Burnham uses to explain the White Woman’s need for validation; a flaw that Burnham himself confesses to suffering from in Inside. Beyond the lyrics, Burnham runs the message of the song through the visuals too, as the music video is mostly shot in Instagram’s 1:1 aspect ratio, but expands to fullscreen during the bridge, representing the tone shift and a person’s wider, more complex life beyond the confines of social media.
There are many more where these came from, songs that poke fun at the nonsensical landscape of online culture, such as ‘Sexting’ and ‘Welcome to the Internet’. The latter’s presentation of the web as a Disney-style villain is a characteristically Bo Burnham idea. But the element that makes Inside unique in comparison to Burnham’s other specials is not the songs, rather the skits and scenes that fall between them. This is where the comedy special becomes something more than its predecessors—a claustrophobic and unsettling masterpiece. That is not a term that should be used lightly, but anyone could confidently say that this is not only Burnham’s finest work but a study that is truly one-of-a-kind.
From the second half onwards, Burnham presents himself as a hostage, or nomad, navigating the desert that has become our collective existence during the last fourteen months. Over the course of the special, his hair and beard grow longer, his room becomes more and more cluttered, and his demeanour falls into toxic anger that evaporates any memories of his bygone liveliness. The usual interludes of more classical stand-up comedy are replaced with bleak silence, or even bleaker journeys into Burnham’s head, as the small shed in which he films the special is made smaller by the lack of light and the snake-pit of wires crossing the floor.
Misery is the prevailing mood of Burnham’s skits, such as one particularly harrowing parody of a video game, in which his character can only pace, play the piano, and cry, while being commentated over by a vapid, monotonous Twitch streamer. Many have commented on the fact that Inside is the perfect representation of how it felt to be locked down for a year, and while that may be partly true, it may be more relevant as a representation of how lockdown has simply served to expose pre-existing flaws in both Burnham and his viewers. His video game skit embodies his lockdown existence but cynically distils his overall character into two distinct parts that he has clearly been perennially unhappy with.
The true tragedy of the piece is that Burnham cannot explain his depression away through the pandemic alone. At the heart of the conflict is an issue no different to the tribulations examined by his pre-hiatus Make Happy—the troubled relationship he has with his audience. The climax of Inside rams this home with heart-breaking momentum. ‘All Eyes on Me’ is the most revelatory performance of the show, with Burnham dropping the veneer of performative energy and sinking into the wormhole of depressive, growling synths. The title alone is an anxious statement; despite Burnham retreating inside, the eyes of the audience still find their way through his shutters due to his unquenchable desire to perform, which has returned regardless of his consequent misery.
To leave us in no doubt, Burnham runs away with this theme until the end. ‘Goodbye’ is the realisation of the truth of the piece. He promises to ‘never go outside again’, though everything we have seen before tells us how unhappy lockdown has made him. But the damning confirmation comes in the final scene, where Burnham finally steps outside, greeted by an intense spotlight and rapturous applause—it’s everything he ever wanted, right? He clamours desperately to get back in through the now locked door. The audience starts to laugh as if it’s part of the act, like Tommy Cooper dying on stage.
Until now, maybe we have never truly understood Bo Burnham, though I think he gives us the best chance of doing so by creating Inside. Oftentimes, his message is very hard to unpick, and despite his ideas often possessing a strong sense of universality, it also feels so personal to him. At the moment, the best words I can find to describe Bo Burnham are not my own, but Kris Kristofferson’s in Taxi Driver: ‘He’s a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction.’