Of all the films and special that attempted to tap into the anxieties and isolation of the Coronavirus pandemic, few will ever feel as cathartic, emotional, and perfectly relatable as Bo Burnham‘s one-man show to an audience of none. Burnham’s special is a mixture of comedy, music, and tragic commentary on how surreal the experience of being in quarantine can make us a mess but also change our entire outlook on the world. Having given up live performances because of having panic attacks, the lockdowns may have seemed like a golden age for the introverts. Months upon months of downtime to compose yourself however you wish, away from prying eyes. Yet there’s also depression and intensity that comes with feeling as though you MUST make something. And when the pandemic ends, will you have spent your time wisely? Will you even be able to go back into the world again?
Burnham’s special attempts to find some humor and truth to the many segments he stages. Locked in a small environment littered with computers, cameras, and lights, he finds many ways to craft insightful jabs at the nature of being locked within an online world. His many songs highlight common online trends of the era with a ribbing nature, ranging on everything from Facetime with mom to sexting with girls to the earworm of “White Woman’s Instagram.” And how could anyone forget the perfectly encapsulating “Welcome To The Internet,” zeroing in on the lightning-fast supply of interest, where you can find everything from conspiracy theories to celebrity foot pics.
I love how open Burnham is about the mechanics of this special. He doesn’t try to hide the wire or keep the rest of the room out of frame. He even opens the special by showing everything in his environment. In between his many bits, we get sequences of him setting up everything, sometimes even having accidents with setting up the camera or getting the lighting just right. There’s a lot of low-key moments of honesty in these scenes as well, as with Burnham lying on the floor in a sea of cables, contemplating if this special will even be good or finished, a thought that continues to haunt him throughout.
Many of the most humorous bits carry a kernel of somber contemplation and commentary. There’s a scene with him doing a parody of a Twitch stream, where he pretends to play a came about isolation and depression which Burnham also acts out. While playing the game, Burnham makes all of the expected commentary common to every Twitch stream. “Okay, how do I move.” “Oh, okay, I beat it.” “Thanks for the 4-month subscription.” The game itself finds him wandering around his room, where the only things he can do is play a piano and cry until the day is over. The streamer doesn’t take note of this, more concerned with game mechanics and fan engagement. It’s a great satire on how streamers are often bereft of greater emotional appeal in art but also on how easy it is to glaze over such sadness and treat it as though it’s normal.
There’s some more meta bits that become uncomfortably personal. At its lightest, Burnham films a musical bit and then films himself reacting to the song. He then reacts to his reaction to the song. Then reacts to his reaction to his reaction of the song. And so on. Absurd, yes, but also noteworthy of how surreal it can be with self-criticism. At its darkest, there’s the closing sequence where Burnham performs a brutally honest stand-up sequence with canned laughter occurring at uncomfortable moments, containing both a longing and fear of performing in front of a crowd.
I’ve also got to mention one of the most hilariously dark sketches where Burnham attempts to perform a satirical kid’s show with a sock puppet. Of course, the sock puppet will go off script and attempt to teach the kids more troubling aspects of the American system and the deep dread of existencialism. The sock puppet takes on a weirdly horrific tone of questioning life and how pointless it may seem when locked within such a void.
But there’s also a lot of moments of mild hope to keep going. Burnham celebrates his 30th birthday during this time alone, counting down the seconds until his birthday. In celebration, he sings a song about getting old and how troubling it is to come to terms with the fact that he’s getting older and will one day be seen as old. There’s something so sublime about this musical number, sung in the dark with cool colors swimming around the room, that screams of a freedom for generation who had to place their entire lives on hold for over a year.
Of all the media to come out of the Coronavirus pandemic, there’s no exaggeration in proclaiming Inside as the best work of this era. The expression of so many troubling thoughts that have bubbled and boiled over time makes this artful, hilarious, and musical film be more than just a comedian’s special. In the same way that remote working has proven that certain businesses do not require an office setting, Bo Burnham proves he doesn’t need an audience to create something that can touch on so much within such a small room. Roger Ebert once said the budget you need to make a movie is $3000: $1500 for the camera and $1500 for the computer to edit the footage. Bo probably spent a little more than that but Inside is still the living proof of this theory being correct. All the special effects and A-list casting in the world couldn’t deliver what he has performed here all on his own.