Inside with Bo Burnham


The number of negative effects that have occurred due to the global pandemic is, at this point, too many to count; but, one that not enough people seem to focus on is the detrimental effects it could have on one’s mental and emotional health. There is so much confusion that surrounds these unprecedented times that one may begin to feel an influx of overwhelming thoughts and emotions. At a time like this, you may also look for something or someone that you can connect with and relate to. If there is one piece of media from this past year that has perfectly encapsulated the collective emotions of the public it is Bo Burnham’s idiosyncratic art project, Inside.

Since its release, Inside has often been labeled as a comedy special; but, without the presence of a live audience and with a stronger emphasis on dark and introspective themes, it is hard to view Bo’s latest material alongside the stand-up work from someone like Kevin Hart or Dave Chappelle. This new special comes after a long five year hiatus that Bo has taken from stand-up, citing the number of severe panic attacks that led him to seemingly retire from the stage. Since then, he has been busy with various other projects, like his directorial debut, Eighth Grade, that earned him a screenwriting award at the WGA (Writers Guild of America). His past specials (“What” and “Make Happy”) have been similarly unique in their approach to the stand-up format, containing the same kind of existential topics and musical showmanship, but this time around Bo is in absolute control. It is a complete one-man show, and he takes full advantage of the lighting, framing, editing, etc. Every choice he makes throughout the special comes across as so purely him, and through his openness and honesty about his internal struggle he, in turn, becomes more relatable to the audience. 

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Bo Burnham opens the special with the song “Content,” a perfect introduction as it not only sets the tone, but it also sets up many of the main themes that are present throughout the special, more specifically it touches on his self-isolation. While sitting in the dimly lit room that would remain as the setting for the rest of the special, he confesses the true nature of his current emotional state since his hiatus. He has completely separated himself from the real world, like many have during the pandemic, but Bo’s reasoning is more complex than that. In the first few lines of “Content” he expresses, “If you’d have told me a year ago That I’d be locked inside of my home (Ah, ah, ah) I would have told you, a year ago: ‘Interesting; now leave me alone’.” For most people, any knowledge of the pandemic a year in advance would have left them shocked and confused, but Bo believes he would have been more or less indifferent. This is significant because Bo’s isolation digs deeper than the pandemic, as his confinement comes more from the mental health issues that he has been dealing with far before there was any quarantine. These struggles are largely what led to his five year hiatus from stand-up, which he tackles in more detail later on in the special with the song “All Eyes On Me.” Even though these ideas are a dark depiction of Bo’s mind at this point in time, its ability to reach a wider audience comes from the public seeing their own reflection in the way Bo expresses these emotions.

The reason that the first song is titled “content” is because Bo also references the fact that he has used his time trapped away at home to essentially feed his audience with more entertainment. Here, he is not only mentioning the almost parasocial relationship that he has made with his fans, but he is also commenting on the desire many people have in the modern age to consume media as a way to circumvent their emotional health. At one point, he even shines a light that he strapped onto his head at a disco ball to create a dizzying effect, as if to reflect the hypnotic nature of modern media. Bo Burnham's Netflix special Inside is must-watch pandemic viewing - Stealth OptionalThis idea is expanded on more in many parts of the special, like in the song “Welcome to the Internet,” where he details the vast and endless sea of content that could be found online. His performance on the song resembles that of a circus jester who is overly ecstatic as he lists out the series of remarkable horrors and delights that could be found on the internet. The modern age has led to a spread of constant media consumption, where multiple beliefs, ideologies, and opinions intersect, creating an environment where anyone can distract themselves with stimuli that would help mask any real world issues. Inside does not merely demonize all aspects of internet culture, but instead it allows the audience to question the way in which the internet and social media can have a large effect on our lives.

There are multiple ideas throughout Inside that all seem to be clashing at once, as if all of the inner workings of Bo’s mind were scattered around throughout the special. This may also be why there is a certain lack of subtlety with Inside. Even though the ideas presented are quite profound, it does not leave much room for interpretation, but rather it is all laid bare on the screen. This approach allows the audience to immediately identify with the sense of loneliness that Bo exudes throughout the special. The impact of social distancing during the pandemic has only made matters worse for those with pre-existing mental health conditions. Since this is the case, Bo is able to become more personal in his material without alienating the viewer. The special is currently available to stream on Netflix, and I would highly encourage you to experience this work of comedic genius.