If Alex Gibney’s Totally Under Control and Nanfu Wang’s upcoming In the Same Breath are the best macro portraits of the pandemic thus far, then Bo Burnham’s Inside is its best micro depiction.
The standup comic adds layers of meaning to the term “one-man show,” as Burnham wrote, shot, edited, and is the sole performer in this Netflix special. To further deepen our envy at his multiple talents, he also wrote and played the 20 songs we hear. To lend context to this skillset: the actor/director combination is common enough, but if we tack on composer and performer, only Charlie Chaplin comes to mind.
For a film taking place in a single room in Burnham’s home, Inside is remarkably cinematic. Variations in lighting, brisk editing, simple but striking special effects, and tonal shifts allow us to laugh out loud at his chirpy, overly bright “White Woman’s Instagram,” or tense up during his klezmer-as-horror “Welcome to the Internet.” In one scene, he’s bundled in a blanket on the floor, talking softly into a mike; later, he’s in his undies belting out a peppy synth-pop tune about turning 30, complete with the memorable chorus, “my stupid friends are having stupid children.” Interspersed among the songs are peeks behind the curtain of the filmmaker at work, as well as sketches poking fun at videogame live play and YouTube reaction videos.
Followers of Burnham’s career will recognize themes from earlier comedy specials. But as he’s honed his compositional and vocal skills, he’s also sharpened his knives. During the opening of 2016’s Make Happy, he walked the streets of NYC wearing a clown nose, accompanied by voiceover declaiming that the world’s not a funny place. Here, he opens with similar sentiments, but goes even bleaker towards the end, expressing powerlessness to effect change as civilization winds down, that “we were overdue” for a year like 2020.
Likewise, Burnham jokily sang in Make Happy about the travails of being a straight white male: same privileges as always, but less fun now. In 2021, he posits that since guys like him have had 400 years to ruin the world, maybe he should just shut the fuck up. With equal bluntness, he asserts if you’re a self-actualized douchebag, you’re still a douchebag.
In 2018’s Eighth Grade, which he wrote and directed, he depicted the noxious influence of social media on a junior high girl. Here, he outright states that turning over childrearing control to “bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley” was a really shitty idea. Through the mouth of an oppressed sock puppet, Burnham even advocates for a Marxist overthrow of our present oligarchy. Additionally, not one but two songs are dedicated to Jeff Bezos, displacer of the Walton family in the contest for America’s most psychopathic business practices.
But as Inside proceeds, Burnham narrows his focus to the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on his psyche. Reflecting on his mental deterioration, his uncut hair gets greasier, his beard scragglier. The floor of his work/living space becomes more cluttered.
It’s fair, of course, to ask how much of Burnham’s appearance is performative. Answers from the show’s creator have not been forthcoming, as he’s been notably absent from the interviewing circuit lately. But prior to this, Burnham had been candid about his struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. And with his frequent sighs, flat voice, and bouncing leg, he perfectly replicates the look and sound of a depressed, anxious guy. A song lyric about “googling ‘derealization’ and not liking what you find” has the ring of personal experience, too.
Some who have battled declining mental health over the past 18 months may feel the advancing grimness of Inside’s final third is too much to bear. (There are a couple of suicide mentions as well). But in a period with unprecedented rates of depression and anxiety disorders, I suspect most watchers will find catharsis in his frankness.
As someone with social phobia, I resonate with Burnham’s fear that our enduring lesson from the pandemic will be that social contact could be fatal. To use his analogy, and he’s such a fabulous wordsmith, I worry we’ll continue to act as coal miners in our excursions: suit up, grab what we need, and hurry home.
I see evidence of this among many vaccinated peers who remain fearful of leaving home, who haven’t progressed beyond those quick dashes into the mine. A recurring theme in Burnham’s work—both exhorting and optimistic in tone—is the need to power down our isolating screens and open a door into the wider world. I hope more of us find the strength to take those steps in the coming weeks.