No one had ever seen anything like it: a comedy-musical special written, performed, recorded, and produced over the course of a year by one person, without audience or crew, while locked like the rest of us in his own home. And 20-somethings latched onto it with a passion that hasn’t even begun to let go.
Return with me, if you will, to May 2021. Another summer was rounding the corner, and we were still locked inside of our homes. What many assumed at first would be a temporary lifestyle change had proven stubborn beyond our wildest fears.
“This was supposed to be two weeks, not two years,” Meg (24) recalls.
Vaccines were available, but rather than ending the pandemic and freeing us as anticipated, they were thwarted by anti-vaccine disinformation, and their utility wavered in the face of new coronavirus strains. Americans’ health was suffering: we gained weight and consumed more alcohol than ever.
Our mental health wasn’t doing so hot, either. People whose work meetings and classes now primarily took place over video chat were starting to have a distorted sense of their own faces, and many had PTSD symptoms after a year of nonstop death, disease, and fear. Young people, in particular, experienced record levels of loneliness and unhappiness.
“I was going through a major depressive episode,” Daniella (21) told me in an interview. “Once again I was forced to take classes that were all online, all the while living an isolated, soulless existence in a virtually empty dorm. The trauma inflicted on me from the absolute chaos and horror that was 2020 has still not been erased.”
Into this psychological hellscape, one year ago this week, came the Netflix special Bo Burnham: Inside. No one had ever seen anything like it: a comedy-musical special written, performed, recorded, and produced over the course of a year by one person, without audience or crew, while locked like the rest of us in his own home. And 20-somethings latched onto it with a passion that hasn’t even begun to let go.
Many of us were at a low point. So maybe it’s not a shock that we responded like we did to someone who starts a song by stammering
So, um, uh, my current mental health is…is rapidly
Approaching, uh, an ATL…which is, uh, that’s an all-time low
before bursting into an upbeat, candy-coated tune that almost, almost succeeds in hiding the dark lyrics festering below it.
A beautiful day to stay inside
For Gen Z fans, Inside created an instant community around shared mental health experiences and made viewers feel seen in a way they’d never experienced.
“I went full-on obsessed with Bo Burnham for six months when it was released,” Swedish 24-year-old Linn told me. “I watched all of his specials, and [his movies] Eighth Grade and Promising Young Woman. I watched every interview on YouTube I could find. It feels like that was one of the things he wanted, to really get under people’s skin.”
Fans not only watched the special multiple times but analyzed it into the ground. As of the writing of this article, TikTok videos with the hashtag #boburnhaminside have been viewed over 700 million times, in addition to 373 million for #alleyesonme and nearly 43 million for #thatfunnyfeeling, two of the special’s most impactful songs. Fans made 19,600 videos using his song “Welcome to the Internet,” 32,700 videos using “White Woman’s Instagram” (most of them self-deprecating acknowledgments of the song’s accuracy), 68,400 videos using the tragic bop “Shit”, and a whopping 577,500 using “Bezos I,” which surged in use following the multi-billionaire’s trip to almost-space.
Could I interest you in everything, all of the time?
While Bo Burnham established himself firmly as a millennial in his song “Turning 30,” the special seems addressed directly to Gen Z. In “Welcome to the Internet,” Bo refers to an era
Not many years ago, just before your time
Right before the Towers fell, circa ’99…
This may explain why Gen Z viewers, the ‘you’, felt so uniquely heard when they first watched the special. Gen Z fans told me that Inside felt like a breath of fresh air, a brand new type of self-aware humor that was uniquely poised to represent them at a critical moment.
Meg, who’s loved Burnham’s comedy since an older sibling introduced her at age 10, woke up early to watch Inside the day it came out. “I watched it. I watched it again. I cried,” Meg recalls. “Inside is so different from everything else he’s done.”
“It’s like if you saw a new color, you couldn’t describe it because of how unique it was, that’s how it was watching the special,” described Lilith (23). “I and many others needed to see that when it came out. It came out at the right time, the right moment, and it reached the right amount of people, I feel like that’s the legacy the show is going to have.”
“I was in awe,” said Kelsi (23). “He captured the feelings we were having during the pandemic. My first child was born in May 2020, and I couldn’t have my mom with me. ‘Look Who’s Inside Again’ resonated with me the most. He represented all the mental turmoil I’d been going through.”
Fans embraced “That Funny Feeling,” in particular, as a generational anthem.
Search for the term on TikTok to this day, and you’ll find yourself making eye contact with a grid of mournful youths holding guitars, singing their own lyrics about that impossible-to-define yet instantly recognizable “funny feeling”:
Seasonal depression that begins in summertime / Pictures of my body I can’t identify as firstname.lastname@example.org
The nausea before eating nothing / Canceling your plans@boogeywitdawoogey
2001 indie pop with words I somehow know / Realizing it was written 20 years ago@sidebees
“It’s the perfect song for days when you feel low,” explains Shauryae, 22. “It captures the randomness of depression so aptly. You go through life with its highs and lows, and then out of the blue, the littlest of arbitrary things can trigger this implosive reaction that just hollows you out completely.”
As a sleep-deprived 31-year-old who hates commuting, I found some respite in 2020-2021’s forced isolation. Gen Z Burnham fans, on the other hand, many of whom were in school, starting new careers, and even raising babies, felt like they’d missed out on some of the best years of their lives.
“We wasted two years dealing with this shit. I think everybody spent a birthday just sitting at their house,” says Alison, 23.
The song “Turning 30,” an ode to Burnham’s fear and sense of inadequacy in the face of aging, was relatable even for those starting their 20s.
“Back in the day you could pay off your debts, you could get a house relatively easily, but the way things have changed it’s really hard to make something of your life,” Lilith told me. “I’m turning 24 this month and I’m kind of afraid I haven’t accomplished much. I’m afraid of being irrelevant.”
Kylie, 25, shared the sentiment. “It’s just the existential dread of looking around and seeing all these people who have done all these things. They have houses and families and careers, you may not feel like that, you feel like you’re stuck.”
Burnham’s isolation, chronophobia, and unraveling mental health during the pandemic wasn’t the only theme that struck Gen Z fans. As I wrote in August 2021,
Bo articulates the existential plight of his millennial and Gen-Z viewers: we’re more aware of and passionate about human issues, and more uniquely helpless to fix them, than we ever have been.
20,000 years of this, seven more to go
Inside touched on at least two major global-justice themes—climate change in “Comedy,” “That Funny Feeling,” and “All Eyes On Me,” and American imperialism and racism in “Comedy” and “How the World Works”—that are at the forefront of Gen Z consciousness.
“With everything that was happening with Black Lives Matter, Inside was like a pinpoint of everything that needed to be talked about,” said French-Canadian Claudie, 24, who found the songs mentioning climate change to be particularly validating. “This is something I share with people my age. I’m very eco-anxious. I’m vegetarian, I decided not to have kids because why would I put someone in this world when I know that no one’s doing anything? It makes me panic, but having someone acknowledge all these feelings that I have was calming.”
“I would say that’s something [Gen-Z fans] feel,” said Tina, 23. “There’s definitely this sense of helplessness. I think that’s why Bo connects with young people so much, he’s verbalizing this helplessness.”
At the same time, Inside captured viewers’ frustrations with the state of social discourse. The “brand consultant” sketch in particular evoked the empty and sometimes downright absurd corporate gestures of ‘wokeness’ (no one really asked for “Bugles’ take on race,” as referenced by Burnham in “That Funny Feeling”) that sprang up during the BLM movement.
“It brought back memories of companies trying to capitalize and profit off of the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the George Floyd murder,” Daniella reflected. “It also validated my anger at how modern media influencers/celebrities try to score points for their shitty, self-serving goals with these disingenuous anti-suicide social media posts.”
On the other hand, young adults trying to have meaningful conversations about these social topics are often thwarted by a fear of being “canceled.” The song “Problematic” captures the extent to which even choices made in childish ignorance can come back to haunt their genitors.
“You look at Problematic, I think it’s a callout to cancel culture because people are thinking, ‘if I post this now will I get torn apart in 2 or 3 years?’” said Kelsi. “People are constantly digging up celebrities’ pasts to find a reason not to like them. We’re going through so many major world events right now, but I think a lot of people are scared to put their opinions out there.”
Still, “Problematic” encourages viewers not to stew in their past mistakes, but rather to acknowledge them with humility and move on. This encouragement comes at a critical time: worn down by isolation, Gen Z needs conversation and community more than ever. In the end, this is what Inside seemed to provide fans, and what’s kept them coming back to the special month after month: a sense that we’re all in this together.
“My feelings of validation were overwhelming,” said Daniella. “Watching the special made me realize that what I was feeling was understandable and nothing to be ashamed of. I wished I had gotten this kind of empathy from my own family members rather than from a man who does not even know I exist.”
“It actually created a community of people across generations, this is the one thing we can all talk about for hours on end,” said Alison, who pointed out that I was interviewing her in Kansas from California. “Having a sense of community in the state of the world right now is awesome.”
A year after Inside’s release, online fan groups like the one from which I sourced my interviewees remain active; TikTok musicians continue to cover “That Funny Feeling” and devoted fans continue to draw meaning from the soundtrack. In early summer of 2021, Black Lives Matter was the social topic du jour. Today, the Supreme Court’s leaked draft opinion on Roe v. Wade dominates social media feeds, and Bo Burnham fans once again find solace in his righteous despair.
I, personally, found myself roused and optimistic while interviewing young people who remained dedicated to social change despite exhaustion and suffering mental health. If Inside helps inspire them to keep chipping away at the ceiling of progress and remind them that they’re not alone in the fight, I’m a believer in its legacy.
As Linn put it, “It felt like it was the first Pop Culture media that really encouraged people to talk about, ‘are we satisfied with how our culture looks? Do we want it to be like this?’”