Bo Burnham: Inside

⭐⭐⭐⭐½ based on 1 review.

tl;dr: A masterwork of storytelling and creative direction, with some exceptional skits and a poignant meta-narrative on isolation, mental health, and the pandemic, though a little lacking in Burnham's trademark stinging wit and wordplay.


Standup Comedy


Spoilers Ahead: My reviews are not spoiler-free. You have been warned.

I've followed Burnham since his early days on YouTube. Even at a young age, when the focus was almost entirely on his comedic lyrics and musical talents, his videos were well-paced, well-framed, and well-produced. Inside, in many ways, feels like his first return to that visual medium for well over a decade and holy what and how!? have his abilities grown. Excellent comedy, superb storytelling, and darkly poignant messages aside, what Inside achieves with cinematography and lighting is utterly masterful. Using a projector, a handful of studio lights, and a "regular" camera, Bo has crafted a visual smörgasbord of delights. Each frame is thoughtfully composed and expertly handled; each transition deliberately amateur in a way that's tonally perfect (and extremely hard); each tool at his disposable wielded with perfect precision.

Don't get me wrong, he's using state-of-the-art, incredibly expensive gear here. This is not something even a virtuoso teenager could accomplish in their bedroom with some LED panels and a DSLR. Yet the fact that Bo did everything from setup, to lighting, to staging, to editing, to post-production, all in one room, all by themselves... that's beyond impressive. That makes Inside an artistic masterpiece of working within constraints and using what you have to every inch of its potential.

(Though, perhaps, if I were to level one critique, it's that the slow zoom was a tad overused 😂)

As a show, Inside is one part YouTube skits, one part self-critique, and one part meta-analysis on the psychological toll of living through the pandemic. It's deeply personal as a result, which means if that analysis doesn't fit your own lived experience, I think a lot of the impact will be lost. That's not a criticism, though, more a fair warning. From the reactions online it's clear to see that Inside struck a fairly raw nerve for a lot of people, albeit in a cathartic way. For others, it went woooosh over their heads. In other words, depending on how you found your life through lockdown, your mileage may vary quite a bit.

Personally, I think I sit somewhere in the middle. I was able to dissect a lot of what Bo was hinting at (or at least, I empathised with the sentiments I found, which is about as far as you can get with any form of art). But on the other hand, some aspects left me a little cold, or felt a little too alien. That's okay: no one but Bo will ever fully get something as personal as this, so for everyone else, it's a case of seeing where you land. Though my lockdown experience has clearly been very different, Bo remains a masterful enough writer that plenty still resonated, so there should be something in here for most people.

That said, the nature of the meta-narrative arc that the show travels made the second half more spectacle than stand-up. If you're vibing along with Bo's message, I think that'll make for a fairly emotional journey with a lot of impact. If you're a bit more like me, then it's more of a visual extravaganza than comedy show, particularly by the end. There's still plenty of dark humour that will elicit a laugh, but the more mainstream skits of the first half are largely absent (though it does kick off with an excellent parody of live streaming and the brief yet perfect Shit). Of course, those songs that remain are arguably the highlights. All Eyes on Me is an elegant piece of self-introspection and autobiographical revelation, a beautifully poignant look into Bo's own struggles with mental health, and the follow-up Goodbye is a great closing act. But standing above all the rest, Welcome to the Internet is just classic Burnham: it's funny, clever, nuanced, and provides a genuinely unique take on a topic that many have tackled before.

Of course, the first act is no slouch either, but it (deliberately) has a very different tone. The songs are more likely to have upbeat, light-hearted subject matter, there are more literal standup routines, and the topics covered feel more scattergun and quirky. There's still a theme, but it's a broad one: life in the 2020s. Yes, it focuses on the pandemic quite a bit, but skits like Comedy, How The World Works, and White Woman's Instagram would have worked just as well in 2019 as they do in 2021. That tonal shift quite clearly happens just before the intermission card, as Bo watches his own talk on suicide recorded months earlier, whilst looking utterly morose. It's a fun moment and uses projection cleverly once again, but I think it falls into a trap that a few of the skits in the first half struggle with: a message lacking an answer.

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that Burnham can magically solve depression through comedy, but as he touches on in earlier songs there's a disconnect when joking about something when there's no clear subversive punchline. Perhaps I just missed the joke, but I found a few of the edgier parts never really had a satisfactory point, not in the same way that the second act so cleanly managed. Maybe it's part of the greater gimmick around the show being his own progression through lockdown and the pandemic, but if so it didn't feel as clear.

In other places, though, this theme is used incredibly well. Bo's own ageing (his hair and beard growing out, his weight gain, his general change of posture) is used to impressive effect, particularly when shown in juxtaposition. If the narrative of the show being cobbled together over many months is genuine, then the way he wove later themes back into earlier recordings is exceptional editing; if not, then the planning involved is nothing short of Herculean. That makes Inside a show that will reward multiple viewings – in fact, I'd go so far as to say it almost requires them. On the one hand, despite being comedy skits the songs are incredibly well produced and genuine "bangers" (as the cool kids say) which I'd happily return to again and again. On the other, the darker nature of the show and slightly haphazard narrative puts me off going through it all over again. Like much with Inside, it leaves you with a weirdly conflicting set of feelings that I imagine have been deliberately fashioned, yet again showcasing just how good of a storyteller Burnham has become.

Which is all to say that Inside is a seriously special, well, special. It's brilliantly executed, produced, and directed; the level of craft on display (from all angles) is incredibly impressive. Yet, as a comedy, I found it jarring: at times superbly funny, though rarely truly hilarious, with frequent tonal switches that prevent you from really entering into a state of mirth. On the other hand, as a drama or theatrical introspection, it's utter genius. It captures a period of history poignantly, whilst also providing a deeply personal tale of raw emotion and humanity. Honestly, had I seen this in a theatre as a one-person drama I'd have come out raving and exclaiming that everyone must watch it immediately. As a comedy special, I think it slightly misses the mark. Perhaps that's just a branding issue, but it leaves me unsure where to place Inside. As a piece of art or theatre, it's a clear five-star (plus) masterpiece; as a comedy, when it shines it does so brightly, but it also falls flat on occasion. Let's split the difference and say 4.5 stars.

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