A screenshot from Bo Burnham's recent comedy special, "Inside"

‘Inside’ by Bo Burnham Is a Comedy of Catastrophe

The comedian's new special, which recently premiered on Netflix, is an ambitious mix of social commentary, comedy, isolation and self-reflection.  
June 16, 2021
6 mins read

“Inside” is devastatingly good.

The new comedy special by Bo Burnham — filmed, edited and directed within the walls of his home —resonates at an emotional depth that few artists can attain. It’s meta-theatrical at every turn, incessantly blurring the lines between real and fake, comedy and tragedy.

Through his use of fly-on-the-wall cinematography, Burnham creates a pseudo-documentary out of his creative process. In his typical style, he tackles the taboo through his absurd blend of techno music and witty lyricism. His tongue-in-cheek overture takes a swing at his own ego, poking fun at the idea of “healing the world through comedy.” This mantra will guide the observer through a musical smorgasbord that oscillates wildly between hilarious and morose.

Burnham uses sock puppetry throughout the special. As a vessel for social satire, sock puppetry is an endeavor fraught with risk; nevertheless, Burnham pulls it off effortlessly. He takes on the persona of a Mr. Rogers-esque children’s entertainer, instructing his sock friend on “how the world works.” A clear power dynamic is established between sock and man, especially after “Socko” attempts to shed light on the social and financial inequality present in neoliberal political systems. Burnham’s character immediately threatens to send Socko back where he came from, and the music comes to an abrupt halt. Socko remains quiet and submissive for the remainder of the song.

One of Burnham’s greatest strengths as a writer lies in his ability to craft holistic social commentary. No one is safe from scrutiny, including the comic himself. He recognizes his privilege as a white, cishet man and openly mocks the performative nature of his allyship. After all, the self can never be fully extracted from performance; hence performance is always a selfish act.

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“White Woman’s Instagram” is delightful and adds some much-needed levity to an otherwise bleak spectacle. The song features every trite post that can be found on a white woman’s Instagram profile, from pictures of tiny pumpkins to inspirational quotes. It highlights the culture of conformity that social media fosters and how it can be observed via the infinite hashtag quagmire of artsy latte pics.

It has come under criticism, as some see it as a trivialization of women on social media and as ringing a touch sexist. However, upon close inspection, we see a differentiation between the narrow shots of picturesque posts and the wide shot of a woman talking about her mother’s passing. This demonstrates that although the world sees her through the myopic lens of social media, she is a complex person whose experiences and emotions cannot be encapsulated in a few squares.

In a film rife with self-aggrandizement, Burnham jumps headfirst down the rabbit hole of cancel culture, taking ownership of his past comedic missteps. As with much of the special, it is unclear how much of it should be taken seriously and how much of it is satire. Regardless, the “father forgive me” confessional style of the song is a refreshing stylistic choice.

Throughout “Inside” the observer is constantly confronted with meta-theatrical devices — Burnham frequently uses videos of himself, watching himself, watching himself, watching himself perform in a maddening loop of observation that leaves the audience wondering which of the infinite reflections is the real Burnham. He also intersperses what appear to be outtakes, where he states that he will never finish the special and that no one will ever see it.

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The actor’s dilemma comes into play as Burnham performs in isolation. Does he truly intend for anyone to see this? If there’s no one to laugh at him and no one to laugh with him, is there really a joke?

As the special progresses, the observer is forced to reckon with their position in this narrative and whether or not positioning Burnham as relatable undermines the point he is trying to make. In “How the World Works” Socko asks, “Why do you rich f—ing white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization?” The intimate nature of the special invites the audience to identify with Burnham’s struggles; nevertheless, if we take this to be a work meant to be unobserved, to conflate his struggles with our self-actualization is contrary to his original intent.

The paradox of being observed while in isolation situates Burnham in between the real world and its virtual counterpart. Over the course of an hour and a half we see the slow deterioration of Burnham’s mental health; he is left contemplating whether he should ever go outside again. Without anyone to laugh at his jokes, Burnham is left to reckon with his own depression, leaving him in emotional disarray.

“Inside” is particularly provocative due to its subversion of expectation. In classic comedic tradition, it takes what the audience expects to see and gives them the exact opposite. Instead of seeing Burnham in a position of control, able to command his audience and narrative, we see him bludgeoned by circumstance. In one poignant scene, we see him attempting to replicate a stand-up set while in isolation, only to break down sobbing. It’s not the first time we see him sob mid-performance, but it’s the first time in an hour and a half where we can’t be sure if the tears are real.

There lies the brilliance of Burnham’s work — his intricate pastiche of fact and facade. He intersperses religious motifs in a song about regretting a childhood Aladdin costume. He dances in his underwear to an emoji-riddled number on sexting and then follows it up with a silhouette shot of him sitting in darkness, alone. He creates precise tension between the comic and the tragic, leaving his audience unsure if they should laugh or give him a hug.

“Inside” leaves its audience in tears, but whether they are tears of laughter, or something else entirely, is anyone’s guess.

Darby Williams, University of Michigan

Writer Profile

Darby Williams

University of Michigan
Drama and Social Theory and Practice

Darby Williams is a writer and actor majoring in drama and social theory and practice at the University of Michigan. She works as an actor at Neverland Entertainment and writes for the arts section of The Michigan Daily.

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