Near the end of his last special MAKE HAPPY (2016), Bo Burnham boldly states to a crowd full of people: “If you can live your life without an audience, you should do it.” 5 years later, thanks to COVID, he’s been forced to do just that. Bo Burnham, a comedian known for his satirical musical style, cynical jokes, and reflexive sense of humor, returns to comedy with a new special for Netflix entitled INSIDE (2021). Set in one room in his own home, this one man show tells the story of a comedian struggling to find the merit in humor when the world both outside his door and within his mind is terrifyingly bleak. Performed, shot, edited, and filmed all by Burnham himself, INSIDE is his most insightful and hilarious piece to date.
As always with Burnham’s comedy, the special is full of edgy social commentary presented in an exceptionally entertaining way; He explores capitalism through the use of a socio-politically conscious sock puppet, the detrimental effect of digital media corporations through an anthem dedicated to Jeff Bezos, and COVID induced decline in mental health through a parody of twitch live stream gaming. In fact, Burnham focuses much of the show on mental health, even talking about his own suicidal thoughts. Burnham has been open about his mental health before in his comedy. His last special MAKE HAPPY ended with him leaving a room to signify his departure from live performances after having endured multiple panic attacks on stage. INSIDE picks up where MAKE HAPPY leaves off, depicting Burnham reentering the room. In INSIDE, Burnham uses very simple techniques to create a claustrophobic sense of isolation, depression, and lack of purpose. This emotional tone colors even the most frivolous moments, adding a dark tint to the whole special while still being hilarious. This, of course, is a fine line that Burnham walks expertly.
The theatrical presentation, staging, and use of sound is exceptionally unconventional and complex in INSIDE. Although there are many aspects of the piece to be celebrated, his most striking achievement is his use of lighting. Throughout the special, Burnham explores lighting in extremely creative and inventive ways. He uses everything from spotlights to projectors to shadows to enhance various segments. It is particularly impressive how he often uses very simple yet effective techniques like flicking a light at the wall to create a truly spectacular show.
Although Burnham makes many insightful comments on social injustice in INSIDE, white privilege, and internet culture throughout the show, it really focuses on a central question: what is the merit of comedy in a world that is so strife with pain and suffering?
“I wanna help to leave this world better than I found it, and I fear that comedy won’t help and the fear is not unfounded,” Burnham sings early in the special. This song, among others, satirizes a certain self-righteous arrogance that comics may have about their work and reflects on the value of comedy. Burnham acknowledges this, letting us know that he realizes that he is not saving the world. However, he also acknowledges a fundamental truth that humor will always be something that can create unity between people. It can be something that encourages change or presents a new perspective. It can help someone through a hard time or make them smile when nothing else does. As the comic himself sings sarcastically, you can in fact “heal the world with comedy.”