Bo Burnham's 'Inside': the comedy special we need after a year of COVID

Bo Burnham's new Netflix special puts 2020 into perspective and finds laughter in the scary, sad year that was.

Adam Graham
The Detroit News
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It takes place indoors, like much of our last year did. It mixes laughter with pain. And it features a performer trying to make sense of it all, both the immediate and the larger context of life at this moment, and nearly driving himself crazy in the process. 

Bo Burnham in the Netflix special "Inside."

Bo Burnham's "Inside" is a startling, stunning, hilarious, introspective, outrospective work, a portrait of life during the COVID-19 pandemic and of a guy contemplating a world made up of apps, logarithms, Likes and nonstop, unending digital noise. What have we gotten ourselves into? Where do we go from here? And is a year indoors the price we had to pay for this mess we've made of everything? 

Burnham's comedy special, now streaming on Netflix, makes light of our current existential crisis and finds the humor in the horror of it all. It's not political — there are no mentions of any elected leaders from either party — but it's intensely personal, the sound of one man searching for answers and laughing all the way to his own and our collective Armageddon. 

Pandemic art is something we're going to be living with for awhile. We've seen examples both direct (the Michael Bay-produced "Songbird," Doug Liman's "Locked Down," the Mick Jagger song "Eazy Sleazy") and indirect (Taylor Swift's downtempo "Folklore" and "Evermore" albums), and this is only the beginning, as filmmakers, musicians and artists of all walks wrestle with the year we've just experienced and what it all means to our lives going forward. 

Who wants to watch or listen to something that we all just lived through? Well, that's art. Art helps us understand, contextualize and process our lives, and it helps future generations learn what the world was like before their time. 

Bo Burnham's "Inside" is an almost-too perfect snapshot of pandemic living. In it, the 30-year-old comic performs a kind of one-man show for himself, singing songs at his keyboard, shining a spotlight on himself and imagining the laughter that would be coming from a crowd, which he often pipes in himself. Burnham wrote, shot, edited and directed the special, a technical triumph on its own, all the more impressive in the way that it mimics the isolation we all felt during a year of COVID.  

It's surprising that the special exists at all. The Boston-area native retired from stand-up after his last special, 2016's "Make Happy," which was the culmination of his career to that point, which began when, as a teenager in the mid-'00s, he became one of the original YouTube stars. As he explains in "Inside," performing on stage was leading to ferocious bouts with anxiety and panic attacks, and he left live comedy for a movie career. (He wrote and directed 2018's "Eighth Grade" and appeared in this year's Best Picture-nominated "Promising Young Woman.") 

He was planning on returning to the stage last year, and we all know how that went. So he retreated indoors and gave us the weird loner piece of performance art that could have only come from the year 2020, and he performs it under a beard and shaggy haircut that's representative of the dodgy hygiene practices learned from a year of not going outside. Several shots linger on the camera, its lens staring back into the infinite void. 

There are comedic songs about online life ("White Woman's Instagram," "Facetime with My Mom") and parodies of reaction videos and video game live streaming. He plays back material, edits in real time and shows glimpses of the making-of the special, but only to a point. 

Bo Burnham in "Inside."

That's because throughout, Burnham highlights what he's always been so adept at, which is showing the artifice of everything he does, that in the end it's all a performance. Everything is perfectly timed out, every beat is on cue. The reality of the pandemic is the backdrop, everything else is part of the show. And what a show it is.


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