‘Bo Burnham: Inside’ may be the defining work of the pandemic

Artists have long created some of their best work in isolation, but what happens when that isolation is involuntary and lasts for a year?

Brad Keefe
"Bo Burnham: Inside"

Comedian Bo Burnham has created a career-defining work that redefines what a comedy special can be.

In a moment when vaccines are widely available and movie theaters are slowly emerging from their slumber, it feels a bit odd to recommend a stay-at-home night when we no longer have to stay at home. We all experienced the last year and a half.

But Burnham’s new Netflix special, “Bo Burnham: Inside,” is such a powerful, funny, heartbreaking, cathartic work, it feels like the perfect way to reflect on a time most of us would rather not think about.

Burnham wrote, directed, filmed and edited the special in a single room over the last year. For someone who rose to fame through YouTube, this isn’t unexpected, but Burnham may have created the greatest YouTube video ever because this one stands up as a cinematic work on the highest level.

Burnham captures himself going through every stage of pandemic isolation in a musical-comedy with sharp commentary. Near the beginning, he skewers the notion of a comedian making something that could change the world, but this just might.

In one early song, Burnham tackles a recurring theme: our endless need for online distraction that was exacerbated in isolation. “But look, I made you some content!” he sings. “Daddy made you your favorite, open wide! Here comes some content! It’s a beautiful day to stay inside!”

He announces early that “Inside” will be pretty free-form and will not have smooth transitions, and that tracks. It has the strong narrative of a comic who begins struggling with how to make comedy without an audience and slowly loses his mind. It’s Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” but, ya know, funnier.

The stream of consciousness approach perfectly captures the way our minds bounce from topic to topic in the online age, a world where we were physically isolated and constantly bombarded with blasts of digital dopamine.

Burnham reflects on his own comedy past in “I’m Problematic,” a cheeky reflection on his old work under evolving cultural standards that has him reflecting on his first verse in the second verse and lambasting faux martyrdom that comes with it.

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In fact, “Inside” focuses less on the pandemic, which only comes up tangentially, and more on the online culture that was out of control even before we had a year to consume all the content we wanted. “Welcome to the internet,” he sings in one critique of the digital world. “Have a look around. Anything that brain of yours can think of can be found.”

In a wry bit with a fleck of indignation beneath, Burnham wonders if anyone, anyone, can shut up about anything even for a minute. It’s a good question.

But he also honestly reflects on his own deteriorating mental health and even (content warning for those expecting an evening of light laughs) his thoughts of suicide.

“Inside” would have been an amazing work if it were a simple one-camera piece, a year-long selfie, but Burnham also made a marvel of cinematography and lighting. Honestly, this is Oscar-worthy and impressive. The visual wonder also creates a sense of claustrophobia that evokes a world the mind often creates in that situation.

Burnham already established himself as a surprisingly sharp filmmaker with his feature “Eighth Grade,” but this is another level. He was actually planning to return to the stage in early 2020, having not performed live for years. I’m more hopeful he’ll explore filmmaking, because his talent is rare.

There is sure to be a glut of creative work inspired by the year of isolation, but Burnham may have already set the bar too high fo. This may well be the defining creative work of the global experience.

“Bo Burnham: Inside”

Streaming on Netflix

5 stars out of 5