Before I had seen the indie “Promising Young Woman “(2020), I had never heard of Bo Burnham, who plays Ryan, the lead character’s love interest. I just thought he was a charming, solid actor. He is that, but he also is an impressive and accomplished multi-hyphenate: Actor, writer, musician, comedian, and director. (He made the 2018 indie film “Eighth Grade.”) In fact, unbeknownst to me, he has been a staple of the internet since he was 16, when he started writing and posting “comedic” songs that went viral.
On Netflix, you will find a few of his comedy specials, including his most recent, “Inside.”
The back story: Five years ago, the 6-foot 6-inch comedian decided to stop performing onstage. He was having debilitating panic attacks and wanted to work on his mental health. (The first time it happened was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.) Whatever he did worked, and last January, he was about to go back on the road, when … yes, the pandemic happened, and like the rest of us, he was essentially confined to his home. To pass the time; to give himself something to focus on, he began working on a new comedy special. Because he was alone, he did everything himself: Lights, direction, writing, composing, performing and sound in essentially one room in his house. The result is nothing short of amazing; awe-inspiring.
How does one encapsulate this special? It’s meta, it’s Gonzo, maybe even performance art with earworm songs about everything from the pervasive and addictive nature of the internet (“Welcome to the Internet”) to white women and their (predictable) Instagram accounts. It’s often scathing, skewering and irreverent, but always thought-provoking. I’ve already watched it twice, and I’ll probably watch it a few more times.
What I like most about “Inside” are the songs. If you enjoy musical theater, but more Avenue Q than Oklahoma, you will probably love this. Burnham also reminds me a bit of the New Zealand comedian/musicians Flight of the Conchords. (I still play a few of their songs on heavy rotation on my iPhone.) Like them, Burnham is able to “copy” — effortlessly — a wide variety of musical styles, from hip-hop (“Get Your Hands Up”) to acoustic coffee house guitar folk (“That Funny Feeling”). If I could buy the songs on iTunes, I would do it and just have them on a loop. I have a few favorites that have appeared on YouTube, including the upbeat, finger snapping, pop-inspired “FaceTime with My Mom,” a sad reflection on parent-children relationships; the old time-y oompa oompa beated “Welcome to the Internet,” which sounds like a song that a Disney villain would sing; and the recently released “White Woman’s Instagram,” which is just a brutal takedown of a whole generation’s “pose and click without substance” photospreads. (I’ve never understood Instagram’s appeal.)
I hope that Burnham continues to release the songs, as they are essentially ready to view music videos. There are so many great songs that once you hear them, they will keep playing in your head for days. Other standouts include “Sexting,” which has a chill, sexy vibe; “Unpaid Intern,” which seems inspired by Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and The Stray Cats; the upbeat snappy “Healing the World with Comedy,” the electronica-esque song that plays in the trailer, “Inside;” and the upbeat “Turning 30,” which he performs in just black underwear. As he’s very long and lean, the image of him dancing around, or even just moving, gives you a sense that you are watching a big Muppet operating outside of its furry costume.
Burnham has a great voice, and he could easily transition to a career in music. But he’s also incredibly smart and incisive. The reason his songs are more like musical theater is that they tell a story; offering commentary on a wide variety of topics, such as climate change, his own narcissism, white privilege, social and economic inequality and even the billionaire Jeff Bezos. (There are TWO songs that mention him.) The comedian is painfully self-aware of his need for attention — in “Get Your Hands Up,” the chorus is “get your f-ing hands up, get on out of your seat, all eyes on me, all eyes on me” — and how our fixation with social media can be problematic. In a short skit, he is lying on the floor, covered with a blanket up to his chin; his head on a pillow, and next to him is a microphone into which he says: “Maybe allowing giant digital media corporations to exploit the neurochemical drama of our children for profit … You know, maybe that was, uh, a bad call by us. Maybe the flattening of the entire subjective human experience into a … lifeless exchange of value that benefits nobody, except for, um, you know, a handful of bug-eyed salamanders in Silicon Valley … Maybe that as a … way of life forever … maybe that’s, um, not good.”
In another sketch, he is sitting on a stool in the spotlight, and taking a potshot at social media, such as Twitter, asking if people can just not tell everyone everything they are thinking at every minute of the day. And yes, he even acknowledges that he’s guilty of this.
White male privilege also gets a good lashing. During “Healing the World with Comedy,” he sings “I’m a special kind of white guy. I’ve self-reflected and I want to be an agent of change. So I am gonna use my privilege for the good. Very cool. Way to go. American white guys. We’ve had the floor for at least 400 years. So maybe I should just shut the f- up …I’m bored. I don’t wanna do that.” He then mentions channeling Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side,” a film that, although it garnered awards has been singled out as yet another example of a film with a “white savior complex.”
“Inside” is incredibly inventive. Instead of it being your bog-standard standup, as I said, his songs are mini music videos, complete with interesting shots and editing, “costume changes” and diverse light effects. Again, he did this all by himself, a feat I’ve been told requires a lot of technical skill and talent. One song is shot in extreme close-up with dramatic lighting and is cut together like a workout video. In another sequence, he offers commentary on his depression but through the construct of a Twitch live streaming game demonstration. In the lower bottom right of the screen, he appears as a gamer who is playing a character, him again, who does little more than move around the room, shining a flashlight and crying off and on throughout the day. His flat delivery is priceless. He does a variation of this in another sequence, this time offering commentary on a song he’s sung about an “unpaid intern.” In case you’ve never ventured much into the world of YouTube, it is full of people who make videos during which they offer commentary on movie trailers or condescendingly tell you “what you missed” while watching them. It’s always struck me as a very strange way to spend your time, and very pretentiously self-indulgent. Burnham would probably agree.
It’s interesting to see how a person who earns his living from performing in front of a live audience can decline when that adulation and feedback is withdrawn. When Stephen Colbert started doing his Late Night program from his home, he frequently mentioned how weird it was telling jokes without an audience. Without immediate feedback, a comedian never quite knows if he/she/they are failing or hitting the mark. Burnham sometimes “compensates” by adding a laugh track. A few times, you watch him as he fake laughs and smiles along with “them.” It’s odd and slightly unsettling but effective.
This program is like that, though, and if you don’t like feeling uncomfortable from time to time, his special might not be for you. It delivers more than a few sharp slaps to your head; maybe even a few gut punches. (One particular sequence that is uncomfortably funny involves a sock puppet who rant sings about the state of the world. It has to be seen to be believed.)
“Inside” is very meta, and it might go over some people’s heads. As I said, it’s more like performance art with a pop music soundtrack than a traditional standup special. It’s a self-reflective piece of popular art that captured a unique period in Burnham’s life. But his experience wasn’t unique. Circumstances forced many of us to take time off from our day-to-day and be present. For some, like me, it was a wonderful experience. I learned a lot about myself. For him, it seemed to be more jarring and mentally devastating. At one point, he sings that he’s “feeling like a saggy, massive sack of sh-t.” In fact, he never shies away from showing his deteriorating mental health over the course of the year, during which he worked on the special. About three-quarters of the way through, he talks about how his mood is rapidly approaching an “ATL” or all-time low; and he often looks scruffy and tired during the special. Often, he’s barely clothed. (One time, he is sitting at the piano, naked.) His experience during lockdown was particularly poignant in that he turned 30, and he even chronicles the exact minute it happened. For some, leaving behind their 20s is jarring; for Burnham it seems to result in a mini quarter life crisis.
At one point, we watch him watching an old video of himself, a teenager happily sitting at a keyboard, performing. (We don’t hear what he’s singing.) The adult him seems pensive? Judgmental? I’m not sure. But how must that feel, having spent more than half your life, sharing yourself in a public space; getting your idea of self and self-worth through likes, clicks, and shares? What does that do to a person? Well, for one thing, it can create panic attacks, as we know he experienced. He even satirically has a short song about how the attack feels: “Way down deep inside me. I try not to fight it. Describe it. All right. A few things start to happen. My vision starts to flatten. My heart, it gets to tappin’. And I think I’m gonna die.” As someone who has suffered from panic attacks, that’s a pretty accurate description.
Burnham’s special is generating a lot of buzz, and for good reason. I would like to see it get nominated for a bunch of awards. It’s a fascinating, honest portrait of life during the pandemic. As they say, when life gives you lemons … Burnham definitely made a unique batch of lemon infused, very tasty products from those yellow citrus fruits. I might not have known much about Burnham before this, but I’m now a super fan. I tell anyone and everyone I know to watch “Inside.” Now, if I could just get the damn soundtrack!