Netflix UK review: Bo Burnham: Inside
Concept and execution9
Ivan Radford | On 02, Jun 2021
“I want to help to leave this world better than I found it, And I fear that comedy won’t help, and the fear is not unfounded.” That’s the sound of Bo Burnham returning to the world of comedy with his surprise Netflix special Inside. Made over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic, the film sees the stand-up comic mostly sitting down, as he ponders what it means to make jokes at this point in time – and, as the 90 introspective minutes unfold, whether he’ll ever step foot outdoors again.
It’s a question we’ve all contemplated at some point in the past 12 months, and Burnham’s self-reflexive streak has never been quite so well suited to his subject matter, as he charts his own breakdown in a spiral of despair and isolation. If that doesn’t sound like a fun watch, well, you’d be right, and that’s the main weakness of Inside – it’s a comedy special so busy striving to be more that it disappears into its own quarantine bubble. And, well, that’s exactly the point.
Burnham’s always had a fascination with theatrics, toying with prerecorded clips and samples while deploying lighting cues to echo his playful wordplay and self-aware musical pastiches. Here, he builds on that to craft a one-man stage show that he really does pull off all by himself, a feat that’s ambitiously conceived and dazzlingly executed – from the use of a handheld light to throw shadows around a room to repeated experimentation with projections to assemble layers of interior world-building within his mind’s cramped, four-walled chamber. There’s invention aplenty, and a shrewd use of split screen and shifting aspect ratios to capture the fragmented, claustrophobic landscape of his inner torment – and copious behind the scenes shots to highlight him putting it all together.
There are, however, jokes amid the artistry, and things start with a promisingly funny and relatively light tone – an ode to the white saviour complex sets out Burnham’s self-appointed mission to heal the world with comedy, while a music video montage parodies the kind of content usually seen on a white woman’s Instagram page. Let’s play livestreams and reaction videos are also subverted for darkly funny meta-vignettes – one sequence of Russian Doll-like commentaries turns into an angry rant at Burnham’s own narcissism, while also acknowledging the role that YouTube played in making him a success in the first place.
Some of this is a easy target – one number involving a sock puppet is a gleefully grim but familiar dissection of global inequality – but there’s thought behind every frame and syllable, with a marked maturity that takes him away from some of the more jarring jokes in his earlier comedy specials. One standout ditty deftly sums up the strengths and horrors of what the internet has become in this age of social media, at once a never-ending barrage of everything 24/7 and a much-needed source of entertainment during a trauma that has impacted everyone’s lives and mental health to sone degree.
It’s that need to create and share comedy as a defence against despair, that emerges as the through-line for the show – and Burnham’s brave enough to admit that he needs that defence mechanism as much as anyone else, as he keeps himself going by keeping himself busy. And so it’s ironic – albeit entirely intentional – that Inside’s bleak meditations struggle to chime in with where audiences are likely at as it’s released, resulting in a runtime that drags in its final third. It effectively, superbly chronicles the malaise of life in lockdown (recalling one early online stand-up set by James Acaster at The Covid Arms that mostly involved him staring into the distance from a living room sofa), but arrives at a point when viewers are attempting to leave that behind, looking for optimism on the horizon and hoping for something uplifting amid a possible return to normality.
“I want to help to leave this world better than I found it,” Burnham sings. It’s unfortunate and yet fortunate indeed that his piece of astonishingly honest art does find the world in a slightly better place than he found it while making Inside. How this time capsule stands the test of time is yet to be seen, but here’s hoping we don’t have to wait long for Bo to return once again with Outside.
Inside is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.