Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’ is visually impressive, distinctive take on pandemic life

Photo of Bo Burnham special
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

As we approach the light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel (knock on wood), reflection on the last 14 months seems unavoidable. It only makes sense, then, that on April 28, comedian-songwriter Bo Burnham announced on Twitter that he’d soon release an entirely self-produced quarantine special. One month and an incredible amount of anticipation later, Burnham’s “Inside” has arrived on Netflix. 

To say that “Inside” isn’t what most would expect from a run-of-the-mill comedy special would be an understatement. While Burnham’s performance has its fair share of wit and comedic moments, the overall feeling of “Inside” is much more similar to that of a melancholic drama than a typical musical-comedy show. Moments of laughter and surrealism, such as a scene of Burnham livestreaming a video game of himself trapped “Inside” his room while addressing a nonexistent audience, are quickly contrasted with monologues surrounding suicide, debilitating anxiety and the ever-worsening state of the world. Though not exactly an uplifting take on pandemic life, Burnham completely avoids the idealism that many other quarantine works have relied upon and instead grants his audience a realistic take on how quarantine has affected him.

Filled to the brim with incredibly impressive lighting and production, all while entirely taking place in the same claustrophobic room, it is hard to imagine how Burnham was able to pull off such a visually astounding feat all by himself. Burnham’s clever use of projectors is highlighted in the song “Sexting,” where lyrics such as, “We’ll use emojis only / We don’t need phonetic diction / We’ll talk dirty like we’re ancient Egyptians,” are paired with hundreds of eggplant emojis projected onto Burnham’s face. Along with the brilliant lighting comes Burnham’s obvious knack for set design. Although the entire special takes place within one room, Burnham uses his own talents to completely transform the space from scene to scene. From the hilarious setups of salt lamps and autumn scenery in “White Woman’s Instagram,” to the Madonna-esque biblical visuals in “Problematic,” Burnham somehow creates almost 20 individual, visually unique spaces.

Burnham’s comedic chops are best noted in songs such as “How the World Works,” in which a sock puppet explains to Burnham the exploitative means of capitalist production, and “FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight),” in which Burnham sings about the importance of staying in contact with his mom during isolation, all while being backed by an oddly sensual R&B instrumental. What makes these pieces shine are Burnham’s unique takes on life, the pandemic and the art of comedy itself. Where “Inside” is lacking, though, is in the pieces that feel unoriginal, played out and even boring at some points. In the song “Turning 30,” Burnham’s complaints of being addicted to his phone and his friends having kids seem predictable, and in “Problematic,” Burnham’s half-apologies for his questionable actions as a teen seem self-serving and worthy of a tiny chuckle at best. While these moments create small spaces of boredom within the special, they by no means ruin it as they are almost always followed by a more original, funnier song or sketch that redeems its unfunny predecessor.

“Inside” is a take on pandemic life that other quarantine productions have yet to take advantage of. Avoiding the unreasonable idealism of many past works dealing with COVID-19, all while addressing the very real effects that a year of loneliness has had on our collective mental health, “Inside” is undoubtedly entertaining, but most importantly, relatable. Burnham proves his comedic, lyrical and aesthetic chops to the audience, as each individual scene of the special completely differentiates itself from the prior, with most scenes successful in their comedic and visual goals alike. “Inside” is a completely unique, entertaining slice of quarantine content, and is certainly worth the 90-minute watch.

Contact Ian Fredrickson at [email protected].