Back when the pandemic first started, after the initial shock wore off, there was a kind of “let’s put on a show!” enthusiasm that pervaded certain corners of the internet. There were Instagram dance parties and Broadway singalongs. John Krasinski hosted a show called “Good News,” for God’s sake. The idea was, yes, this is strange, and scary—but let’s try to have fun!
But then, at some point, as the pandemic slogged on, the death count rose, days became weeks, and weeks became months, the dance parties stopped and a kind of grim resignation set in.
In that sense, the brilliant Bo Burnham: Inside is the perfect comedy special for our real pandemic, the one we all suffered through, the one we’re just tentatively coming out of. His is the show I’d put in the time capsule, the one that truly captures the zeitgeist of this messed up, surreal year.
To call it a comedy special is a bid misleading. It is very funny at times—laugh out loud so—but it’s also depressing as hell. It also all takes place in one room, with no audience, except for an occasional creepy laugh track.
The special starts with a shot of an empty room. There’s a keyboard and a sliver of light. The high-pitched music playing evokes a horror film.
Eventually Bo Burnham will enter the frame, all 6 foot 5 inches of him. In a montage of sorts we see the evolution of his hair throughout the pandemic—at first trim, a little preppy. Then longer and longer, his beard fuller and shaggier—by the end of the montage he looks like, well, a serial killer.
And then he begins to sing: “It’s a Beautiful Day to Stay Inside!” Sample lyric: “Look! I made you some content.” This is one of Burnham’s tricks: inordinately cheerful songs that contain gloomy realities. Another song features a sock puppet (it’s a very Burnhamian touch that the sock is dirty) who spits Marxist truths until he’s cruelly silenced by his master—Burnham himself.
Throughout the course of the show we see one man cracking up—from boredom, from horniness, from self-loathing, from an acute awareness of the social injustices of the world, from an even more acute awareness of the narcissism of his own misery.
Some of the songs are, indeed, just fun: “White Woman’s Instagram” is a send-up of all the curated Instagram accounts out there—filled with baby pumpkins and artful strings of light and T-shirts with girl power slogans. But because Burnham is an empath above all else—check out his Eighth Grade, if you have any doubt—he adds a touching bit about the Instagram girl’s mother being dead and how she’s doing okay and hoping she’s making her mother proud. Another song has Bo talking with his own mom, who can’t seem to get the knack of this Facetiming thing. (She holds the phone too close to her face and her thumb covers the camera.)
Because the special was made in 2020, Burnham addresses the social reckoning going on. As a white man, should he just shut up? But he doesn’t want to shut up! Then, the voice of God tells him to heal the world with his comedy—what a relief! He’s healing the world! (“While being paid and also being the center of attention.”) “Making a literal difference—metaphorically!” he croons, with a grin. “I’m a special kind of white guy!”
As the show goes on, things get darker. He talks about suicide, a lot. He insists he won’t kill himself. But if he could just slip into a coma of sorts for 18 months and then wake up, that would be good.
The internet is another source of his obsessions. One bit has him as a “Sim” who cries, walks around the room, plays piano briefly, and cries some more. The Sim is being played by a cool-guy gamer (Burnham himself, of course), who narrates the action. “Is that dude big or is the room small?” he asks.
Burnham’s greatest Internet anthem is “Could I Interest You in Everything All of the Time?”—which chronicles the dizzying whiplash of an Internet that offers cooking tips and world tragedies all in the same, flattened way. It’s all too much, Burnham is saying. Tragedy, misery, endless content, isolation—life. And isn’t the pandemic just an extension of the isolation we all already feel in this increasingly digitized world?
By the special’s end, Burnham finally emerges from his hovel. He steps outside. And immediately gets locked out of his home.
Bo Burnham: Inside is streaming on Netflix.