Comedian, actor, screenwriter, and director Bo Burnham’s last stand-up special, 2016’s Make Happy, closes with a bit of camera trickery: After finishing his routine, Burnham walks off stage at the Capitol Theatre to a standing ovation, and, through a hidden cut, appears to emerge inside a small Los Angeles guesthouse. (It’s not clear there’s been a change in location until the crowd noise abruptly cuts off as Burnham turns to the camera and says, “Oh, good, it’s just us.”) After performing one last song, the comedian opens the guest house door and emerges into his own sunny backyard, where he’s greeted by his longtime partner, Hustlers director Lorene Scafaria, and his dog Bruce. The shot is framed to pose a contrast between the austere demands of creative work and the vibrant life going on outside:
The main thing you need to know about Bo Burnham’s terrific new special, Inside, which hit Netflix on Sunday, is that it was almost entirely filmed inside that guesthouse. Burnham wrote, directed, shot, and edited the special himself while quarantined during the pandemic, and it simultaneously functions as a comedy special, a coronavirus diary, an attempt to channel Vegas-era Howard Hughes, and a smart and moving exploration of depression, apocalypticism, self-hatred, and, of course, internet culture. That sounds like a hell of a thing to put an audience through, and Burnham is more uneasy about the transaction than ever, oscillating wildly between a need for attention and sheer contempt for anyone who gives it to him. The show’s opening song sets the tone with the lyric, “I’m sorry I was gone, but look, I made you some content/ Daddy made you your favorite, open wide!” Later, however, Burnham acknowledges his viewers in a moving tribute to the way comedy brings people together:
Man, you guys were a great crowd. Give it up for yourselves for coming out, by the way, tonight. Give it up! Supporting live comedy in these weird times, it’s crazy. These are some pretty crazy times. But it’s nice during these crazy times that we can get together and laugh.
He delivers those lines through an extremely unkempt quarantine beard, sitting in his underwear on a stool in his empty guesthouse, over the sounds of birdsong. It’s like John Hodgman’s remarks about Sept. 11, updated to account for modern levels of misanthropy and despair. There are traditional comedy bits, and they’re good ones: In one sketch, Burnham plays a corporate consultant on social issues who gives advice like, “The question is no longer, ‘Do you want to buy Wheat Thins?’ for example—the question is now, ‘Will you support Wheat Thins in the fight against Lyme disease?’ ” But the main action is in Burnham’s relationship to his own work, and that work’s irrelevance in the face of global collapse.
When your show’s premise is tap dancing over an abyss, you have to be a spectacular tap dancer, and fortunately, Burnham is. One of his signature moves in prior specials was dressing up ugly things in dazzling pop music, and he’s still doing that, but creating a special without an audience gave him a lot more room to play around with structure, and the results are extraordinary. The highlight is a worthy successor to Mr. Show’s legendary “Pre-Taped Call-In Show,” in which Burnham performs a brief “Sixteen Tons”–type song about unpaid interns, then cuts to a recursive series of reaction videos, reaction videos to the reaction videos, and so on:
The Mr. Show version of this joke is purely about its recursive structure, but Burnham turns it against himself in the reaction video to his reaction video:
What I’m doing is I’m explaining what the song means, and what it’s about. I’m being a little pretentious—it’s an instinct that I have where I need everything that I write is to have some deeper meaning or something. But it’s a stupid song and it doesn’t really mean anything. And it’s pretty unlikable that I feel this need, this desperate need, to be seen as intelligent.
It’s not exactly revolutionary for a comic to draw on their own insecurities, but the number of ways Burnham critiques his own work in Inside is remarkable, whether he’s imagining an angelic choir urging him to heal the world with “the indescribable power of your comedy,” reimagining his quarantine existence as a terrible video game he’s live-streaming, or bringing in a sock puppet to yell things at him like “Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization?”* At one point, he projects himself giving an extremely unconvincing anti-suicide pep talk (“Just don’t, all right?”) onto his own T-shirt, as elegant a visualization of self-commodification as I’ve ever seen:
It’s a strange position to work from, but despite Burnham’s relentless undercutting of his own work, Inside is not entirely an exercise in self-pity or narcissism. Instead, Burnham’s habit of judging himself by the same harsh standards he applies to the rest of the world gives him room to go bigger than he otherwise might. One of the special’s most elaborate songs is a critique of the internet in its entirety, which is a lot easier to take from someone who isn’t claiming to be above it. Burnham insists again and again that he’s part of the problem, like all of us, which is the only way to even begin reckoning with the shitty civilization we’ve built. Despite its many levels of jokes and meta-jokes, Inside is one of the most sincere artistic responses to the 21st century so far: a beautiful, intricate chambered nautilus shell filled with loathing.
Correction, June 14, 2021: This piece originally misstated that the sock puppet in Inside yells, “Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every single political concept through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization?” In fact, the sock puppet yells, “Why do you rich fucking white people insist on seeing every socio-political conflict through the myopic lens of your own self-actualization?”