To watch Bo Burnham’s comedy is to ponder the multitudes contained within the word ‘performance’. At first glance, he is a street-smart, quicksilver performer blessed with the ability to meme-ify complex philosophical viewpoints. Whether it’s standup comedy or music, he knows when to bend certain rules and when to break others. Moreover, his rule-breaking usually investigates performativity, which Burnham has made his great subject. A millennial upgrade on Flight of the Conchords (one of Burnham’s influences), he makes it abundantly clear during his shows that everything is workshopped and choreographed, planned to the T; that it is above all else, a performance. During his 2016 Netflix special Make Happy, Burnham interrupted an ad-lib-heavy segment by reminding his audience, “This show is made out of discrete bits”, as if discouraging them from looking at larger patterns.
Performativity and the fragmentary nature of the Internet era continue to be on Burnham’s mind in Inside, his latest Netflix special. Shot solo without an audience or crew members, Inside is a stunning technical achievement, showing off its maker’s blinding array of filmmaking skills. It is also Burnham’s finest work as a comedian and storyteller, blending his signature self-aware high parody style with electric cutaway segments lit up by cinéma vérité sensibilities and un-ironic vulnerability. Twenty minutes into Inside, you realise that there’s nothing quite like it in recent comedy or indeed, cinema, a fact which makes Burnham a textbook auteur.
Comedic and cinematic nous are on display during those confident, almost swaggering first 20 minutes. In a painfully funny song about white women’s Instagram feeds, Burnham skewers just about every cliché associated with the demographic—avocados, fluffy socks, sun-kissed selfies and carefully careless just-out-of-bed ‘candid’ photography; he is relentlessly attuned to the hypocrisies of the zeitgeist. When he sings about being a white ‘creative’ confronted with a devastating question—how to be funny during a pandemic—the halo lighting and gospel-adjacent music frame Burnham’s flowing locks in a suitably messianic moment. It’s a routine that demands the convergence of several different kinds of storytelling skills and Burnham nails every one of them.
Twenty minutes into Inside, you realise that there’s nothing quite like it in recent comedy or indeed, cinema, a fact which makes Burnham a textbook auteur.
This is followed by a gag that’s likely to be talked about for years to come: the Burnham reaction loop. Basically, he stops one of his songs (about unpaid internships, no less) midway to cut to a segment filmed as a ‘reaction video’—but the video itself keeps incorporating his reactions. We watch him watching himself, and then watching a blow-by-blow breakdown of the watching, and so on; a comedic Möbius strip that would have come across as didactic or on-the-nose in less assured hands. True story: I paused the show to think about this moment right after it happened: my first thoughts went not to films/shows or other comedians, but to contemporary American writers like Lauren Oyler (author of the recent novel Fake Accounts) and (the much older) Robert Coover, whose postmodern missives have captured the hyperlinked life better than most.
From that point onwards it’s clear that Burnham isn’t dropping the ball anytime soon. Inside accelerates to a healthy tempo around the midway mark (the runtime comes to just under 90 minutes), with a little help from a Marxist sock-puppet, the star of one the show’s hallmark ‘funnysad’ sequences. It then eases into its more contemplative second half, where Burnham often talks about his own depression, both lockdown-induced and not. By the time he is flat-out weeping while saying, “I’m not well” directly into the camera, Burnham has the audience right where he wants them—playing both victim and voyeur, witnessing the algorithmic unraveling of their own minds in real time.
As he sings during an earlier ditty about the perpetually-online life, “Apathy is a tragedy and boredom is a crime / can I interest you in everything all the time?” It’s an iconic line, effortlessly summoning the breathlessness and the moral absolutism of social media.
Where does Burnham go from here? Ironically, the best comedy special of the last couple of years may lead to less laughs, not more. For my money, we are going to see less and less of Burnham the comedian: he’s too strong and too versatile a filmmaker to not consider that his primary skill-set moving ahead. His directorial debut, Eighth Grade (2018), is already considered a kind of Gen Z Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Last year, he played a key supporting role opposite Carey Mulligan in Emerald Fennell’s Promising Young Woman, which received several Oscar nods. These are all symptoms of an increasingly self-evident truth: Bo Burnham has all the talent in the world. And Inside is proof that he’s beginning to make the most of it.