Bo Burnham’s ‘Inside’: A Comedy Special That Might Make You Cry

Alone with a camera, a piano, and some editing software, Burnham returns to his roots



Bo Burnham reveals more about his life in his special “Inside” using his talents from his YouTube and standup careers.


Always a comedian, Bo Burnham had successfully transferred his YouTube fame into a successful stand-up career. After taking a break from performing in 2016, Burnham stepped into the directorial spotlight with Chris Rock’s Netflix special, praised for its well-done cuts and intimate editing, and the heavily awarded “Eighth Grade.” 

Taken with the facts that there’s a pandemic and that Burnham has been busy acting in the recent film “Promising Young Woman” and writing for the new “Sesame Street” movie, the announcement of his new comedy special “Inside” on Netflix came as a bit of a shock after he publicly spoke about the frequent panic attacks he experienced on stage.

This special is a true reflection of Burnham’s immense talent. It’s a messy hour-and-a-half that makes you understand what it feels like on the set: a room in LA, retrofitted with more cables on the floor than is likely necessary. With a camera centering on a piano and a chair sans audience, it’s almost as if Burnham is exactly where he was in his YouTube days: “Trying to be funny and stuck in a room.” 

This stand-up is his fight against multiple fronts, including the feeling of loneliness that one experiences when isolated during a pandemic. At one point, we see him illustrate his life as if it were a checklist in a game: find a flashlight, play piano, cry four times. Try as he might, the door to the outside will not open until the end, and even then, there’s no solace.

Rather than giving us music interspersed with spoken word comedy as we may have expected from a Burnham special, we get something darker and rawer. His approach is more meta, weaving in markers of time and editing. He reveals to us an hour into the special that he previously was scared he wouldn’t finish, and now he doesn’t want to stop working on it. It’s clear that what we’re getting is a sacrifice: Now that we can watch the special, he has nothing left to work on, and he’s truly alone. 

The special, however, doesn’t really feel like the product of a year’s work, or a mishmash, having these woven-in markers to give it more structure. Not all songs are tied up with a neat little bow, and thoughts quickly cut back and forth, giving the viewer a more jarring experience than they may have gotten with “Make Happy” or “Repeat Stuff,” but that’s clearly the point. 

This isn’t as much of a comedy special as it is Burnham taking us into his mind and spewing out the reflections and doubts that he has had throughout his quarantine. He has no audience except himself, and one’s thoughts are never louder than when one’s alone. In his words, he’s “not doing great,” and we see this mental progression as he offers us a calculated glimpse as to what it was like to make this special, utterly alone.

While not his “funniest” work, it’s clear that Burnham has still got the “It” factor that made him so famous in his YouTube and stand-up years. We get a couple of introspective songs and moments, like reflecting upon his past problematic jokes and actions, but also the observational comedy he’s known for, such as “White Woman’s Instagram,” that almost serves as comic relief for the much darker points of the show. As with his previous work, the music is upbeat, truly contrasting the contemplative and darker side of the lyrics. 

A stand out of the special may have been “Welcome to the Internet,” a song that’s lyrically dense and provides the dark humor that Burnham was sure to deliver. Set to a bouncy tune, we watch him stand in front of a wall of projected stars that he turns off during the second verse. “Can I interest you in everything, all of the time?” he sings, “Apathy’s a tragedy and boredom’s a crime, anything and everything, all of the time.” It’s a mature, introspective older brother to his “welcome to youtube,” performed when he was only 18, and a sign of how much he’s grown in his craft. 

In a special that’s edited, directed, shot and produced by a single person, the lighting almost seems to play a supporting role, giving focus and division to the special’s bits.

Throughout the special, he reflects upon the commodified nature of content, mimicking reaction videos and Twitch streams, but here we see the perspective of the internet from someone who got their start from it. A step up from his room in Hamilton, Massachusetts, we see the same kid that once played piano in his room playing not just the piano but also maneuvering the camera, computer and lighting and working with quick edits and angles.

Burnham’s talents are on full display with careful pacing and talented writing. In a special that’s edited, directed, shot and produced by a single person, the lighting almost seems to play a supporting role, giving focus and division to the special’s bits. This is not surprising coming from a comic notorious for wanting his lighting done a specific way. His editing, with sharp cuts and different aspect ratios, perfectly reflects the mental state that he was in at the time, something you can rely on a YouTube and directorial veteran to convey. It’s unpolished only when he doesn’t want it to be, and upon looking deeper, you can see the true amount of work that went into what might be a mess on the surface.

While a typical show would move on from one bit to another with perhaps a few callbacks, Burnham creates more than just a few consecutive rehearsed jokes, releasing a show that truly shines a mirror on who he was at this point of time. “Inside” is a vulnerable look as to what it feels like to be in a culture of commodified comedy, true anxiety, loneliness and isolation, and what his role may be in all of it. It is in a genre all of its own, almost incomparable to any shows that may touch it and truly worth a watch.