Review: Bo Burnham's 'Inside' Is Brilliant Beyond All Words
The best thing on Netflix in 2021, hands down. Or, uh, hands up . . . ?
It’s hard to describe exactly what Bo Burnham: Inside really is because there’s nothing else quite like it, at least nothing I’ve ever seen.
It’s a comedy but it’s also a musical; it’s hilarious but it’s also kind of grim; it’s biographical but it’s also fictional. There are moments when you’ll go from laughing to crying so fast you leave with a little emotional whiplash, but not to worry—you’ll be laughing again soon enough.
Burnham’s project is the sort that make creators like me deeply jealous. He spent a year creating this special, working alone in a studio apartment. He handled his own filming, his own lights and sound and camera work, his own editing. He wrote the bits and the songs and performed the music and choreographed the music videos. It’s a one-man show and you get little glimpses into its creation while watching.
I watched it twice this week which, in and of itself, is high praise. A few other shows in recent years have captured my attention enough to warrant repeat views. The Mandalorian, The Witcher, WandaVision, Galavant. It’s rare that I have the patience, but for Inside I had plenty. I could watch it again tomorrow.
The songs range from silly parodies of pop music to fireside acoustic guitar to silly kids songs that get “pretty intense” when Socko the sock puppet takes charge. After the first verse and chorus of the song are sung by Burnham, out comes the sock puppet.
Instead of singing about how all living creatures work together and “That is how the world works” (the song’s title and chorus) Socko dives into political theory:
The simple narrative taught in every history class
Is demonstrably false and pedagogically classist
Don't you know? The world is built with blood! And genocide and exploitation!
The global network of capital essentially functions
To separate the worker from the means of production
And the FBI killed Martin Luther King
Private property's inherently theft
And neoliberal fascists are destroying the left
And every politician, every cop on the street
Protects the interests of the pedophilic corporate elite
This song is smart but incredibly goofy. Others start off making fun of something before veering into more serious territory. Take, for instance, White Woman’s Instagram. The song is a series of shots of Burnham imitating or staging Instagram photos that you might find on a very well-groomed white chick’s Insta feed. He describes these scenes in the lyrics:
Latte foam art, tiny pumpkins
Fuzzy, comfy socks
Coffee table made out of driftwood
A bobblehead of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
A needlepoint of a fox
Some random quote from Lord of the Rings
Incorrectly attributed to Martin Luther King
Is this heaven?
Or am I looking at a
A white woman's Instagram
Where this bit gets intense is the bridge. While the performance is mostly filmed in a black box square similar to an Insta photo, at one point the black sides retreat into a full frame and Burnham goes behind the scenes:
Her favorite photo of her mom
The caption says, "I can't believe it
It's been a decade since you've been gone
Mama, I miss you, I miss sitting with you in the front yard
Still figuring out how to keep living without ya
It's got a little better but it's still hard
Mama, I got a job I love and my own apartment
Mama, I got a boyfriend and I'm crazy about him
Your little girl didn't do too bad
Mama, I love you, give a hug and kiss to dad
My girlfriend lost her mom five years ago. The anniversary of her passing was this weekend, and we watched Inside just a couple days ago for the first time. The emotional whiplash of these hilarious Instagram moments to this incredibly sincere, emotional portrait of a woman behind one of these silly photos was pretty intense. I think it would have been an emotionally powerful moment even without the added layer of personal grief, but the combination hit hard.
Other numbers include a Twitch stream where Burnham guides himself around the studio. He talks about how smooth the controls are and the sweet graphics and proceeds to Press A to make himself cry, guides himself around the room, and complains when the game gives him a blatant hint about what to do next.
In a reaction video for a little ditty he wrote, the reaction takes the form of a Russian Doll, with Burnham reacting to his reaction and then reacting to his reaction of his reaction and so on and so forth until he shouts at it all to stop. It’s a ridiculously clever bit that’s a great example of all the little ways Burnham changes things up and makes each piece unique.
This includes, in the opening number, using a disco ball that’s spinning by the ceiling, and a headlamp on Burnham’s forehead. When he looks up and points the flashlight at the disco ball, it reflects the light all across the room, and since it’s spinning, the lights spin with it—a wonderfully simple but effective use of lighting to add flair to the song. The fact that it’s such a simple, low-production trick makes it all the better.
Moments of hilarity are punctuated with moments of emotional wreckage, anger, lethargy. In a song about facetiming with his mom, Burnham is making fun of a certain type of pop music, but you miss some of its more surprising moments if you only listen to the music and don’t get the accompanying visuals of Burnham, distraught, yelling at the phone and waving his hands around in frustration.
All the while we get little peaks into his process. The room in chaos, tangled cables everywhere, keyboards leaning against the wall. The occasional outtake. Shots of the lights, or Burnham watching and editing a previous bit we’ve already seen.
It’s a curated glimpse into the comedian/director/writer/songsmith’s process but it’s still fascinating and despite all his moments of self-doubt, misery, stress and apparent pain all I could think the whole time was “I want this studio apartment and all this gear and a budget and time to do something awesome like this.”
I mean, I’m not saying I could put together anything remotely this good, but wouldn’t it be fun to have the time and the resources to put something like this together?
Because it really does look awesome.
And granted, Burnham is one of those insanely talented and creative people, and most of us couldn’t do what he did even with time and money, but it does look like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of opportunity at doing something truly unique.
Both times I watched Inside I kept changing my mind as to which of his songs was the best and funniest and most clever. Some of them are really emotionally poignant like That Funny Feeling while others are just straight-up silly like Sexting. But perhaps the best of the entire bunch—when it comes to sheer style, satire and pizazz—is Welcome To The Internet, which offers up a surprisingly insightful critique of our online society in one of the special’s catchiest tunes:
After several verses describing “a little bit of everything all of the time” and rattling off a hilarious list of all the content you can consume online he gets to the good stuff. It was always like this, he tells us as the zany song slams on the breaks:
Not very long ago
Just before your time
Right before the towers fell
This was catalogues
A chat room or two
We set our sights and spent our nights
Mommy let you use her iPad
You were barely two
And it did all the things we designed it to do…
I love this. The idea that the internet wasn’t built for me or even for someone as young as Burnham, but for the kids who are just growing up in the world now, growing up when everyone has a cell phone and a snapchat account and spends 8 hours of day beaming content into their brains and can’t be troubled with books or bike rides. This was all by design, Burnham argues. The internet was just warming up all this time and now it’s here, and it’s dangerous and addictive and it does all the things we designed it to do.
As much as the songs and lyrics and dance routines wowed me, it’s the production itself that impresses me most. To film all of this and edit it together, to write all the songs and record and perform them and put it all together into a coherent whole that manages somehow to tell a story complete with interwoven themes about the dangers of being plugged in all the time, all while stuck inside a small room that symbolizes our collective experience of the pandemic, shut away from the world, is a truly remarkable achievement and one that everybody should take the time to experience for themselves. Just to be able to get the shots right on your own would be an enormous undertaking.
At one point, Burnham talks to the camera about how he’s anxious he might be getting close to finished and he doesn’t want that because then he’d have to release it and go back to the real world. Then he wouldn’t have the project to work on anymore. So maybe he won’t release it. Maybe he’ll never leave this room at all. It’s clever because of the way the special ends—a darkly humorous final scene that I won’t spoil here. It’s better that you see it for yourself, after all.
Bo Burnham: Inside is streaming now on Netflix. You really need to watch it.
Note for Parents: Aside from swearing and some discussion of suicide, the special is pretty appropriate for older kids. I watched it with my 14 and 11-year-olds and only skipped one bit (the hilarious Sexting number) but my kids are not very sheltered and I think watching something that deals with suicide and depression and phone addiction and all the rest is pretty helpful for kids who just went through a pretty hard year. Lots of f-bombs also.
Random Observation: Burnham really reminds me of so many other people it’s uncanny. I was getting some strong Wyatt Russell vibes at a few points. One spoken-world comedy bit made me think of Hopper from Stranger Things, because Burnham’s voice and mannerisms just really reminded me of him. At points, with his dancing and biting satire, I thought of Father John Misty. Can we get Burnham and Father John to do a duet of some kind? Bored In The USA or Pure Comedy and then right into Burnham’s Look Who’s Inside Again or That Funny Feeling.