Bo Burnham stands in the middle of an empty room, the same confined quarters he’s filmed his special in for the better part of a year. His hair is long, his beard is scraggly and he’s wearing a plain white T-shirt. It’s dark, save for the projected image of himself on the wall behind him, mimicking — mocking? — his every move. The moment happens near the end of Inside, his first comedy special in five years. After urging a nonexistent crowd to put “all eyes on me” and get their hands in their air, his voice electronically distorted, Burnham addresses the nothingness:
You wanna hear a funny story?
So, five years ago, I quit performing live comedy
Because I was beginning to have, uh, severe panic attacks while on stage
Which is not a great place to have them
So, I quit, and I didn't perform for five years
And I spent that time trying to improve myself mentally
And you know what? I did! I got better
I got so much better, in fact, that in January of 2020
I thought, ‘You know what? I should start performing again
I've been hiding from the world and I need to re-enter’
There’s a quick beat before the punchline lands.
And then, the funniest thing happened…
The joke is punctuated by canned laughter, played on a computer soundboard. The disembodied guffaws undercut the humor with grim reality. The joke is on Burnham, and laughter is the only appropriate response to the despair.
Inside is one of the great creative projects of the pandemic. In 90 minutes, stuck alone in one room, Burnham captures the mindset of those of us with nowhere to go and nothing to do but look at the steadily unfolding horror show outside, filtered through a medium that vacillates between grotesquery and flippancy. What else can we do but laugh to hold back the sobs?
Look who’s inside again
I didn’t spend five years hiding from the public, but I did spend four neglecting my wife and kids.
In 2016, I enrolled in graduate school. It had been 15 years since I’d received my bachelor’s, and the encroaching reality of my 40th birthday, coupled with the financial support provided by my employer, made it feasible to return to class. Doing it with a full-time job and two young children — my son was 4 and my daughter was 1 when I took my first class — was not ideal, but my wife was right: I’d been at my job several years and had resisted enrolling; if I didn’t do it now, would I get this opportunity again?
And so, I put my head down and pushed toward a master’s in media arts and studies. I stayed up until midnight and worked weekends drafting essays and responding to lecture notes; twice a week, I went to class in person, battling imposter syndrome as I learned alongside people half my age. I spent a year immersed in research and interviews to maintain a 4.0 GPA.
What motivated me as I missed out on playing with my kids, date nights with my wife, and general relaxation was the promise of the future. I mapped out plans to further my film criticism and potentially write a book. My advisor encouraged me to consider adjunct teaching and return for my Ph.D. I dreamt of a summer spent reading for leisure, riding roller coasters with my kids and napping in a hammock, followed by a fall where I would put my nose to the grindstone and chart a new path.
Instead, just as the end was nearing, we went into lockdown. My first Zoom call was for my thesis defense; instead of a commencement ceremony, we watched a 10-minute congratulatory video while eating steaks delivered by DoorDash. The nature of my job — in the communications department of the same university that just awarded me a degree — was such that the pandemic doubled my workload; I toiled from home with two young kids and strived to keep up with ever-mounting requests. I’m grateful that my employment was not in jeopardy, but it meant any other plans were placed on the back burner. With movie theaters closed, there wasn’t much demand for film critics, and re-entering higher education wasn’t a priority when I was working, homeschooling and trying to silence the thrum of anxiety constantly in the background.
Early, we were encouraged to make the best of our quarantine. This was our time, we were told, to take guitar lessons, write a book, and lose twenty pounds. I tried a few things. I mastered brewing pour-over coffee and learned to poach an egg. I started a newsletter and made a feeble attempt to write a novel. But little of this was fueled by real creative drive; it was just to distract myself from the raging hell storm outside.
Burnham, however, marshalled his creative energies to write, edit, direct, and star in one of the most clever and thought-provoking pieces of entertainment this year. The first half of Inside, in particular, radiates with ingenuity, as Burnham syncs up intricate light shows and complexly edited music videos. “White Woman’s Instagram” is a funny poke at influencer culture, and it’s astonishing to consider how long it must have taken Burnham to film the various two-second clips stitched together throughout. A reaction video that continues to expand on itself, a commercial for Burnham as an influencer coach peddling nonsense, and a ditty about Facetiming with his mother feel like Burnham is experimenting with just how far he can stretch his confinement. Some of us struggled just to finish reading a book in the pandemic; Burnham turned a solitary room into his own production studio and delivered a feature-length Netflix movie. It’s both inspiring and infuriating.
But the longer Burnham stays inside, the deeper the special goes, and the more fleeting the laughs become. Inside starts with incisive satire and then transitions to gallows humor, capturing the mental unraveling and instability of someone with nowhere to go and the entire world at their fingertips.
Welcome to the internet
As Burnham created his special in a single room, I was isolated and searching for ways to safely stay in touch, mediated through my laptop and smartphone. Coworkers communicated with Slack and Teams. Thanksgiving greetings were delivered via Zoom. Church services came through Facebook Live and YouTube. If I wanted to interact with the outside world, the internet was my gateway.
But the more I depended on these digital connections, the more I noticed that the world was filtered through a funhouse mirror, where everything seemed heightened, exaggerated or “off.” Lawyers tried to argue cases with cat filters on their screen. Half of my friends and family tumbled down YouTube and Facebook rabbit holes to the point where they seemed to reside in an alternate reality. The same devices that delivered The Office clips and Bean Dad memes brought images of police brutality, the Capitol insurrection, and California wildfires. I jumped on Twitter to both laugh and be appalled, attaining emotional whiplash in the process.
While Inside’s title and location call to mind the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, Burnham’s sharpest barbs are reserved for the medium that brought the one-time YouTube star fame. Building on the distrust of internet culture that fueled his feature directorial debut, Eighth Grade, Burnham looks on with equal measures of bemusement and disgust. He composes a song about sexting and uses the language of reaction videos to pick apart his own insecurities. White influencers get a playful nudge, but Burnham is also not beyond looking back at his own viral videos and releasing an anthem that both acknowledges his “problematic” past jokes while also piling on internet users’ penchant for labeling any innocuous grievance a cancelable offense.
At times, there’s barely concealed contempt for the people who clicked on Burnham’s YouTube page back in the day or fired up Netflix that morning, demanding more from a young man who was unprepared for success. “Look, I made you some content,” he sings early on. “Daddy made your favorite, open wide.” Near the end, he suggests that maybe next time, it would be funnier if he sat on the couch and watched us try to make him laugh. Everyone is implicated; everyone is tangled up in the web. We demand content; Burnham desires a career. We need information; websites need clicks. We need connection; social media platforms need engagement. We cannot extricate ourselves from it; it’s the fabric of the world, bringing us the latest news and information, warped to fit our individual mindset and keeps us returning.
Prior to the pandemic, it was popular to abstain from social media, shut down the Facebook and Twitter accounts, and “go dark.” Over the last two years, that’s been less possible. We’re tethered to laptops for work and it’s often been the only way to maintain communication with friends as well as the latest news about pandemics, social unrest and a volatile election. It’s also been a distraction, delivering laughs and catharsis. These things smash together; it’s possible to watch a TikTok clip seconds before getting a notice of the latest mass shooting. We share photos of our children with the same friends and family members who then shock us by sharing racist memes or conspiracy theories. We have the illusion of community without the tangible benefit or commitment. Perhaps shutting it all down would be better for our mental health and the state of our society. But when we’re isolated, what else will connect us? When we’re stuck in our room, where else do we go?
The centerpiece of Inside is “Welcome to the Internet.” Seated at his keyboard, the room dark save for swirling stars projected onto the walls, Burnham takes on the role of a carnival barker, beckoning people into a world where you can both “fight for civil rights and tweet a racial slur.” The song burrows into the overloaded, overstimulated mindset of online life (are we ever really offline?), where you can get “a little bit of everything all of the time” — find cooking recipes, send death threats, share photos of your kids, or harass women — and where “apathy’s a tragedy and boredom is a crime.” Midway through, he tears through a bridge that presents the online world as a trap waiting for all the kids who ever picked up their parents’ iPads. By the end of the song, the stars are swirling into a massive, churning galaxy behind Burnham and the pace has picked up to dizzying measures. The internet has us; there’s no escape.
And then things get dark.
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That funny feeling
Was it the election, the insurrection or omicron that broke me?
For the first several months of pandemic, I was tired and exhausted but optimistic. If we stayed inside long enough, took appropriate safety measures and trusted each other, we would endure. The November elections brought hope of a return to national stability; news about vaccines promised a light at the end of the tunnel.
Instead, living through 2021 felt like living in a pinball machine, constantly pinging between hope and despair. We had a new president, yet his inauguration was preceded by a nearly successful attempt to overthrow democracy. The same vaccines that promised to end this ordeal were shunned by nearly half of the population. In the spring, new COVID cases in the state I live in dropped into the double digits for the first time in a year. Everything reopened; masks were no longer required; the pandemic was declared over. Months later came delta, and cases reached record-highs. Masks went back on, but few complied. Vaccines were ignored, news about death rates were greeted with laughter emojis on Facebook. And, oh yeah, mass shootings returned, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted, and, in case we forgot, the world was still heating up.
How much of this news can you take before any emotional reaction seems pointless? How much can you scream before you realize you’re always either preaching to choirs or shouting at brick walls? At what point do you just sit back and watch things collapse? Sometime in mid-2021, I went from waking up with pangs of anxiety and despair to numbness. This was the world we lived in and I couldn’t change it; might as well sigh, sit back, and eat some popcorn while it all burns down.
After a brief intermission, shortly after Burnham observes his 30th birthday, the tenor of Inside changes. Gone are the quick edits and attempts to open up the room in which we’ve spent the last 50 minutes. The camera moves less, we’re more aware of Burnham’s confinement; the colors are muted. There’s a quick joke at videogame culture, but the joke is now on Burnham, as the game he “plays” just involves him trying to escape his room and collapsing into tears. There’s a jaunty party number called “Shit” that sums up Burnham’s unraveling mental state, which he later declares to be at an “all-time low.” Rather than point his finger at the world outside, the psychic weight of everything collapses inward; anyone who spent parts of the last year waking up only to say “let’s get this over with” will find kinship with the darkly comic tone.
The acoustic song “That Funny Feeling” muses on a world that seems to be reaching a breaking point at the hands of violent citizens, a decaying democracy, a retreat into frivolity, encroaching oceans, and a global pandemic. The lyrics touch on the absurdity of corporate wokeness, mass shootings, global warming, and the ways terror and tenderness kiss each other in the modern age. The simulated campfire underscores Burnham’s references to derealization and dissociation; he makes a joke about “20,000 years of this, seven more to go” but there’s real resignation and sorrow when he mentions “the quiet comprehending of the ending of it all.” “That Funny Feeling” captures the numbness and quiet terror of anxiety and depression; it’s not a funny song, but it feels like a slowly crumbling bulwark against total despair.
The follow-up, “All Eyes on Me,” in which Burnham relates his tale of preparing for his triumphant return only for the universe to be the one with the grim sense of humor, finds the comedian marshalling against the darkness, forcing his comeback into being even if no one is watching. He commands his audience to raise their hands and lower their heads, delivering a call to response that would be powerful in an arena and yet feels hollow in an empty room. Near the end, Burnham snatches the camera and twirls it around, screaming at the ghosts watching him, and his image blends into the ones projected onto the back wall. In this moment, the audience is no longer a passive observer but an active participant, snatched into the unending whirl of Burnham’s insecurity, creativity, anger, wit, and depression. It’s a defiant moment, a rage against the deferred dreams, an opportunity to keep going even when the world was shutting you down. It’s exhilarating and terrifying in equal measure; Burnham pushes back against his thwarted plans and it feels cathartic, but we’re also aware that he’s still singing to an empty room. Is he pushing a boulder that will just roll back and crush him?
Are you really joking at a time like this?
How much of Burnham’s deteriorating mental state is genuine and how much of it is performative? Throughout Inside, we see glimpses of his frustration as he flubs lines or fails to get lighting and sound setups just right. At one moment he bursts into tears as one camera zooms into the lens of another. Is he really breaking down, or is it just good filmmaking to lace the comedy with a dose of sorrow? Can he be this exuberant and creative and yet this insecure, afraid and angry?
But that emotional balancing act is all too familiar after in a year where I could be found screaming at my kids only to regain my composure seconds later to jump on a Zoom call. Over the last 20 months, I’ve worked hard and had some successes at my job. How many of my coworkers know how much of that was achieved during the same nights I woke up to panic attacks or spent a lunch hour napping on the couch in exhaustion? I’ve taken restorative walks before being dragged back down the internet hell hole, I’ve been productive and lethargic, hopeful and despairing, gleeful and depressed within the space of the same day. Maybe it’s always been this way, maybe being confined for a year just highlighted and heightened what was already going on inside. Burnham latches on to the free-spiraling, jittery, unreal state many of us found ourselves in over the past year, and there are times I felt uncomfortable with how closely he captures not exactly the specific focuses of my anxiety and depression but the emotional reality of the last two years.
Sometime in 2021, I found a sense of balance and equilibrium. Our office opened up and I began splitting time back between my home and downtown workspace. I returned to the movies. I learned to get back to normal while still keeping a mask in my back pocket. I began to tentatively look forward to the future and return to some of my pre-pandemic plans; at the same time, I acknowledged just how out of balance my life had been and began setting better boundaries. I was aware how a good day good be followed by a bad one, and that it wasn’t on me to prolong one emotion and avoid another but to navigate through the different seasons and realize they would inevitably change. I felt better, mentally, spiritually, and professionally. Maybe 2022 would be better.
And then the funniest thing happened…
Omicron. Record-high cases in my state again. My workplace sent us home to work remotely again for the rest of the year. Deja vu set in as pandemic season 3 or 4 or whatever the hell this is started again. This time, I didn’t despair; I just laughed.
Burnham wraps up not with a moment of catharsis but with a clear-headed sense of self-awareness. “Goodbye” addresses his insecurity, his fears that being sent back inside his home will send him back to the beginning of his career, or that people will ultimately forget about him. He asks if the viewers — who he’s not entirely sure are watching — would tell him a joke if the positions were switched. It’s not the triumphant ending he likely imagined when he started crafting the series, but there’s a sense of calm that the previous few songs last. Burnham’s settled into his house that’s full of smoke; maybe he should just never go outside again.
In the special’s final moments, he leaves the home and steps into what appears to be the rising sun but is revealed to be another spotlight. He’s locked out of the house but still on stage, canned laughter accompanying his attempts to get back inside the room he’d been trying to escape. The image fades and it’s once again being projected on the familiar wall in the familiar room. Burnham’s back inside, watching himself again, and it’s unclear whether it’s his attempts to escape that came true or whether he received his wish to remained imprisoned. Whatever it is, he’s back where he started, stuck in his room again.
And finally, Burnham smiles. He gets the joke.