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This weekend we’re watching: An hour and a half of satirical songs, light shows, comedy bits and anguished monologues

An image from the film 'Bo Burnham' on Netflix (Image courtesy of Netflix)

‘Bo Burnham: Inside’ is a revolutionary Netflix comedy special that transcends the genre. Confined to a single room over lockdown, Burnham openly exhibits his creativity, wit and deteriorating mental state.

Bo Burnham: Inside is what lockdown art should strive towards. It’s sincere and personal; it’s relatable because of its brutal honesty rather than repetitive clichés; and of course, crucially, it’s really quite good.

Bo Burnham is a comedian who in 2006, a year after YouTube was created, soared to instant internet fame as a 16-year-old YouTuber singing silly, irreverent, exceptionally well-written songs. Burnham went on to release musical comedy albums and do several successful stand-up tours, but during his 2016 tour Make Happy, he began experiencing panic attacks on stage and quit stand-up.

After Make Happy he worked in film, writing and directing Eighth Grade and starring in Promising Young Women; with his head in a better space, he decided to return to musical comedy with Inside.

Inside is written, directed, filmed, edited by, and stars, Burnham. There’s no crew, no audience, just Burnham in a messy attic crammed with camera and lighting equipment. It’s an hour and a half of satirical songs, light shows, comedy bits, anguished monologues and intimate behind-the-scenes footage, all filmed in a single room during the pandemic.

The visual range he’s able to accomplish in one room is seriously impressive, especially when one considers that he manages the lighting, camerawork and sound in real time while performing. The constraints of his one-man team and one-room set necessitate fun low-budget creativity – Burnham is prone to pull sudden stunts at key points in his songs, like shining his head-torch at a disco ball to light up the room, or using a sock puppet to wax lyrical about the state of neoliberal politics and systematic oppression. Having begun his career as a YouTuber, the comedic timing of his editing is excellent.

Sharp as ever, Burnham turns anything that might have been a shortcoming into a self-aware gag at his own expense. Cognisant of the limitations of a one-man production, he sends himself up with the low-budget stunts. Rather than cover up the disjointedness of the special, he points it out and turns it into a joke.

Musically, his songs are generally quite simple and have a schmaltzy sound that is not particularly listenable outside of a comedic context but adds to the irony of the lyrics, which is really what it’s all about, because Burnham’s a little bit of lyrical genius. You go into every song expecting the unexpected, and you still never anticipate the direction he takes it in.

His songs are often self-critical as a white person and as a comedian, including lyrics like:

“… Should I be joking at a time like this?
I want to leave this world better than I found it,`
and I fear that comedy won’t help and the fear is not unfounded.”

One aspect of Inside that Burnham doesn’t seem self-aware of is its skewed appeal. Inside should be entertaining to any adult with a dark sense of humour, but Bernham himself being a millennial steeped in internet culture, some of his references and concerns seem intended for millennial viewers (particularly in songs like FaceTime With My Mom and White Woman’s Instagram). If you’re unsure whether Burnham’s humour will do it for you, check out Welcome To The Internet, a pre-released song on YouTube which is featured in the show.

Burnham’s cult following is a prime example of how celebrity worship culture has changed since YouTube and social media. For the longest time, celebrities sustained their followings by projecting an image of themselves as “superior” beings – demigods who were better than you in every way and therefore deserving of your undying adoration. If this illusion was shattered and they were revealed to be normal humans, usually that would cue their fall from grace.

Today, because of social media, it’s no longer just celebrities striving towards that illusion – almost every person with a social media account is working to portray an idealised version of themselves to the online world. Because this self-aggrandising behaviour is now so commonplace, there’s a rising culture of reverence for vulnerability rather than invulnerability.

An image from the film ‘Bo Burnham’ on Netflix (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Wouldn’t you rather look up to a talented person who is humble and honest about who they are as an individual, than a shameless self-promoter or a narcissist with a god complex?

If Britney Spears had had her breakdown of 2007 a decade later, it would probably have been met with a very different response. Sure, there would still have been haters and trolls, but there would likely have been waves of online support from young – and older – people, too.

Inside is a deeply vulnerable production. Burnham performs in jeans and a T-shirt, he performs in his underwear, he performs on an exercise bike, covered in sweat with erotic lighting. And you’re not just inside his home, you’re also inside his head, and you’re even let inside the production of the special itself.

You get to watch Burnham figuring out his framing, lighting and sound mix, and rewatching his content. You see outtakes, and sometimes he speaks directly to the camera about his mental state. With all of its meta-commentary, Inside is so structurally unorthodox that it feels wrong to call it a film or a comedy special. One might call it a psychoanalytical character study set in a musical comedy show.

He does a bit where he makes a YouTube reaction video to a short song, followed by a reaction to his reaction, and then a reaction to that reaction, sharing a layered analysis of his insecurities.

“Here I am criticising myself for being pretentious, which honestly is a defence mechanism. I am so worried that that criticism will be levelled against me that I levy against myself before anyone else can.”

He speaks about his relationship with his audience and how difficult it is to tell jokes in an empty room. Sometimes he plays canned laughter during his songs, not just as a pointed remark about the role that audience validation plays in comedy, but also simply to make himself feel more comfortable.

In retrospect, Burnham’s return to his primary craft may have been somewhat premature – he is not well for most of the film. By the end of it, after a year of isolation, he levels with the camera about his mental health being at “an all-time low”.

As his hair and beard grow, we watch the deterioration of his physical and mental state in real time, until he can no longer muster the façade required to joke about it, and eventually breaks down completely on-screen.

While Burnham’s previous specials are funny but dark, Inside is better described as dark but funny. The focus on Burnham’s mental health is voyeuristic to the point of concern, but also allows for tremendous empathy as a viewer.

It seems like expressing his vulnerability and depression in a satirical song helps him process it. It’s not just a plea for help – it’s a plea for understanding; a bold statement about self-acceptance and a call to bring mental illness out into the open and undermine the shame attached to it. DM/ML

Bo Burnham: Inside is available in South Africa on Netflix.
You can contact This Weekend We’re Watching via [email protected]

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