Bo Burnham has always been an interesting figure. As a musical comedian that openly uses his songwriting talents to discuss his mental health issues, his specials have found an audience in millennials everywhere – internet brats were yearning for someone to make them laugh at their depression. Burnham isn’t cracking jokes to any one targeted demographic, instead lashing out at his entire generation about grappling with the issues they’ve been saddled with and how it affected his mind during the quarantine in 2020.
Bo Burnham: Inside dropped on Netflix a couple of weeks back and I put it off. I watched the trailer and immediately decided that his mental health issues might be way too close to my own for it to be a comfortable watch. When I finally broke down and hit play I thought things might go alright, but it wound up taking me two sessions to get through the whole thing. Shot as though by a guerilla combatant in solitary confinement, the special takes place in one room and is entirely the work of Burnham himself (he’s his own camera man, writer, editor, and producer). While a reflection of his own neurotic brain, the entire thing feels more a mirror held up to the exact moment in time that America has grappled with for the last 18 months.
Each song is tailored towards the finale, beginning with Burnham satirizing the idea of treating art as “content” and attacking the idea of white guilt in a populist setting, calling out users on social media and other outlets for thinly disguising their privilege as an avenue to pretend to care about social justice. Perhaps no song captures his early pandemic viewpoint like “How the World Works,” a track that sees him using his white privilege to bully a poor sock puppet that truly cares about things like modern neoliberalism, racial genocide, worker exploitation, and sociopolitical classism. He quickly moves to more personal tracks as he describes his current mindset; everything from his sabbatical after a series of on-stage panic attacks to his need for positive attention from crowds is on display as he breaks down into hacking sobs. Sometimes it feels like a personal attack on his own success, but for me it felt like a cathartic release of all the anxiety and depression I’ve held onto in the last year.
The songs are highly entertaining, but there’s a biting aspect to them that differs from other specials of this nature. On the eve of 2020 we were gifted with John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, a children’s-special-esque comedy variety show that discussed the scarier aspects of being a child in the era of social media. Burnham dabbles in this type of humor, but abandons it part way through the special in order to lay himself nakedly before the camera (at one point quite literally). His struggles are all over the place, and he even feels anxious about having any struggles in a world full of social injustice that will always feel more important than his personal problems.
Burnham’s latest effort is perhaps the most artistic thing he’s done outside of the film Eighth Grade, and it will hit more personally. It’s a beautiful, angry, sad affair, one that happens to also be hilarious. While I was watching the special – alone and sad in my underwear at 6am – everything felt like a release. This isn’t going to feel okay for everyone, but those that feel they can handle it (and may feel better merely through emotional release) should give it a go.
Bo Burnham: Inside is currently streaming on Netflix.