Bo Burnham is one of the most innovative stand-up comics regularly featured on Netflix. As he related in this latest special, Bo Burnham: Inside, he just turned 30 (something he celebrates during the special in a strange and sad way), and has positioned himself as a leading spokesperson for the social media generation. His material clearly sets him apart from the old guard of comics, who still tend to fall back on familiar topics such as airports, bad drivers, the differences between men and women, and their kids’ wacky antics. Nothing wrong with covering familiar yet universal material but Burnham inhabits a different universe, one that’s ultra postmodern and self-conscious. He’s always been this way, but Inside takes it all to a new level.
Inside is groundbreaking while testing the patience of his audience. Filmed over many months in 2020, it features Burnham’s endless hours of self-reflection and self-doubt during months of confinement. Of course, it’s doubtful that he literally never left his house as the on-screen scenario implies, but we can grant him this fiction for the sake of the performance. Not everyone is so generous. A reviewer for Slate takes Burnham to task for exaggerating his isolation and mental state, apparently causing some naive viewers to worry about him.
Another way this performance differs from those in the past is the emphasis on musical numbers. While Burnham always includes a few of these, Inside consists mostly of bizarre ditties, such as Welcome to the Internet :
Welcome to the Internet! What would you prefer?
Would you like to fight for civil rights or tweet a racial slur?
Be happy! Be horny! Be bursting with rage!
We’ve got a million different ways to engage.
This may be my favorite part of the special, as he really does manage to encapsulate the absurdity of social media and the internet, which he sums up in the chorus:
Could I interest you in everything all the time?
A little bit of everything all the time?
Apathy’s a tragedy, and boredom is a crime?
Bo Burnham, even with his more typical performances, is big on self-reflection and meta analysis. Here, devoid of an audience and free to play with his video cameras and special effects, he takes these tactics to an extreme. There’s a sequence where he analyzes himself analyzing himself, ad infinitum until he quits in exasperation.
In another skit, which could be seen as a microcosm for the whole show, he critiques his own performance saying “It’s boring, but that’s the point.” That’s the weird thing about Inside; it’s brilliant and thought-provoking, even as it taxes your attention span. I confess I watched it in two sessions and even then it seemed a bit long. Burham is certainly aware of the challenge of presenting a show meant to shine the spotlight on claustrophobia and angst and keep people’s attention. At one point, he sang about not wanting to know if people were paying attention or looking at their phones.
Bo Burnham is an artist who provokes criticism as well as adoration. He’s constantly walking a razor’s edge that borders on narcissism, if not solipsism. His self-awareness on this very tendency only accentuates the point, as when he says “And I think that, ‘Oh, if I’m self-aware about being a douchebag, it’ll somehow make me less of a douchebag.'” By the way, to remember that quote I referred to the transcript of the show, which is available in case anyone actually wants to read it through.
The absurdity of Burnham’s self-absorption is a microcosm of the world that’s emerging all around us. He’s not merely an astute spokesperson for the social media generation, he’s a kind of prototype. Much in the way Quentin Tarantino raised himself on movies, Burnham raised himself on YouTube. If nothing else, he knows this world inside out, creating a weird kind of sensibility that’s both brilliantly creative and morbidly insular.
Bo Burnham is definitely worth watching, as his finger is on the pulse of so much of what’s happening now, for better and for worse. Aside from that, he’s one of the most original comics working today.