REVIEW: Bo Burnham’s Milleresque One-Man Show “Inside” is Painful, Uncomfortable, Beautiful, and Vicarious

Burnham’s turn toward performance art stirs the heart and the mind.

A screenshot from “Inside.” Bo Burnham lays wrapped in a blanket with his head on a pillow. A plugged-in microphone rests gently next to his mouth, contrasting the chaotic jumble of cords on the floor next to him.
Screenshot from “Inside”//Courtesy Netflix

Bo Burnham has spent most of his 30 years on this Earth making people laugh. From the moment his 2009 viral YouTube video “I’m Bo, Yo” launched him into near-overnight notability in the comedy world, he’s been constantly growing and changing as an artist. The sophomoric sex jokes have remained, but typically only in service of a grander experimental punchline about the form of comedy itself and his audience’s expectations. Bo has grown as a performer and a person in front of his fanbase’s eyes, yet because he remains innovative and profoundly curious about the corner of the entertainment world he inhabits, he’s never been stale or pretentious. It’s for that reason that Bo constantly blurring the line between profound performance art, satirical standup comedy, and deft musical performance has always felt so perfect.

Toward the end of his first standup special Words Words Words, Bo sings about the murder of art at the hands of corporate overlords and his role as an accomplice in that murder, seemingly having to restrain himself from going full Nietzsche and talking about being unable to wash the blood of Comedy God off his hands. Pseudomyopic self-examination has summarily been the defining characteristic of Bo’s more recent work. His second Netflix standup special Make Happy, which seemed to be his last proverbial gunfight before riding off into the sunset and becoming an entertainer making poignant dramedies, ends with a Kanye West circa “Life of Pablo” autotuned rant about the toll that performing has taken on his mental health via metaphors about the narrowness of Pringles cans and overstuffed Chipotle burritos. After the applause ends and Bo is alone in the same room where he filmed those videos behind his piano all those years ago, he muses about whether the audience is happy. He asks, in a markedly less accusatory tone than the final delivered line in front of the live audience, if we’re happy — the Netflix audience. And when he’s said what needs to be said, he steps outside his room into the sunshine with his girlfriend and dog, an ostensibly happy ending after searching for one for so many years.

“But why spend so long on Bo’s history before getting into his newest work?” you ask. “I already know who Bo is and I LOVE the meta-comedy that’s become his calling card,” you opine. Well, the answer is quite simple: even in a catalog of work that has so frequently touched on topics like mental health and disillusionment with the entertainment industrial complex, Inside truly feels like it’s in a class of its own in its handling of both issues.

From the moment that Bo steps back through the same light-flooded door he exited at the end of Make Happy, something feels off — not in Bo’s performance instincts or his writing chops, but in the very configuration of the room. As the special goes on, the room progressively becomes messier and more claustrophobic; a reflection, however unintentional, of the artist's mental state. Cords from various audio equipment, cameras, projectors, and lighting setups are strewn around the floor in an increasingly random fashion. At one point, Bo lies on a pillow and blanket placed haphazardly in the middle of the floor — a tiny dose of comfort for an artist working day and night to achieve a vision. Even the digital piano that has been Bo’s bread and butter for so many years feels like the destination at the end of a journey rather than the place where everything starts — a distant friend being pushed further away by the perniciousness of his own sadness rather than the tool to ply his craft. But in this chaos and uncertainty is where Bo finds his narrative voice throughout the special.

After the very first song, where Bo cheekily muses about coming back to give the people what they want, we see a montage of behind-the-scenes footage of Bo experimenting with lights and cameras and muttering a mental production checklist to himself — a reminder of how truly alone he was for the year or so of quarantine during which he worked on this special. As the montage ends, the picture slowly zooms in on a wide-open camera lens. It’s not a very artful shot in itself, but then you realize the camera represents you, the viewer. Its obsidian-black gaze burns a hole through Bo’s soul like the eyes of a demon, and Bo stares back, acknowledging the camera and, by extension, what the audience is doing to him. The effect makes you feel like a voyeur peering in on a man’s most intimate moments, a feeling that only increases as the songs get more personal and is further punctuated by discussions of depression and passive suicidal ideation.

Bo, always quick to make himself a punchline if it means making fun of self-righteous hacks in the process, dives into self-congratulatory ideas about healing the world with humor that have become annoyingly prevalent in comedy circles during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I’m a special kinda white guy,” he says as the camera zooms in on his smug grin. After talking about how he’s self-reflected and decided to use his white privilege for good, the image immediately cuts to him brainstorming very socially important bits like “What If Dogs Could Vape?” This idea of refusing to contribute another over-amplified voice to a space where there are so many over-amplified voices like your own already seems to be a particular theme of Bo’s most recent round of navel-gazing. Bo goes on a Sesame Street-esque contemplation of the gross oversimplification of the bloodshed and genocide at the heart of our history classes as well as dissecting the alienation of workers from the means of production by global capitalism. Shortly after this, Bo, pastiching rant-a-minute comedians like George Carlin and Lewis Black, questions whether everyone truly needs to share their opinion about everything all the time. The true punchline to which is him leaving the question “but aren’t you refusing to shut the fuck up, just now?” unanswered. The self-awareness that Bo expresses, even when it’s at his own expense, is admirable.

Toward the end of the first act, Bo stares at the projected image of his younger self performing “I’m Bo, Yo.” His expression is hard to read, but certainly not pleasant. Anger, bitterness, and regret all form a stew of emotion carried into the second act and its conclusion: “what if I had never entered that room and never sat behind that piano?”

I’ve glossed over Bo’s talk of suicide, partially because my own issues with suicidal ideation lend me a biased firsthand perspective on the thought patterns he explores, but they pop up at the very end of the first act. Musing to the tune of “Sugar” by Maroon 5, Bo says that after turning thirty in 2020, he’ll do ten more years and “kill himself then.” This is certainly not the most reverent or serious reference to suicide in the special, but it’s the only one followed up by an explanation (projected over real Bo scrolling bored through his phone) about how you shouldn’t kill yourself because people care about you (Projected Bo: “well, that’s not necessarily true, but you could theoretically meet people who care about you in the future”) and how you shouldn’t kill yourself because he’s had people close to him kill themselves (PB: “I wasn’t a big fan of it”) and you shouldn’t kill yourself because that’s permanent (PB: “but to be fair if I could just push a button and not exist for like 18 months I would”). It feels different than his song from Make Happy about the same topic, which was a cartoonishly sarcastic endorsement of various forms of suicide with the overly-serious disclaimer of “seriously, don’t kill yourself; it’s not worth it.” Whereas that was a satirical finger wag at the glamorization of suicide and depression in media, this feels like a condemnation of the often-inert advice people who struggle with suicidal ideation are lectured with, as if they don’t already know these things. The last eighth of this special not only continues to explore these topics in a very real way, but we also see the toll it’s taken on Bo.

Earlier in the special, Bo talks about how he wanted to be finished by his 30th birthday. With about 20 minutes left, he tries to tell the camera that he’s been working on the special for 6 months, but he ends up having a panic attack and storms off to find a place to breathe, knocking over part of the lighting set up in the process. The next time we see Bo, he tells us that he’s not well and finally breaks down. It’s a scene all too familiar for those who experience panic attacks. Watching Bo sob directly into the microphone and the camera lens, you can feel the emptiness well up in your stomach and threaten to tear you apart from the inside out. At this moment, and for the rest of the special, the line between Bo Burnham, Actor In an Experimental One-Man Play, and Bo Burnham, Man Who’s Hurting, starts to blur. You experience vicariously the pain of utter isolation that accompanies the most profound moments of anxiety and depression. You want to turn and run, but there’s nowhere to permanently escape from your anxiety. You want to reach out and hug someone, but you’re terrified of how you’ll react if they do or say the wrong thing. You want to explain how you don’t think you’re going to live as long as everyone else in your life, but you don’t know how to put that in a way that doesn’t terrify the people that make waking up in the morning worth it. Every ounce of pain and regret and sorrow that people who feel this way experience daily can be projected onto Bo’s reaction at this moment. This is truly where the emotional thrust of Inside lies.

On top of Bo Burnham being in absolute top comedic and musical form, Inside is also a profound, creative, thoughtful, and visually goregous self-portrait of mental illness and a much needed exploration of the unknowable psychological toll the global COVID-19 pandemic has had on us all. For Burnham, who has spent so much of his relatively young life telling the world how he feels at a great emotional expense, being this open and vulnerable shows he still cares about making his audiences feel something, just as much as he cares about making them laugh. And feel something — whether negative, positive, or neutral — is exactly what you’ll do for all 80-something minutes of Inside. Inside (and Bo in general) should be celebrated as one of the greatest gifts to comedy and multimedia art, and after this truly impressive effort, hopefully it, and he, will be.

Final rating: 11/10 (Life changing must-watch for all audiences)

Olivia is a self-trained writer and thinker who writes about the history of American culture vis a vis pop culture.